On the Porousness of Racial Identity

Until recently, I fooled myself into thinking that biology determined race.

Realistically, it doesn't matter who my parents are, where they came from, and what cultural traditions I do or don't practice. I am only the stranger's mirror. I am a reflection of their racial impulse, their chance encounters with the white, black, brown, yellow and the red.

I'm the itchy trigger finger that exposes their racial prejudices. I'm the reminder of some kid they went to grade school with, or I might look like someone in their office. If my hair is cropped almost bald, I'm a threatening Mexican cholo gangster. A full head of hair makes me a wimpy Asian dork. Clamming on the beach, and, by God, I'm exercising my tribal treaty rights! It doesn't matter that in my whitewashed hometown of Seattle there are probably more half-Asians than Mexicans or Indians. Sure, my walk, talk and garb may reveal some clues to people looking to figure out who or what I am. But my face is always the same, and yet a stranger has never asked me if I was half-Korean because, to them, half-Koreans don't exist.

Like too many of us, "Hi, I am half Korean and half white," was the topic sentence of my life's confirmation that I really did exist, even if a history of stereotypes had yet to confine by defining me. If I chose not to disclose my racial recipe, most people would keep their curiosity and guesses to themselves. But even after centuries of mixing and melting, Americans still cling to the impossible idea that race means either black or white, even as mixed-race Americans fill the gray areas in-between. To strangers who assault us daily with questions like, "What are you?" my answer today is simply, "Yes."

"What are you?" (A.k.a. "Help me define you.")

"Yes." (Whatever you want.)

"Are you Hawaiian?"

"Yes."

"Do you speak Spanish, Tlingit or Tagalog?"

"Yes."

"Are you a war baby?" "Is that Native American poetry you're writing?" "Do your exotic features blending East and West originate in none other but the Galapagos Islands of Darwin fame, where you spent an idyllic childhood riding giant tortoises in shabby loin cloths?"

"Yes."

Why say no? If their experience of me is Mexican, then I'm Mexican. If their treatment of me is based on believing that I am Japanese, then I am, in a small way, experiencing what it's like to be Japanese.

Of course, there's a huge difference between being Japanese for a day versus a lifetime. But it's not really about my life experiences, but about theirs. And since race is ostensibly a fixed concept in America, a stranger's momentary encounter may well determine your race for them forever.

Of course, the race that's chosen for me has almost never matched the one I choose for myself. When I'm alone, I relish being raceless. As a kid, I wanted nothing more than consistency -- to be recognized as Asian to at least ten of the next twelve people on the sidewalk, or even Mexican to fifty-one percent of the waiters whose tables I bussed on weeknights. But these days, I'm usually half-Cuban.

My half-Cuban "identity" comes from a 1997 trip to Havana's tiny Chinatown where I met a restaurant owner named Fong. He had dark brown skin, wavy black hair and almond-shaped eyes. He called himself and his fusion cuisine Chinese. (How porous the boundaries of race truly are!)

Even with a dark tan, I don't think I pull off half-Cuban convincingly. But 23 years of feedback says that I don't pull off Korean/white convincingly either, even though that's what I'm supposed to be, biologically anyway. In my world where race changes, I'm all the above. I check off all of the boxes. The only real factor determining how many times my race changes is how many people I pass going from point A to point B.

Of course, a big reason why my race changes is because it doesn't have widespread recognition. In the U.S.A., I've yet to have a race assigned to me. Not that I really want one, but there isn't an official Asian/white box for all of us Eurasian mulattos on employment or SAT test forms. I don't get a race, even though there are more multiracial babies born on the West coast than any other race except white babies.

Maybe an Asian/white box sounds arbitrary to you. But America already has mixed-race boxes. Given our nation's history, what is white, American Indian, black and Latino, if not shorthand for saying "African/Native American/European"? Racially, they are all scooped from the same jars; they just scooped more from some and less from others. The point is that we're all mixed. It just matters that the "race" has a name, and that a critical mass of people acknowledge it.

If being Asian/white in America means not having a name, then at best, I'm stuck in racial no-man's-land, and at worst, I don't exist. Living outside the racial paradigm has forced me to acknowledge the fiction of race, however uncomfortable that may be. The problem is that I still sometimes ignore my own, lived experience to buy into that persistent idea that everyone fits into five distinct and separate races.

Until I accept the insecurity of life outside or in-between, I'll still feel guilty saying I'm Cuban or anything else, for that matter, to strangers who feel entitled to ask what instead of who I am.

Matt Kelley is the founder and president of The MAVIN Foundation, a non-profit organization that celebrates mixed-race young people. Contact him at mattk@mavinfoundation.org.

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