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  • Monday, March 31, 2008

    “Ultimately,” she said, the goal is “to not have to check a box.”

    Read this article in the NYT: "Who Are We? New Dialogue on Mixed Race".

    Some quotes that really resonated with me:

    "...the people who challenged them to label themselves by innocently asking, “What are you?” "

    "While many mixed-race people say they see their heritage as a plus, they also say they often face pressure from others who want to pigeonhole them. Mr. McBride [whose mother is white and father is black] said his books invariably were shelved in the African-American sections of bookstores. “Why can’t I be a white author?” he said. “I’m half white.”"

    "“It’s really unfair to expect people to choose,” she said. “It’s like asking to be loyal to one parent or the other.”"

    Although this was a light treatment of the multiracial issue, using the hook of Obama's biracial background, it hit a few nerves for me. For me, the "what are you?" question really rankles -- and always has.

    How the heck is a young kid supposed to understand that question -- especially without hearing loud and clear "you're different" (and "different" generally = "bad", until you've got a good sense of self, which often doesn't happen until you hit your 30s)??? -- let alone, answer it?

    "What are you?" WTF?

    As a small girl, I had no idea how to answer that. I didn't even know why people asked it. I mean, my parents were/are my parents. It was absolutely normal to me to have one Asian and one non-Asian parent. I didn't know that my parents were different from any other parents or even different from each other. Of course, I simply accepted them as "mom" and "dad". What kid wouldn't? "Mom" and "Dad" are only that when you're young (heck, they aren't even people; they're just parents). That was my life, and I didn't know that my family was any different from anyone else's (which, in retrospect, is a credit to the open-minded community where we lived). So that question baffled me because I didn't know that I was different, and yet, clearly people thought I was and demanded that I identify how. That's a lot to ask of a kid. And yet, I was frequently asked.

    So, in this respect, I'm glad that Obama generates conversation. I've always wondered why he, Halle Barry, Lisa Bonet, Alicia Keyes, Hines Ward, etc. are identified as "black", vs. their other ethnic/racial backgrounds...

    I mean, I know it's because people are labeled by others based on how others see them. So a person with a black parent, if his/her skin is even the slightest bit darker, will be seen and labeled as "black", regardless of how s/he self-identifies. And that external label does affect self-perception. No doubt.

    But for me, from my perspective, I just never understood that. I never understood the societal need to label folks, pigeon-hole them, ask "what are you?" What does it get anyone to know that my father is Japanese American and my mother is Croatian American, making me CroAsian American? And why do we only ask that question, in that manner, to people of color? Do we as a society ask the blonde, blue-eyed person in the next office or cubicle "what are you?" Nah. I've never heard it. So does that mean the norm is white? Seems that way. Only when someone's appearance varies from that norm do we ask the question.

    Instead of the dehumanizing "what are you?" question, can we instead express our curiosity in terms such as "does your name have any particular meaning?" -- which, clearly, doesn't necessarily get to the race question (only the ethnicity question), but I don't think that it should. Not at least until you get to know someone better and can have a real conversation about it, out of genuine interest, rather than a cursory smacking of a label on someone. Ya' see, it's a personal question to ask, and yet we do. No one seems to see it as intrusive. But it is.

    Yeah, sore point.


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