Being mixed at UC Berkeley has, so far, been like being mixed for me anywhere else.
Guys at parties use my racial ambiguity as a conversation starter; people ask me why my name is my name and why I look the way I look; who I feel like I am changes depending on who I’m with.
I’ve come to accept a majority of these things as unavoidable, despite the naturally intrusive nature of questions regarding my race (news flash: I don’t owe you an explanation for my existence; I’m just nice enough to humor you). I know most people usually want to comment on how different-looking I am, which is just a thinly veiled way of saying “You’re so exotic.”
But what mixed person isn’t numb to hearing that by now on top of the “What are you?” inquiries?
What I’m still learning to deal with is my constantly shifting perception of my own identity. It’s a topic more uncomfortable to me than any personal question I’ve been asked in a dingy bedroom with that one “Pulp Fiction” poster hung up on the wall.
When I’m with white people, I’m hyperaware that I’ll never pass as white. I’m easily amazed by the leniency of my friends’ parents and the lack of range in their taste buds when it comes to spicy food. I’ve been raised exclusively by my Filipino mother for nearly half my life now — white culture (whatever that is, if it exists) is especially foreign when I realize I’m the only nonwhite person in the room.
And it’s an isolating thing: Am I there because I’m the token friend of color they need to balance out the group dynamic? Or am I there because I have been whitewashed, betraying what my mother has given me, perhaps by watching one too many Wes Anderson movies or episodes of “The Office”?
This last concern haunts me more than anything else. I feel far from my whiteness more often than not, but it’s an inherent, unavoidable part of me. I feel strange admitting that I’m Filipino when I’m with Pilipinx people because of my whiteness. It raises my fear of seeming like I’m some sort of imposter. I have western features and a white name; I can’t speak Tagalog, Ilocano or any other language; and I like to shoot the shit about people like Jean-Luc Godard.
I know my experiences will differ from those of Pilipinx people who aren’t mixed, and maybe that’s why I try not to insert myself into spaces and conversations where I feel like I’d just be intruding.
The most difficult thing about this sense of having to choose one identity based on who I’m with is that I know I don’t have to. I know that I am both white and Filipino. I am a complete person with a complete identity, and I should not be afraid of embracing it.
Yet I often feel confined to separating these two things for the sake of others, because all my life I’ve been told that I’m half Filipino, I’m half white. I didn’t really see any issue with this phrasing before coming to UC Berkeley (and even now, I’m still trying to kick the habit of describing myself this way). But I’ve learned that saying such a thing heavily implies that I am not a whole and that I’m not able to completely claim the culture that my mother has given me and that I’ve grown up with, simply because my father is white. It’s what makes me second-guess my right to be and to exist.
Thanks to the mixed people I’ve met at UC Berkeley, I realize I’m far from alone in dealing with these conflicting feelings about my identity. All of my mixed friends can relate in one way or another to this pressure to choose — the pressure to act or present themselves a certain way when with certain groups or this general sense of nonbelonging.
Of course, I’m still learning to embrace myself as one whole person instead of two. I have yet to feel completely comfortable around others presenting my mixed self that doesn’t involve me downplaying or hiding some integral part of me — but I’m getting there step by step.
I don’t present myself as “half” of anything anymore. I don’t attempt to appease people with answers to unnecessary questions if I don’t feel like it. I’m working on embracing my mother’s culture without feeling undeserving.
Being at UC Berkeley has so far been like everywhere else for me as a mixed woman. And though I’m working to fix this common mixed identity crisis for myself, it would help if people would stop asking, “What are you?”
Tara James is a junior at UC Berkeley majoring in film and economics.