By CHELSEA HAWKINS
This story originally published in City on a Hill Press in October 2011.
When I was six or seven years old, I would spend my Saturday afternoons at the local Korean Baptist Church. A pink textbook opened in front of me, oversized hangul lightly sketched on sheets of paper. I kept my eyes turned downward behind a veil of straight brown hair as I avoided speaking. My face would become red and hot with embarrassment, as the guttural sounds got caught in my throat and I fumbled over words — the syllables swirled around in my mouth, only to be spit out awkwardly, a jumble of sounds always a little off.
Korean school was a short-lived experience — I hated going because even though I wasn’t sure what it was, I knew I was different. I looked different. I was shy and out of place. I hated my limited Korean and I hated feeling like an outsider. I spent more afternoons hiding in the secret places of a little garden than talking to my peers.
I am — like 4.2 million Americans — multiracial. My mother is Native American and white; my father, Korean and white. If my parents had followed the life paths their families had in mind, I would not be here. A product of teen parents, I stumbled through life and grew up with them. And when they came into the picture, my two younger brothers joined our little family.
Among American children, the multiracial population has increased almost 50 percent to 4.2 million people since 2000, according to The New York Times. The 2000 census report was the first time that Americans had the option to select more than one race — and reports flooded in, indicating the number of mixed race people in the United States.
Reports from the 2000 census data determined that 2.4 percent of the U.S. population identifies with two or more races and California is second in the country for largest percentage of multiethnic populations, beat out only by Hawaii. According to the 2010 census, 2.9 percent of the population identified as two or more races, and the numbers are likely to continue to increase. As a result, federal groups like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have added a “two or more races” category to their documents in response to the growing numbers of multiracial individuals.
But growing up in a mixed race family has meant knowing there is something different about our mismatched family and negotiating what this has meant. I had to determine what exactly being multiracial encompassed and what it meant to exist simultaneously in two very different cultures.
With the rising number of people who identify as multiracial, conflicts concerning self-identity, social and legal issues, as well as community relations are appearing within private and public lives.
The Numbers on a Growing Population
Recently, The New York Times has run a series of articles and multimedia projects on multiracial people and the growing number of self-identified multiethnic people in the United States. The Times even incorporated a family tree application where users could upload a family history, detailing how different ethnic and cultural lines met and mingled. Sifting through family histories, the migration of people, communities and cultures becomes clear — borders, continents and oceans have been crossed, culminating in the history of everyday families.
The rise in multiracial couples is a sign of the continuous growth of mixed ethnic families. Since 2008, 1 in 7 couples are comprised of individuals of different races, according to The New York Times.
As the number of people of mixed ethnicities rises, people are left wondering how they can collate numbers and information when there are multiple variables at play.
UC Santa Cruz faculty member and vice provost of academic affairs Herbie Lee sees both sides of the coin — as a biracial person, Lee sees the irrational side of asking someone to “check one box,” but as a mathematician, he understands the huge numerical challenge that now sits in front of those collecting this kind of data.
“It’s so much easier to deal with the data if you force people to just pick one,” Lee said. “If you add up people from all the boxes, it equals more than 100 percent … How do you analyze this data? It’s not just an efficiency question, it’s a question of, ‘What do you do with it?’ And we don’t really know.”
However, Lee said that to ask someone to pick only one ethnic identity is essentially asking someone to pick “between their mother and their father.” Reevaluating the way we collect this kind of information and see race, even from a statistical viewpoint, is something that “society is going to have to figure out how to deal with,” Lee said.
But what does this mean for young adults as they sift through the changing racial dynamics? If we can’t be calculated, and if our current data is unable to truly capture what American society looks like right now, does it mean race becomes irrelevant? Or does it mean race becomes a point of identity crisis?
Changing the Conversation on Race
Arranged casually around an oval table under bright fluorescent lights, between laughter and the occasional crackle of aluminum snack bags, students engage in a conversation on race, being multiethnic and the multicultural experience. It’s a weighty topic, but these students have experienced what it means to be undefined in a nation that obsesses over labels. They’re all members — or curious first-time attendees — of MESH, UCSC’s Mixed Ethnicities Student Headquarters.
MESH is entering its 11th year at UCSC, and while shifts in leadership have forced the group to reorganize, they maintain solid footing.
“When I first came to college, I never thought too much about my race or my ethnic background,” said Samantha Alemania, MESH co-chair and a fourth-year Mexican-Filipina student. But when Alemania wanted to get involved in a student organization, she had trouble finding a place she really fit in.
“A lot of the ethnic groups are monoracial … and I couldn’t pick one,” she said. “I mean, how are you supposed to pick between your families?”
Shannon Caimol, a Mexican-Filipina student, explains that she has had similar experiences.
“You always feel like you have to pick,” Caimol said. “Some of my family members will ask me, ‘Do you feel like you’re more Mexican or more Filipino?’ [But] I don’t — I’m half. It’s weird being asked to pick. I don’t choose. I don’t want to feel like I’m only one, because I’m not.”
