I'm Not White, But Nobody Can Ever Tell What Race I Am

I have to go through a “coming out” moment in every new relationship to explain my ethnicity.

Jul 25, 2014 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

My skin is pale olive in the winter and a soft brown in the summer, and my hair is a thick, dark mess of curls. I have eyes that are deep brown and almond-shaped. My maternal grandparents are immigrants who left their small village and came to America with the hope of creating a better life for future generations. They lived in California and worked in agriculture, and my mother was the first person in her family to attend college.

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A picture of me taken this summer at the river.

Chances are, the thought of my ethnicity has crossed your mind by this point—race is one of the most basic descriptors, so it’s normal to try and come to a conclusion in order to construct a basic identity for me. However, in my case, people are usually wrong—I have lived my entire life experiencing instances of racial misidentification. I am not Mexican, Italian, Puerto Rican, or black (some of the most common assumptions). People have projected various stereotypes onto me, spoken to me in languages they assumed I understood, and thrown around various racial comments in reference to their assumptions.

So… what am I?

My father is white, mostly of English descent, and my mother is Japanese. Both of my parents grew up in the United States, and I was raised without much connection to Japanese culture. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, a fairly progressive and liberal part of the country. The area I live in is predominantly white, however, and often I’m on the receiving side of an attempt to identify and understand my ethnic appearance. This has always made me self-conscious, and has been a constant reminder that I stood out.

“Hey, do you speak Spanish?” a co-worker recently asked me.

“Nah, I took it in high school, but who ever remembers that,” I replied.

She laughed and nodded. “So like, do people ever come up to you and just start speaking in Spanish anyway though?”

I recalled an instance two weeks earlier, when an associate from a different department approached me, speaking several sentences in Spanish before my blank expression prompted her to switch into fluent English instead.

“Yeah, it’s happened a few times. I don’t know why though, I’m not Hispanic.”

She stopped cleaning the counters and stared at me. “You’re not?”

I shook my head, hoping we could leave it at that.

“So like, what are you then?” she asked.

“I’m half Japanese and half white.”

She eyed me suspiciously. “Are you lying to me? Is this a joke?”

I laughed it off and shook my head. “No, I swear I’m Asian.”

“You don’t look Asian,” she said, “no offense.”

I shrugged.

Being racially misidentified always makes me question my own assertion of my identity. I’ve been told that I look a variety of races, and more than a few times I’ve been told that I look non-white but unidentifiable beyond that.

I have never had a solid tie to any ethnic identity. I’ve never really “felt” Japanese. I don’t know how to speak Japanese, and I can’t say I even know that much about the culture beyond the food and family values. My mother’s parents don’t speak English, so I have never had a real conversation with them.

To some degree, I’ve never really felt white either. Being white isn’t a tangible thing—it exists in privilege, status, and many other advantages that are easy to see from the outside but hard to identify from the inside. Toeing the line is a strange sensation.

But what does it even mean to embody your race? So much of what is expected of ethnic groups stems from stereotypes. Yes, I am quiet, studious, good at math, and I play a string instrument—but that isn’t because I’m Asian. My Asian mother is outgoing, outspoken, and avoids doing calculations in her head at all cost. My white father is a soft-spoken, reserved software programmer. Most of the “Asian” traits I embody are inherited from my father.

It used to bother me deeply when my white friends would list 5 or 10 ethnic groups they claimed distant ancestral affiliation with. You can call yourself one thing and nobody’s ever going to doubt it or get it wrong, I would think, why would you try and complicate that?

Most of the time when I’m misidentified, it’s a simple case of making a snap judgment without thought, like when a high school teacher thought a Korean accompanist I performed with at an assembly was my mother. These are associations made in an attempt to understand, to maybe validate the image of myself that others hold. Sometimes, though, comments about my race walk a dangerous and offensive line. There are some moments I wish I could go back to, times when I allowed those comments to slide.

“So like… what… like what are you?” a boy once asked me. We were alone in his room, the television halfheartedly displaying an infomercial in the background.

I smirked. “Are you asking what race I am?”

“Uh, yeah.”

The question kind of bothered me, but I didn’t want to seem rude, so I just answered. I had only known this boy for a few days, and we were barely a month into our freshman year of college. He already had a reputation with a lot of girls, and I’d done everything I could to be cool and distant when he started paying attention to me. The fact that I was basically ignoring him seemed to drive him crazy, though, and eventually I decided to give him a chance. 

“Well my mom is Asian, and my dad is white,” I replied.

He searched my face. “So like… what kind of Asian?”

“Japanese,” I told him.

He smiled. “I always thought that Japanese girls were prettier than Chinese girls.”

At the time I just smiled and didn’t say anything, just let the comment slide like his other backhanded, slightly off-color compliments (“You don’t talk a lot, and you don’t talk about yourself a lot, and most girls do. I dig it, it’s cool.”) I wanted so badly to seem like I didn’t care. More than anything, I was playing a game with myself, trying to prove that I could be even more removed from the situation than he was. Adjusting to college was a crazy and difficult time for me, and I just wanted to be in a situation where I knew the rules and how to play by them. So I didn’t say anything.

I wish I could go back to that moment and call him out on what he said—it’s a horrible and objectifying generalization to call one race more attractive than another. The temporary validation I received immediately gave way to more self-doubt after I left that night. Asian women are often fetishized, and his comments offended me. What I had done by letting it slide wasn’t keeping my cool, it was being passive to something too important to ignore. I was wish fulfillment, playing into a role that I should have known better than to allow.

Acting indifferent to his comments didn’t make a statement at all, and I realized that standing up for myself was really the stronger, if more difficult, thing to do. My identity means nothing if I just let people walk all over it.

There is certainly a lot more to the issue, but at a basic level, it’s important to remember that race doesn’t always relate to appearance, and that neither of those things influence personality traits. I don’t care if someone thinks I don’t “look” or “act” Japanese or white—I am half Japanese and half white, I have always been half Japanese and half white, and I will always be half Japanese and half white no matter what I look like or how I act. I’m still learning what that means to me, and I’m still learning how to present that to the world—but maybe it shouldn’t be that complicated.