For most of my adult life, I have called myself “half Asian/half white”. It felt like the most accurate depiction of “what I am”. Obviously, that’s ridiculous, and my exact genetic makeup couldn’t possibly represent me as a whole human being, but I think it was so important to say this because my Asian identity was erased from my being all throughout my childhood.
Over the years, I got to witness racism right in front of my eyes. So much so that I was filled with internalized racism. When you are denied your identity, whether it’s blatant or subtle, the message becomes really clear. That identity is bad, wrong, other. And I hated my otherness. Thinking about those times in my life, I’m not sure what upset me more: the racism itself, or the fact that my identity meant so little to those around me that it never even occurred to them that their racism was also directed at me? The answer is both. They are both awful. Truthfully, I don’t think my white family is filled with awful people. I think everyone has room to grow. Most people don’t realize that the jokes, the stereotypes, their own biases are damaging to others. That is definitely part of the problem.
I was raised by my white family. My mother was evasive about who my biological father was. Over the years, she told us at least three different men who could be my father. The Polish guy who swore he couldn’t possibly be my biodad. The Puerto Rican gentleman who was deceased. Even when my mother told her family early on that my biodad was an Asian man from her brother’s apartment building, no one believed her. They swore it was a white man. Growing up, I’d question this a lot. I mean, identity is important to anyone. To a kid who doesn’t feel like they fit in with their family, who feels like the black sheep of the family, identity is that much more important. I remember a family member telling me that my actual biodad couldn’t possibly be my father because he was a “disgusting monkey of a man”. What do you do with that?
Every part of me that was from my dad, my Asian heritage, was instead credited to my white family. My black hair? My aunt has black hair. (She doesn’t.) My skin color? Oh, that’s from your other aunt. (She doesn’t have the same skin tone as me.) My almond shaped eyes? Well, my mom was addicted to Chinese food. (Yes, this was told to me many times.) My different body type and shape? Baby fat, and I just needed to diet and exercise. (Yes, they even bought me a treadmill.) The list goes on and on. I was white. I had to be white. All the things about me that differentiate me from my white family? Explained away. Instead of making me feel like I was part of that community, though, it just highlighted my differences.
As an elementary school aged person, it was easier to be what people would call “exotic” white. Growing up in predominantly white neighborhoods in Long Island and Brooklyn, New York, most people assumed I was Italian. I took that on as my identity. Maybe my mystery dad was Italian. It was possible. At least this gave me an identity to claim, because I didn’t feel fully at home in my mother’s whiteness. Italian explained away my features that didn’t match the Irish I was told I was. That same Irish that never culturally matched who I was. I didn’t realize the harm I was doing, though. I became my own oppressor while still being oppressed by others, equal parts living as a victim and an assailant. My silence was as much a privilege as it was my own prison.
I knew I was biracial early on. Even with all the conflicting biodad reports from my mother and the racist commentary from those around me, I just knew it. I felt it. I didn’t identify, at least culturally, with my white family. Part of that was, I’m sure, how my otherness was continually presented to me in different ways; but part of it was just… knowing there was another family out there and that I could find my identity with that family. I started surrounding myself with Asian friends. Dating Asian people. Looking for that connection wherever I could. It wasn’t inauthentic or performative. It was what I needed. It felt like a survival choice, but a rude awakening was waiting for me. While my white family blanketed me in their whiteness and whitewashed my entire existence, my Asian community didn’t see me as one of them. They saw me as white. And my resentment toward my upbringing and my family and my own self grew. I felt like I had no community. In the late 80s, 90s, who was an openly biracial role model I could look to? Hell, name a few Asian role models I could look to?