Being asked to label and redefine yourself seems to be a shared experience among multiethnic individuals.
“People would force identities onto me and assume things,” said Robert Bisquera Jr., third-year Stevenson student and co-chair of MESH. “I would say, ‘I’m Mexican,’ and people would say, ‘You don’t look Mexican. Do you speak Spanish?’ No, but I’m Mexican. Culturally, that’s how I was brought up and that’s how I identify.”
Bisquera, who calls himself “Mexipino” in reference to his Mexican-Filipino makeup, says there are times where he has felt like he has had to prove himself and reassert his place among certain groups.
“[It’s] always knowing in the back of your mind that you’re not fully one thing or the other,” Bisquera said.
UCSC student Stephanie Chin, who is Chinese-Nicaraguan-Mexican, has experienced the kind of isolation that can come with being multiracial.
“Even now that I’m in college, I thought we would all be educated and open to new experiences, but it still seems as if people cling to their race as a comfort zone, one that is not really available to me,” Chin said in an email to City on a Hill Press.
In her experiences, Chin explains it oftentimes feels like a “dis-ownership” of race when people tell her she is not “Asian” or “Latin” because she doesn’t fulfill certain expectations. As much as we claim to be post-race, Chin said, many people still end up segregated by race.
Now when people ask Chin about her racial and cultural makeup, she turns it around on them and instead pushes them to re-evaluate their question.
“I started just asking people, ‘Why is it important?’” she said. “‘What is it going to help you understand?’”
Searching for an Identity
For many individuals, cultural exploration is intimately tied to understanding what it means to be multiracial. Atheena Haniff-Martinez, a Pakistani-Mexican American student at UCSC, said it wasn’t until coming to college she really began to appreciate her background — her childhood home was culturally “pretty neutral.”
“I kind of ignored my ethnicity,” Haniff-Martinez said. “Growing up we did not really celebrate or embrace cultures from Mexico and Pakistan.”
But being part of El Centro — UCSC’s Chicano Latino Resource Center — has given Haniff-Martinez a community and a connection to her culture. Now, she says she would like to become more involved with the Indian Student Organization on campus to learn more about her “other half.” Being multiracial for her has become about cultural experience.
“As I get older, I want to learn more about the two cultures that I am,” Haniff-Martinez said. “I feel it is hard to embrace both cultures. I feel sometimes that I have to choose what race I am when I am in a Latino setting or an East Indian setting.”
Nonetheless, culture itself can be interpreted in different ways as young adults, like Ryan Mark-Griffin, move easily between being Chinese and being American.
Mark-Griffin, who is a native of Michigan and former UCSC student, had an experience unique compared to a multiracial Californian: He was one of the only Asian-American students in his school.
While Mark-Griffin said he doesn’t want to portray Michigan or the Midwest as a racist area, he did emphasize that it wasn’t nearly as diverse as California. But as a result of the differences in culture between California and Michigan, Mark-Griffin has seen the way people’s perceptions can change with communities.
“In Michigan, most people identify me as Asian, but here in California, I’m a white guy,” Mark-Griffin said.
However, Mark-Griffin, though aware of the ugly side of race relations, said he has found it easy to move in between cultures and create a place for himself that balances both halves of himself. He explains that straddling two cultures, for him, has been enriching and something he has enjoyed.
As Griffin shares anecdotes about his family and his personal experiences, he speaks comfortably, smiling at the parallels in our experiences and the experiences of other multiracial individuals.
“At our Thanksgiving dinner? Mashed potatoes, sticky rice. Dumplings, fried rice. Turkey, wonton soup, jook,” Mark-Griffin said. “My family is America in a nutshell.”
The Look of Being Mixed
There are mornings when I stand over my bathroom sink sleepy-eyed, peering into the mirror, dissecting the face looking back at me. It’s not for the sake of vanity but because sometimes I’m not really sure what I look like — with a mess of brown hair that I’ve lightened with dyes and fair skin freckled from too much sunshine, I’m often mistaken for white. And I am, but I also identify as Korean-American and Native American.
Culturally, I’m far from white or “mono-ethnic” — whatever that means. Physically, I’m multiracial. But my face? My face seems to be just racially ambiguous enough — people often can’t pinpoint my race by looking at me.
People do a double-take when I tell them what I am, because my features don’t fit into a preconceived idea of what I should look like.
While there is freedom in being able to say, “Yes, I’m beyond labels,” there is something oddly isolating about being the mixed race girl in a room full of people who can solidly say, “I am ____.” It’s a paradox: I am at once liberated and constricted by my inability to be categorized.
Like Bisquera, I’ve been left needing to “prove” my race to people — and I’ve had people look me in the eye and tell me I’m bluffing when I tell them what I am, solely because they can’t “see” my ethnicities etched on my face.
When talking with a member of MESH, his solution to addressing race was to disregard it — that it didn’t exist if we didn’t let it — but that’s too utopian. Race exists. Categories exist. And in this case when you don’t fit into one box, when you’re not easy to define or label or stereotype, you can’t help but become hyper-aware of race.