You can’t go with this or that…you can only go with OTHER

I was on a conference call the other night for the committee that evaluates board nominations for all the different arms of our denomination. Someone was giving his report on the makeup of the NAPAD board (North American Pacific and Asian Disciples), of which I’m a member. He said, “Well, their racial-ethnic percentages are great–almost all Asian American, obviously, and a couple of ‘Others’ and an Anglo.” I didn’t pay much attention–the regional minister who sits on our board is half Latina, and the General Ministry partner is Anglo. Then he said, “Now, they’re almost all in the 50-59 category with practically none in the 30-39 category.”
“Wait a minute,” I thought to myself, “on a board of 12, Cindy and I are both 30-39.” I flipped to the excel spreadsheet he was reading from, and I quickly interrupted, “Um, I’m on this board, and I just want to clarify that I’m still quite a few years from the 40-49 box.”
“That’s when a friend of mine on the conference call said, “And you’re Asian American.”
I looked over. And sure enough: the box that my own community had checked for me was “Other.”
Now I’ve often joked that I’m Asian enough for NAPAD to send off to represent them on other committees but not really Asian enough to be considered Asian within our own gatherings. But this wouldn’t have felt so uncomfortable if it weren’t for the fact that I keep thinking, “Even while I know this is my community of accountability, and while I’m nurtured and supported by it, it’s still a conditional membership.”
A lot of our racial identity is imposed on us by others. I bridle when White folks that I love (and sometimes that I don’t even know) say, “I don’t think of you as a person of color.” It frustrates me that the way I’ve been raised and shaped culturally gets erased with that statement, as do my actual experiences of racism. It irritates me a little that my lived experience doesn’t matter to them as much as the box they’ve created for me based on what they see.
But I ache when people of color (and particularly when South Asian folks) say the same thing. And perhaps it’s my light skin privilege that makes me ache, because a part of me is aching due to the fact that although I COULD pass, I choose to stake my claim in my marginalized community and work for justice and inclusion and cultural fullness of expression by my community. (Some of my anti-racism colleagues would point out it’s not really a choice, because to live my life “passing” would mean sacrificing part of the core of who I am, and always risking that my real cultural identity would still potentially alienate me from the dominant culture–no matter how White I looked after 9/11, that wasn’t going to stop me from getting more frequently “randomly searched” than my Anglo colleagues, for example.) And part of me aches just from the sheer fact that I’ve been reminded yet again that I will spend the rest of my life justifying my location within my community whenever I interact with anyone new. (And truth be told, there are colleagues of mine in NAPAD who simultaneously know I’m an active leader within NAPAD for going on 10 years, and they still leave me out when counting how many racial-ethnic people are in a room.)

I remember reading a column in the Chicago Tribune when I was in high school. A sports journalist, a light-skinned mixed race woman who was usually discernable to others as “exotic” rather than as half-Black and half-White, wrote about her own journey to self-identification. She was in the locker room with some basketball players and one of them asked her (after the inevitable “what are you?” that ALL hapas, or mixed race folks, hear throughout their lives), “So what do you identify as, White or Black?”
She answered similar to what I’ve been trained to (and do in fact believe) that while she knew she could pass, she resonated with her Black heritage as the community that accepted her and raised her, and that she understood herself to be Black.
One of the other players looked at her and shook his head. “Naw,” he responded, “You don’t get to choose either one. You’re OTHER. You don’t have a choice on that.”

And Other means getting to walk between worlds, and it means getting to be a bridge, and it means hearing things that other folks in your community don’t get to hear and understanding jokes and shorthand from both communities–it means being culturally bilingual. But it also means not ever fully landing or being at home. And it means being accepted and not accepted simultaneously all the time and feeling that tension repeatedly–and always feeling the resulting ache.

There are far worse problems to bear, and I’m grateful for the richness that comes with being both, but I don’t so much love being other.

