Bonnie Tsui, The New York Times

December 14, 2015

I never realized how little I understood race until I tried to explain it to my 5-year-old 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.

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