As a biracial person, I have had to go on a personal journey of self-identification. It is inevitable when you live in a society that has an obsession with race. It is also inevitable when you don’t quite fit into one particular racial category, and yet you are given the impossible choice at having to choose. For someone who has two parents who are of the same race and even ethnicity, then it’s obvious that you should identify as what you and the two parents are. Society says that if your mom and dad are white or black or Asian, then that must be what you are. But what if you have one parent who is white and the other is black or Asian. What are you then? Are you both? Are you neither? Are you still of the minority race because of some one-drop rule deemed so by white segregationists a million years ago, determined to separate whites from non-whites? Are you what society perceives you to be? Or, is it up to you to decide what category you put yourself into?
Personally, I am of the mind that everyone has the sole prerogative to decide what they identify as. Whether they identify as black, white, or Homo sapien, they should be given the right and respect to identify as such. Self-identification is a right that everyone should have, but unfortunately, in this country, many are given disdainful and scornful looks and labeled as a non-conformist. And when you are biracial, or multiracial, and choosing to identify as something as the thing that you are not perceived as, then it can be antagonistic and even deadly.
The Early Years
One of my first memories is my parents sitting me down and telling me what I am. My parents said that I am Asian American, combining the two nationalities of my parents. They argued that since my dad is American, my mom is Asian, so that makes me Asian American. In theory, that makes perfect sense. But, as I grew older, I started to question this phrase. I started to realize that this phrase, like most words in the English language, has a double or triple meaning.
One meaning of Asian American is someone who is originally from Asia (that is, they were born and even grew up in Asia) and then they became a naturalized citizen after immigrating to America. Another meaning of Asian American is someone who has both parents who were from Asia. Yet another meaning could be someone who is born and raised in America, but is still called Asian American because of a long ago ancestor who immigrated to this country.
Thinking of the multiple meanings of the word Asian American left me confused. I also soon realized that it wasn’t really a word for someone like me who is not only biracial, but was born and raised in this country. Why should I add something in front of American? Why can’t I just be American when this is the place that I was born and raised? Why is there a need to add Asian in front of it? Why is my mother’s ethnicity and race more important than my father’s? It is the same with the term African American or Hispanic American, or even Native American. I don’t see people identity white people as European American. They are just white or Caucasian. They don’t have the extra baggage of being something other than American. That is because white is still the default race of America. Even when you have only one drop of non-white blood, you are still not white.
At this early age, I was already aware of how discriminatory Asian American was. By this simple term, America was implying that anyone who is not full white was an other, a foreigner, and different from all the rest. It was disheartening especially at such a young age to know that this was how America viewed people who were not full white. But nevertheless, I set off on a journey to find out what I was.
It was during my teenage years that I went through a few racial terms that I could use to describe me. Having eschewed the term Asian American with distaste, I started searching. I soon came across the term Eurasian to describe someone who is of half European and half Asian ancestry. It seemed like the perfect identity for someone like me. And yet, I didn’t feel comfortable using that term. I didn’t feel comfortable because several generations of my father’s family are American. By calling myself Eurasian, I felt as if I was resenting that part of me as well. When you have several generations of your family having been born and raised in America, then that is also a part of you and your family’s identity.
And then, there was the term Amerasian. That seemed even more perfect for someone like me. Amerasian is a term used to describe someone who is half American and half Asian. But then, I came across the same problem I found with the epithet Asian American. To reiterate, Amerasian was someone who was half American. I guess I am half American, but at the same time, I am not. I was born and raised in America. My nationality is American. It didn’t seem right to identify as such. Maybe if I had dual citizenship, then perhaps I could have identified as Amerasian.
Once I let go of Eurasian and Amerasian, I finally just settled on the term biracial. I called myself biracial for the longest time. I liked it because it is a term for someone who is of two races. The only issue that I had with the term biracial is that it is very vague. The biracial category is pretty diverse, encompassing any combination of two races. Someone who is biracial could be black and white, or black and Asian, or white and Asian, or white and Latino/a, etc. It just wasn’t specific enough for me.
But what could I do? There really isn’t a word for someone who is white and Asian. I even envied those who were white and black, because there is a word for that in English — mulatto. Or even mestizo, which is a term for someone who is of European and Native American background. But that was it. There was no other word.
Because there was no word for someone like me, who is half white and half Asian, I felt invisible. I felt as if America didn’t care about me. I knew that I wasn’t the only person who was half white and half Asian. And yet, there was no word in the English language to describe someone with my particular mix. Knowing this, it made me feel as if I was too much of an enigma, too foreign, and too different to have an identity for. I wondered if I would just forever have to identify as biracial.
I also contemplated taking a leaf from Tiger Woods’ book and making up my own racial term. For those who don’t know, Tiger Woods identifies as Cablinasian, a term that he created to include the full scope of his heritage. I read that Tiger Woods did get some scorn and disdain for daring to identify as such, instead of the race that many perceive him to be. But I applaud his courage to identify as such, implying that race is never black and white, and it is usually more complicated than first appears.
Tiger Woods may have created a nomenclature for his diverse racial identity. I contemplated doing the same. But my racial identity is not nearly as diverse as his. I am simply of two races. You would think that there should be a term for someone like me, but there isn’t. I think one reason why is because biracial people have always been forced to choose one or the other. Another reason is that people who are of Asian descent in particular have always been invisible in American society. There isn’t a lot of Asian representation in the media, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Another reason goes back to the one-drop rule which says that when you are half white, you are identified as the other half of you.
Finally, I discovered a word that I could use to identify myself. The best and worst part was that this word is not an English word. It is the best part because I found a racial epithet to identify me, similar to white, black, or Asian. The worst part is that the word is not English, but a Hawaiian word, implying that my particular racial mix is still very much an enigma to American society. Regardless, I discovered the word hapa and with it a community of people who are like me. I discovered the people who are half Asian and all of the struggles and benedictions that go along with that. I loved how I could just say hapa instead of using a word that has a double meaning. I also loved how this is a word that is not as common knowledge to someone who is not hapa, implying that there is still so much to learn about race and how we choose to identify ourselves. But most of all, I loved just being hapa.