(I’d particularly love to hear from any of my Hapa or mixed race friends about their different experience or different sense or analysis of this issue.)

Comments (5)

  1. Candyce

    So I have a couple of thoughts on this….I have two biological parents who identify as African-American and step-parent who raised me who identifies as White American. It is often assumed that my non-biological parent is in fact my biological parent because of my complexion. After participating in a DNA study it was shown that my ancestral composition was 55% african ancestry 45% european ancestry and 5% asian ancestry. The tricky thing about “race” and its many varied boxes that it imposes on people is I had a pretty good idea that some of my “african-american” grand-parents are infact “bi-racial” or even “tri-racial” but due to the politics in North America they were considered black and identify thusly one drop rule and all. That being said the other political item in black american culture in both North and South America complexion and hair texture affects “caste”. SO all of that being said my darker complected bretheren see me as an “other” often just as my fairer complected brethen….. I have freckles and very pale skin that burns badly in the sun much like my Grandmother who has blue eyes freckles and red hair….but we are both still too black for the Daughter’s of the Revolution and too white for some black folk to consider “black” for “real”….its crap but thats what it is~

  2. Hope

    My niece is half black and half white. Black women pick on her because she’s mixed with farer skin and green eyes. Whites single her out as black and are racist. She identifies as both. She says she looks and is treated as if she were Greek. I can see that. She is really beautiful. When I was raising her with my white kids; neighbors asked a lot of questions. And treated us all like we were either doing something really special; raising the black mixed kid … (oh, how cute) or stayed away. Very few would just treat us all straight up. It’s all bullshit!!!

  3. Yuki Schwartz

    Grateful for such a profound and courageous reflection on the perils and joys of being hapa/other/mixed/multi/whatever box applies. I have been on a very long road of ferreting out my racialized identity, going from the “half-Japanese” that I grew up with (even though my mother kept insisting that we kids were white), to hapa to now realizing how being multiracial means playing the role of the trickster. We unsettle and we upset, and like you said, because we are between, we hear and witness things we might not if our identities were so clear cut. We can walk into worlds where we might not if our identities are so clear cut. Having come to the understanding of how identity is not just relational but also political, I tend to identify myself more as a woman of color than anything, but I also enjoy throwing myself into the mix whenever I discuss the white privilege (not only because of my ancestry and upbringing, but heavens to murgatroid we all know that white privilege can affect you no matter your race! And white people, we cannot fix a problem like white privilege if we deny that we’re part of it!). At the same time, I also claim full standing in the APIA community, despite my ancestry and upbringing and history, because it illuminates that there is no single story to what it is to be APIA.

    Now that that’s out of the way — sorry to have missed you at AAR this year!!

  4. Lindsey Anderson

    I love Yuki’s comment about playing the role of the trickster! It reminds me of my dad (who is also mixed race) and derives great pleasure from catching others in those awkward moments of racial ASSumptions. My experience of those moments more frequently feels like the ache that Ms. Jha names above; two sides of the same die, I suppose. As I read I was reminded of the moments when I have felt more at home in the company of other mixed race peoples, than I have, at times, in my communities of origin; and how it was some of my hapa friends who were the ones that taught me, as a White-Black-Native American, that I was also a person of color. I find a great strength among that increasing collective that inhabits that middle ground, that ‘other’ space, especially in the moments when we reclaim it for ourselves, nuancing and framing it as bridge, traveler, bi-linguist, trickster.

  5. Calia

    This was a beautifully insightful piece to share, thank you. But as for one of the comments that followed, I must express some concern. I have seen quite a few examples of people self-declare as “trickster” because it allows abdication of responsibility under the guise of righteously careless educator. There is a very valid reason that trickster in most mythologies has no friends — she is unable to connect with community not because of an inherent nature, but by conscious choice. Trickster’s greatest lie is to herself. So be who you choose to be authentically, belong where want to belong in the real world as Sandhya Jha has; but don’t ever hide behind a mask, “trickster” or otherwise.

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