Please Select One

Walking the line between privilege and disadvantage

1807
By Savanna Heydon
By Savanna Heydon

I was in third grade when I realized I was biracial. “Please Select One,” I was instructed as I stared down at the race identity section of the STAR test, the tip of my pencil hovering back and forth over circles marked “Asian” and “White.”

The divide of my identity had never before been presented to me so blatantly. Deciding to leave both bubbles blank was no solution to the conflict that would become a personal obsession throughout my life. Biologically, I am both. Racially, I am neither. Culturally, I am confused.

The social dynamic between the two cultures I grew up with left me feeling both frustrated and disoriented. I saw others relying on the roots of their cultures for a sense of intimacy and belonging I longed for. The media I was exposed to and the conversations people had about race did not reflect the experience I had being both Chinese and white, but rather reflected the experiences of one or the other.

Illustration by Anna Mcgrew
Illustration by Anna Mcgrew

The solace people have access to within their cultural group does not exist for me as someone of mixed heritage. I look at my friends with envy as they interact with their families. They speak the same language, have the same physical features and the same opportunities. Without a similarly clear foundation on which to base my social and cultural experiences, I often feel lost when considering identity and, by extension, individuality.

So, what do you do if you feel the most white around your Chinese family and the most Chinese around your white family?

I have seen my Asian mother recoil in silence as those around her reminisce about snowy days in the Midwest. I have watched my white father as he sneaks to a quiet back room of the house after dinner on Chinese New Year. Having seen lurking, racial self-consciousness in action, I have been taught to be aware of identity’s polarizing effects.

My problem with having to identify with one or the other is pressured by racial hierarchy. To be white is to automatically assume a position of social privilege granted to me by historical privilege. Ranging from dark tan to pale, the color of my skin may dictate a certain level of security I feel in my daily interactions solely depending on the time of year.

Being mixed-race complicates that notion of privilege. It embodies that power but simultaneously possesses an understanding of cultural nuances unique to people of color.

However, I hesitate to call myself a person of color because others may see me as “white passing.” I get stopped less frequently during security checks when I am with white friends versus when I am alone. The doctor would speak to me instead of my mother, and my father instead of me during check-ups as a kid. The degree to which people trust me fluctuates depending on how they perceive the lightness of my skin in relation to others.

While being seen as white may come with many benefits, it brings me shame more than anything else. I would be ignoring an entire half of my personhood if I didn’t point out to those who view me as white that I am equally as Chinese. To me, it’s as if passing as white is a betrayal to my Asian heritage.

About 7 percent of the population at UC Santa Cruz identifies as multiracial. This number reflects the 7 percent of multiracial people in America. The option to identify as “two or more races” did not appear until the 2000 U.S. census.

It wasn’t until 2011 that the Department of Education began urging schools to make more diverse race options available to students on state-wide tests and college applications. This was an important step for mixed-race students simply because it acknowledged our existence.

No longer would students have to struggle while rigidly deciding between integral parts of themselves. I could now feel comfortable filling in the bubble next to “two or more races” while resting in the knowledge that others like me exist.

I might not be able to speak my family’s language fluently, but developments in population growth and cultural awareness have taught me that establishing identity is a process. Personally questioning this identity instilled within me the power to construct a place for myself that is comfortable socially.

Ignoring the importance of cultural identification is damaging to my understanding of myself. In a world where identity is so entwined with self-worth and inclusion, the consideration of overlap is necessary. As mixed-race people — the products of integrated cultures—we must be addressed and recognized not as a conflict, but as a celebration of diversity.