I used to welcome personal questions about race and identity. Where is my family from? What’s my ethnic background? Where does my last name come from? However ambiguously or indirectly they were phrased, they all came across as equally amusing. If someone was curious about my heritage, that was fine with me. I considered the attention to be flattering.
There was one day in my senior year of high school when my biology teacher wanted to illustrate the scope of human genetic variation. She pulled up a National Geographic article on mixed-race Americans, scrolled through the various faces pictured and remarked, “Aren’t they beautiful?” The idea that mixed people were considered beautiful wasn’t new to me, but in that moment, her remark made me want to vomit. Was that all she had to say?
Moments like that made me question what others really thought about me. Could I ever be uncoupled from my racial identity? Could my internal connection to my roots ever be uncoupled from my external appearance? Was my race always the first thing people wondered about me and the primary way people identified me?
While I once welcomed questions about race and identity, I started to wonder about the motives of those asking the questions. I stopped thinking about the information I shared and started wondering why people cared so much in the first place. I couldn’t understand why it seemed so important for them to be able to pin me onto a map. I wondered whether they were actually curious about my ancestry or whether they just wanted to confirm their assumptions about what category I fit into based off of my distinguishing features.
People could be shameless in their remarks. “You look exotic” — one of my favorites. How do I respond to that? “Thank you”? I know they meant well and probably assumed I appreciated those kind of comments, but by highlighting my most superficial features, they were simultaneously discounting the history behind my genetic makeup. And they were reducing their impressions of me to a fraction of my whole identity.
Even my closest friends had a little too much fun with it. They’d make it a game for others to guess my ethnicity. They’d always do it lovingly, of course. And I admit that sometimes I’d get a kick out of it, too. “Guess what she is.” Filipina? Definitely not. Some other Pacific Islander? Nope. Hapa? Closer, but there’s more to it.
My identity shifts based on the environment I’m in and people I’m with. There’s always an ongoing debate that gets so complicated that sometimes even I can’t tell where I stand. My Asian friends insist that I’m white or mixed, and my white friends insist that I’m Asian or other, and everyone in between is usually on one side or another.
Maybe the problem is that people are concerned with finding out which specific racial category I fall under. In reality, there’s not necessarily one right answer. On days when I want to celebrate my Asian heritage at a night market with my Asian American friends, I consider myself Asian American. When I’m with my Kabyle family in Algeria, I’m a Kabyle. When I’m writing a column about my mixed-race identity, I’m mixed.
So I don’t tell people about my ethnicity anymore unless they explicitly ask. When people do ask, I tell them I’m half Japanese and half Algerian, and I try not to get more general than that. Even saying that I’m mixed takes away the whole picture. Every time I find myself forced to answer in just a few words, it dismantles the narrative I’ve built up.
If you really want to know what I am, how much time do you have? If you care about my background and what it means to me, I’d love to tell you why I’m more than just another hapa you’re proud that you pegged correctly.
My ethnicity is an important part of who I am, but it’s also only one part of who I am. I’m used to the questions and remarks that are directed at just that part of me, and I understand that people are naturally interested. But I’ve become more and more reluctant to abbreviate my story just to satisfy the interests of others.
When I do discuss race, I don’t define myself based on how others most frequently define me. I know now that I’m the one who has the final say. Because considering how inconsistently people categorize me, and how uncomfortable I always feel choosing one side or the other, and the complexity of the history and culture behind the labels, I’ve come to realize that the way I define myself is a choice.
Racial categories are flexible, and they are always changing. So if I don’t want to choose a side or a box, I don’t have to. And if I don’t want to tell people what I am, that doesn’t mean I have to stay silent.
Jasmine Tatah writes the Thursday column on having multiple cultural backgrounds in America.