Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Choose Your Own Identity: Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

By BONNIE TSUI DEC. 14, 2015, New York Times

Image from article, with caption: A series of photographs from "The Hapa Project" by the artist Kip Fulbeck

I never realized how little I understood race until I tried to explain it to my 5­
year­old son. Our family story doesn’t seem too complicated: I’m Chinese-American
and my husband is white, an American of English­-Dutch-­Irish
descent; we have two children. My 5-­year-­old knows my parents were born in
China, and that I speak Cantonese sometimes. He has been to Hong Kong and
Guangzhou to visit his gung­-gung, my father. But when I asked him the other
day if he was Chinese, he said no.

You’re Chinese, but I’m not,” he told me, with certainty. “But I eat
Chinese food.” This gave me pause. How could I tell him that I wasn’t talking
about food or cultural heritage or where we were born? (Me, I’m from
Queens.) I had no basis to describe race to him other than the one I’d taken
pains to avoid: how we look and how other people treat us as a result.

My son probably doesn’t need me to tell him we look different. He’s a
whir-­in-­a-­blender mix of my husband and me; he has been called Croatian and
Italian. More than once in his life, he will be asked, “What are you?” But in
that moment when he confidently asserted himself as “not Chinese,” I felt a
selfish urge for him to claim a way of describing himself that included my side
of his genetic code. And yet I knew that I had no business telling him what his
racial identity was. Today, he might feel white; tomorrow he might feel more
Chinese. The next day, more, well, both. Who’s to say but him?

Racial identity can be fluid. More and more, it will have to be: Multiracial
Americans are on the rise, growing at a rate three times as fast as the country’s
population as a whole, according to a new Pew Research Center study released
in June. Nearly half of mixed­-race Americans today are younger than 18, and
about 7 percent of the U.S. adult population could be considered multiracial,
though they might not call themselves that. The need to categorize people into
specific race groups will never feel entirely relevant to this population, whose
perceptions of who they are can change by the day, depending on the people
they’re with.

Besides, the American definition of race has always been in flux. For one
thing, context mattered: In 1870, mixed-­race American Indians living on
reservations were counted as Indians, but if they lived in white communities
they were counted as whites. Who was “white” evolved over time: From the
1870s to 1930s, a parade of court rulings pondered the “whiteness” of Asian
immigrants from China, Japan and India, often changing definitions by the
ruling in order to exclude yet another group from citizenship. When mixed-race
people became more prevalent, things got murkier still. Who the U.S.
Census Bureau designated “colored” or “black” varied, too, before and after
slavery, and at times including subcategories for people of mixed race, all
details often left up to the whims of the census taker. In 1930, nativist
lobbyists succeeded in getting Mexicans officially labeled nonwhite on the
census; up until then, they were considered white and allowed citizenship. By
1940, international political pressure had reversed the decision. It wasn’t until
2000 that the Census Bureau started letting people choose more than one race
category to describe themselves, and it still only recognizes five standard racial
categories: white, black/African-­American, American Indian/Alaska Native,
Asian, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.

Racial categories formed the historical basis for so many of America’s
societal and political decisions, and yet even the Census Bureau has admitted
that its categories are in flux, recognizing that race is not a fixed, “quantifiable”
value but a fluid one. White or black or Asian America isn’t monolithic and
never was. Everyone’s story can be parsed ever more minutely:
Haitian-Hawaiian, Mexican-­Salvadorean, Cuban-Chinese. And when you start mixing
up stories, as my family has, much of the institutional meaning of race falls
away; it becomes, instead, intensely individual. In a strange way, the renewed
fluidity of racial identity is a homecoming of sorts, to a time before race — and
racism — was institutionalized.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, the once­-derogatory term
hapa — from the Hawaiian word for “half”; it’s a Hawaiian pidgin term long
used to refer to people of mixed-­race background — is now part of the
everyday lexicon. In my sons’ preschool and kindergarten classes, hapa is fast
becoming the norm because there are so many mixed­-race children in
attendance. There’s power in the word: a reclaiming of territory,
a self- determination. To me, the idea of hapa as a racial definition is inclusive rather
than exclusive and thus a step in the right direction. The term is mostly used to
refer to people of part Asian heritage, but increasingly it’s used for anyone of
mixed race. And it’s a term that tends to be a self-­identifying choice, rather
than an outside imposition.

There’s a difference, you know. A critical element in the long­-running
Hapa Project, for which the artist and filmmaker Kip Fulbeck traveled the
country and photographed thousands of multiracial people, is that photo
subjects speak for themselves. One woman states to her observers: “I am a
person of color. I am not half-­‘white.’ I am not half­-‘Asian.’ I am a whole
‘other.’” There is a resistance to fragmentation, a taking control of the
narrative. Fulbeck, as a mixed-­race person himself, came up with the idea as a
kid in elementary school, when he struggled with what he calls the “check one
box only” question. Here, we aren’t talking about getting rid of the boxes or
just adding more boxes but creating more flexible ones that can hold more
going forward.

There will be surprises in my own household when it comes to racial
identity. According to the Pew study, biracial Asian­-whites are more likely to
identify with whites than they are with Asians. This line made me sit up: It
never occurred to me that my sons could possibly identify only as white. I’m
forced to think more carefully about what it is that actually makes me
uncomfortable with that idea: It’s not that I want my sons to experience
discrimination, but if they do choose to identify as white, there is something
about being a racial minority in America that I would want them to know. As a
child, I most wanted to fit in. As a young adult, I learned how I stood apart and
to have pride in it. In the experience of being an “other,” there’s a valuable
lesson in consciousness: You learn to listen harder, because you’ve heard what
others have to say about you before you even have a chance to speak.

But the truth is, I can’t tell my sons what to feel: more white than Asian,
more Asian than white, neither, both. Other. I can only tell them what I think
about my own identity and listen hard to what they have to tell me in turn. If
that isn’t practicing good race relations, what is? Much as I hate to admit it,
what they choose to be won’t necessarily have to do with me. Because my sons
are going to be the ones who say who — not what — they are.

Bonnie Tsui is a writer in Berkeley, Calif., and the author of 
“American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five

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