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.)