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On Being Biracial: An Op-Ed

Predictably, there is much ambivalence about growing up a mixed-race child.

At times it is like a genetic smörgåsbord at which you can pick and choose the various traits associated with your heritages to compose a sort of Frankenstein ethnicity akin to Gattaca or, you know, Frankenstein.

While the idea of adopting a disjointed selection of stereotypes like so many party hats is problematic for many reasons, there’s nothing to really stop us from doing it, apart from a lingering suspicion of internalized racism but hey, when did that ever stop anyone?

biracial butterfly

In my experience as a biracial butterfly, the external expression of my race(s) was as flexible as the environments in which I found myself.

At the Buddhist temple to which I was dragged by my grandparents, I was by far the palest person in the room (other than the token elderly, reformed-hippie white guy with a single wispy braid) but damn it if I didn’t garble the Japanese sutras under my breath, prayer beads betwixt my fingers, imagining the Buddha as some dude who bore more than a passing resemblance to the dad in Totoro.

When eating Japanese food with new friends, I would invariably be asked to teach them how to use chopsticks because, yeah, maybe I bragged that I learned how to use chopsticks before forks, lest people forget who was most at home at Kyoto Japanese Restaurant in Rohnert Park, California.

In high school, I learned that I am descended from two-thirds of the Axis of Evil and one-third of the glorious country whose enduring contribution to American culture is Ikea. Alongside this thrilling compartmentalization of my genetic makeup was a flavorful array of prejudice.

On the playground as an elementary schooler in a predominantly white and hick-infested town, I recall being told that I would soon enough be burning in hell as I wasn’t Christian and didn’t believe in the Christian God and the effort that I was putting in at the Buddhist temple to behave in a manner approximating my childish notions of Japaneseness was all for naught.

Up until the point at which kids knew better than to voice their backwater, racist pseudo-aphorisms, my intelligence and, admittedly dramatic, neuroses about schoolwork were credited entirely to my race rather than my own efforts. For the record, my Cheerios ad parents perceived these neuroses early on and, being the staunchly un-dramatic people they are, they assumed a laissez-faire attitude about my schoolwork because an oppressively strict Asian family already resided within my own mind.

Now in my early 20s, I have found that these strange ambivalences have followed me and have always been roaringly hilarious in the “you-can-either-laugh-or-cry” kind of way.

Sometimes, people (yes, predominantly white people) seem to be attracted to me because I am a wonderfully easy introduction to the world of vaguely ethnics lays. This only happens in the winter, though, because I tan deeply in the summer and my attractiveness transmutes into a compelling-from-afar, but ultimately passable swarthiness.

On the other hand, I visit cosmopolitan centers, see people around me who comprise a proverbial rainbow of color, and think to myself, “I AM THE FUTURE!”

I may have never met my maternal grandfather because he disapproved of my mother’s marriage, but I have also never had to meet my racist asshole grandfather who disapproved of my mother’s marriage.

In the end, biracial people can have experiences of race that are exponentially more complicated than others. I imagine, because I can only speak to my experience, that there are as many iterations of identity as there are identities.

And for most intents and purposes, it’s really all okay.

The point that I want to make is that we can be difficult to pin down but we are under no obligation to make our ambiguities more palatable or easier to understand.

I have found that if others want to play around with my identity, I might as well adopt a playful, if obscurant and impudent attitude in return. This doesn’t preclude anger, indignation, or outing your maternal grandfather as racist.

I am also not prescribing my particular way of moving through the world to anyone. But maybe people who share experiences like mine—of not belonging to any predetermined social or cultural group, and who just run with it—ultimately face fewer constraints than those who can easily find a niche.

We have to work longer and harder, but our reward is an assurance of our uniqueness and newness. I’m confident that the creativity and versatility that identity struggles engender can lead us to be nimble, effective members of our communities, whether they be small circles of close friends, expanding digital networks, or the collectives of people who are constructing how our society will come to express itself.

Published on August 21, 2014

Image Credit: Duane Michaels

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