When someone asks me, “What are you?” the conversation usually goes something like this:
“So… what are you?”
“I’m mixed, half Chinese and half white.”
“No way! I had no idea.”
“Like, one of your parents is full Chinese?”
“But you look white!”
“Can I guess if it’s your mom or dad who’s Chinese? I bet it’s your mom.”
“Yeah. She was born and raised in Trinidad, though. She’s never been to China. And my dad’s from the UK.”
“That’s crazy. Do you speak Chinese?”
“No, I don’t speak Cantonese or Mandarin. Or Hakka, which is actually what that side of my family speaks.”
“That’s so cool.”
To be honest, I don’t want to have this conversation. I want to shut it down and move on.
It’s not that I don’t want to talk about or I’m embarrassed of my heritage. I think it’s in large part how the subject is usually broached:
Like kids who think they’ve caught a beetle, people start out curious about me because I look a bit different.
Then they notice the beetle’s wearing a bow tie. Weird!
Further investigation required. Time to grab the microscope.
(Yes, in this case the beetle is me. No, I’m not crazy about being examined.)
Plus, ‘mixed’ doesn’t feel like an identity to me. I don’t feel like it says anything about my lived experience or creates a sense of community with others who would also identify as ‘mixed’.
The experiences of mixed race people are incredibly diverse. As a white-presenting, cisgendered, straight woman, I experience a great deal of privilege. Being a racial mix of white and Chinese (or any Asian heritage) is also commonly seen as a positive attribute (though it can certainly deteriorate into objectification and othering of the ‘exotic’ – in high school, a girl once said to me, “Half Asians are either, like, amazingly beautiful or super ugly.”)
Only other mixed people are able to really relate to my experiences as a mixed person. But, I find, we rarely talk about it. Every time–except for one–that I’ve met another mixed person, we mostly ignore this thing we have in common. We might exchange a nod or a short conversation about our ethnic backgrounds, a brief laugh about the annoyance of getting asked “What are you?”, but it rarely goes beyond that.
I’m certainly part of the reason for that, and I’ve only recently begun to consider why.
I think it’s because I don’t want to chance having that same “what are you” conversation again, and I want to be respectful of the fact that they probably don’t want to have it either. It’s because I’m acutely aware that I look white and I assume they don’t think we have anything in common. It’s because it’s just a little… awkward.
Increasingly, I’m thinking that my awkwardness comes from not feeling like ‘mixed’ is an identity. ‘Mixed’ feels more like a placeholder, a sticky note holding the page until we get more information. Go a layer deeper, and we’ll know if we actually have something in common: I’m ethnically half Chinese and half white, and you’re half Filipino and half Jamaican? Cool. I guess we’ll stop the conversation there. But wait! My mother’s from Trinidad? Now we can reminisce about having parents from the Caribbean.
I think those of us who are mixed race have important lived experiences that we could and should build a community around, and that we’d get a lot from having that kind of community. Perhaps I feel the absence of a community more acutely because I don’t feel particularly connected to any of the ethnic communities of my heritage – I haven’t been in touch with my mother or her family since I was a teenager, and my father and stepmum (both Brits) have never been part of that community.
It could be we need a better word in order for this to happen. But ‘mixed’ is the least offensive option I’ve come across so far. That doesn’t mean it’s the right one. But if you call me a ‘halfer’—or worse yet a ‘mixie’—it may get me picturing your face covered in Slimer slime.
The only other linguistic option I feel is feasible right now is ‘beige’.
“What are you?”
Just picture the awesomely puzzled looks.
It’s not only different language that’s needed, but it’s an important piece. We need a better word than ‘mixed’, one that denotes a common experience and promotes community. Something that the people who fall into the category actually want to claim, to own as an identity.
I just don’t know what it is yet.