Week 2 Reflections

This week I read “A Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People” by Maria P. P. Root, Paul R. Spickard’s “The Illogic of American Racial Categories,” and “Race as Process: Reassessing the ‘What are you?’ Encounters of Biracial Individuals” by Teresa Kay Williams, in that order, and experienced a succession of feelings.

I had come across Root’s Bill of Rights once before. As an angsty teenager I often turned to my Internet-connected laptop as a source of comfort in the middle of the night when I was pondering the things of existence. The World Wide Web always seemed the proper place to go when I craved solidarity that couldn’t be found anywhere else, and on one of these late-night Google binges I found a basic list of Root’s “A Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People” on hapavoice.com, a site on which any multiracial individual can post a self-portrait and talk about his or her specific multiracial experience. The barebones Bill of Rights listed on the site was also linked to Root’s “50 Experiences of Racially Mixed People,” which interested me more at the time.

Many of these 50 I hadn’t experienced, and the rest I hadn’t identified as being directly linked to my biracial makeup. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the self-conscious nature of the site’s posts or how these articles almost came off as check-off lists for the mixed race experience. I was intrigued, though, that the Mixed Race Experience was considered exceptional enough to have a Bill of Rights. Seeing such thoughts evidently legitimatized by the authority of the Internet also affirmed me in being self-conscious about race, something I’d been taught I ought to be blind to but felt keenly all the same.

This second time reading the Bill of Rights, and with Root’s commentary included, actually made me feel pretty empowered. I have rights unique to my biracial situation! Rights that were listed in a keynote address at UC Santa Barbara! For the Second Annual California Statewide Multiracial Conference! Seriously, being affiliated with an annual conference makes things legitimate, right? I’d often gone through life feeling responsible for people’s discomfort when they didn’t know what to make of me, but this Bill of Rights assured me that I have no need to be hindered by others’ problematic reliance on racial category.

Moving on to Spickard and to some extent Williams, though, took away this newfound confidence in my freedom from the construct of race. Spickard discusses in “The Illogic of Racial Categories” how race is one of the largest ways that society categorizes an individual, and society’s categorization of an individual is the largest contributor to the definition of race. If race is a projection other people cast onto me, then, how can I control my freedom from it? Sure, I don’t need to include race in my idea of my own identity, but Williams reminded me that “one’s assignment into a sociopolitically defined single racial group is necessary in order to be a socially recognized, functional member of society” (Williams 193). This straightforward statement expresses what I think I’ve been in denial about my whole life. Actually, most people exist in a state of denial about this—that, at least in the communities I’ve been exposed to in the United States, it’s impossible to function with other people if they cannot categorize you racially.

This is a tough claim to make—I wouldn’t say every interaction I’ve had with another person has been fully governed by race—but when it comes to joining groups and communities, race rules. I’m half Asian American and half European American (put simply), but to many I look completely white. How many times have I worked with a classmate who happens to be Asian and have he or she suddenly become much friendlier once told I have an Asian parent? I prefer not to count, and prefer not to invest too much in those friendships, but I can’t go through life shunning every classmate and co-worker who treats me differently upon finding out that I am not the racial mix they previously assumed. I’ve actually found some of these individuals to be good friends in the long run.

On a related note, Williams also talks in length about the question What are you? This query is often posed to individuals with external racial ambiguity and is generally considered offensive, and I can understand why. Why does anyone need to know what I am? Is this going to be another instance of someone who can’t decide how to interact with me until I am fixed into a slot on his or her hierarchy of race? Or on another level, is it just not that apparent that I am fully human?

As Williams says, though, having a racial assignment in someone’s mind is often unavoidable. I personally appreciate someone admitting to my external racial ambiguity rather than drawing assumptions and as a result deciding to exclude me from certain things. Maybe that’s me giving in to the racialization of the communities I’ve interacted with. Or maybe it’s me expressing my right to carve my own space into others’ narrow categories of types of people.

Root, Maria P. P. “A Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People.”

Spickard, Paul R. “The Illogic of American Racial Categories.” 

Williams, Teresa Kay. “Race as Process: Reassessing the “What Are You?”

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One thought on “Week 2 Reflections

  1. My parents always told me that I have “the best of both worlds”. I never really understood what they meant by this, and I always seemed to think otherwise.

    I have identified—through my own experiences—how race, this ever-ambiguous term, has shaped how I view myself and also how I choose to identify myself. With this, I agree, to some extent, with the articles we’ve read, that race is a fluid concept, a sociopolitical construct that varies based upon culture, setting, and circumstance.

    I struggled to fit into two cultures while growing up, both of which represent me simultaneously: one that belongs to my ethnicity and the other to my nationality. When people asked me where I was from, I hesitated to reply “Taiwan” or “America” because to me, answering one instead of the other was an act of betrayal. Consequently, I faced the greatest challenge of coping with the invisible and visible aspects of my identity as a multicultural being.

    Most of my childhood was spent outside of the United States, specifically in Taiwan, where I was sheltered within a cocoon that represents the homogenous community I grew up in. It was the norm to speak Chinese at home and English at school, and I fit right in. I could carry a conversation in Chinese with my parents just fine, but being of Chinese descent, I was expected to speak Chinese fluently and was constantly blamed for becoming “Americanized”. For reasons like this, I wondered why my parents sent me to an American school in the first place. Perhaps they thought I would receive a better education there, but little did they know I had to fight every day to defend my identity. Outside of school, my classmates and I easily became targets of malicious glares and stares when we spoke with our English tongue, falling victim to a clear sense of “othering” enforced upon us by Taiwanese locals. Speaking English was an indication of privilege and prestige, so it was clearly looked down upon by many, especially the elderly; it exposed our camouflage to a culture that we thought accepted us and that we belonged to. As such, I experienced the “changeability” that Root refers to in her article “A Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People”; I learned to conceal the American part of me by choosing certain aspects of my “Chinese” self to display in public, and vise versa. However, when I came back to the States for college, I began to see how my previous association with American culture turned against me even more.

    Coming back to the U.S., I became more aware of the fragmentation of my identity—maybe not to the same degree as mixed race people—but enough to change how I identified myself in relation to others. Over here on the other side of the world, I felt a clear sense of invisibility that I didn’t experience back in Taiwan. I received remarks from other Asian Americans asking me why I knew how to speak English so well since I grew up in Taiwan, or that they loved Thai food too (what…). As such, I no longer felt that I was part of the norm, feeling uncertain whether I leaned towards being Chinese or Chinese American here, which completely conflicted with what I came to knew so well of my Chinese heritage and the American culture. I felt the weight of being identified specifically as an Asian coming from Asia, as if that was a separate identity from an Asian growing up in America. People made me out based on stereotypes they associated strictly with Asians from Asia, of being good at math, getting good grades because “she studies all the time”, eating creepy crawlies, and being skinny. It was the first time I felt so strongly having been singled out as part of the minority by others trying to understand who I am, and feeling the consequences of being categorized based on my physical appearance and the stereotypes associated with it; it was the first time I recognized the severity of such stereotypes and their effect on me.

    I used to think that belonging to either the Chinese culture or American culture inhibited my identification with and understanding of the other. With these experiences however, I have came to understand what my parents meant when they told me I have “the best of both worlds”. By acknowledging how these two cultures are intrinsically linked to make up who I am, I learned to embrace the multifaceted aspects of my identity, and to view them as an advantage to better understand the people around me and myself. To this end, I finally unfolded the missing piece to my identity, which is one that allows me to navigate across cultures, across borders, and across worlds.

    Root, Maria P. P. “A Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People.”

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