Growing up without a father leaves a mark on you. Everyone’s experience will be different, of course, but the common thread is loss. I craved connection without even understanding who was going to be on the other end of that exchange. I knew that solving this mystery would allow me to find myself – or at least I convinced myself of that. When I was in high school, I moved in with a Filipino family and a part of me became alive again. This part of me that I killed all those years ago because it was the only way to live this white passing experience and not kill myself in the process. Everything about this time in my life felt authentic to me. I finally felt connected in mind, body, and soul, but all this did was leave me more questions. Marie and her family never saw me as a young Asian woman. They saw me as a white person, and there was value, to them, in me owning my whiteness. For me? It was the first time I truly felt at home in my own skin.
Around this time, my mother confided in me that I was Asian. She still kept my biodad’s identity a secret, but this huge weight was off my shoulders. She confirmed something I knew my entire life. Something that I suppressed and hid because it was easier to live that way. Culturally, I identified as Filipino. (Years later, I’d learn I was Indonesian.) Throughout college, into young adulthood, this was my identity. Knowing this in my heart combined with having my mother corroborate these truths didn’t make things suddenly easier for me, though. I can pinpoint different moments through my adulthood where white and Asian people alike rejected me. A club in college that told me I wasn’t Asian enough to join. A “friend” who would call me a “fasian” or “fake Asian” because I was “too white passing”. I can’t count the number of times people called me an “egg”. I wouldn’t meet my biodad until I had my daughter and begged my mother to help me find my father. We met when I was 30 years old, and I didn’t need any other confirmation beyond that feeling when we both saw one another and just knew. I saw myself in him. He saw his sisters in me. Those features my white family claimed as their own were staring at me from across a table. I finally saw myself in someone else. I can’t even begin to explain how powerful that moment was for me.
My family wasn’t prepared to address my unique challenges presented by the intersection of multiple identities. Looking back, as upset as I am about what felt like white erasure of my Asian heritage, I also acknowledge that the system, so built upon systemic racism, wasn’t going to make it easy for them to know how to raise me. This doesn’t absolve them, but it does help me understand the work they needed to do and the work I needed them to do. It helps me acknowledge my own trauma and why I feel they let me down. It gives me an opportunity to address it, either with them, within myself, or with my own created family, and work on healing.
Until recently, I didn’t even understand these unique challenges. The marginalization, isolation, this tremendous sense of loss. I felt these things. They were part of my foundation – and anger, honestly. Perhaps I understood it, but just didn’t know how to discuss it. So much of our identity is finding the language to express ourselves. Until we have those words, it can feel very lonely. Identity is complicated and confusing, but that’s exacerbated when you feel like your own identity is invalidated.
I’m not white enough.
I’m not Asian enough.
I’m only white.
I’m not white.
I’m “mixed”. I’ve been really leaning into that as a singular word that quickly encompasses my racial identity. Not to say this language isn’t also problematic, but it feels like a more accurate representation of how I identify myself. I’m genetically half white/half Asian, and I feel 100% culturally Asian. Being mixed allows me to steer clear from making myself a mathematical equation and instead focuses on how I have these multiple identities to draw from. That’s a lot to unpack and work on, but I feel, more than ever, prepared to do that hard work. I need to forgive myself for my internalized racism. I need to forgive myself for all of the years I spent internalizing my anger and disappointment in those around me. I need to forgive myself for staying silent as I heard people I love spew racism about me and my identity. I need to forgive myself for stumbling as I tried to navigate what being mixed meant in a world that didn’t want to acknowledge my existence. I need to forgive myself for passively presenting as white because it was easier to lean into that identity than it was to fight for my true identity. I need to forgive myself for believing I didn’t belong to any community. And I need to address the racism that was part of my white upbringing, as well as the abandonment I felt from my Asian community when I wasn’t always accepted with open arms.
I am ready to heal and truly embrace the fullness of who I am. I am ready to acknowledge what I’ve lost while holding tight to what I’ve created for myself. I’m ready to find my community and do the work to help others who, like me, have found this mixed journey to be one fraught with unexpected obstacles. If you are searching, as well, just know that I’m here. I see you. I hope you see me, too.