Talking About Race While Straddling Two Identities

Kimberlee Parton is a senior international studies major.

Right now, the dominant conversations about race in the United States are those that pit whiteness against persons of color. Apart from the #WhitePrivilege movement, there are entire public social media profiles and websites created by and dedicated to those who identify as persons of color trying to reclaim their cultures and validate their experiences in the face of a powerful white elite. The American historical narrative has brought us to this point and has made these types of conversations valid. But, I want to talk about race from a side of the conversation that is often ignored when discussing its meaning and implications in the United States: being of mixed racial descent, specifically in the case that one can “pass” as white.

“Racial passing,” is a term given to those who are classified as a member of one racial group, but are also accepted as a member of another racial group. In this country, this term was historically attributed to those of a minority racial group who could assume the identity of those in the dominant racial group based on their physical appearance in order to surpass racial segregation and discrimination. Today, this term is sometimes used to describe a mixed race person who can pass as white, and can be seen as offensive because it dismisses the struggle of reconciling two identities.

For some people of mixed racial descent, “racial passing” becomes problematic when trying to navigate conversations about race because personal identity can differ from social identity. And, I know that conversations about race are much more complex than being just “this” or “that,” or a mere combination of the two.

I can speak truth to this: my father is of white, Western European descent and my mother is of East Asian descent. I was raised by my single mother and our Japanese culture was dominant in my upbringing: the food, the music, the language, and the Shinto religion were all aspects of my childhood home. But because my physical appearance mirrors mostly that of my father, I exist in American society as white, the Japanese cultural heritage with which I identify most closely, aside.

In most of my classes at USF, and living in a city that aims to celebrate its diversity, conversations about identity and race are more often had than not. I am glad these conversations exist; I feel privileged that I have the ability to recognize difference because it helps me better understand not only myself, but others whose cultural, racial, or religious backgrounds are dissimilar to my own. It also makes me painfully aware that my physical appearance dictates the extent to which I feel I can participate in these conversations.

There is a lot of talk about white privilege and its role in politics, education, economics, media representations, social mobility, the law, etc. But, this talk is not necessarily new and white privilege is deeply embedded in our country’s foundational history. As someone who “passes” as white, it is important for me to remind myself that I have the responsibility to identify with the side of the conversation that I look like. In fact, I cannot deny that I have benefitted from white privilege in ways I do and perhaps, do not, recognize.

What is irksome for me, is that I often find myself questioning my own credibility when I participate in conversations about race because I do not fully identify with being white, and I thus fall into a space where I do not fit into either of the “white” or “Asian” worlds. Speaking about race in terms of a binary — a binary that is often limited to black/white, and as a woman of partial Asian descent I do not fit into — is incredibly limiting because my voice is restricted to a side of the conversation from which I do not feel I have the authority to speak, and at the same time denies my identity as a Japanese woman.

The 2010 census data show that people reporting to be of mixed race grew by 32 percent, compared to the 9.2 percent growth of those reporting a single race since 2000. If the census data are any indication that there is an increase in people who identify as being of mixed racial descent, there exists room for improvement in how they find themselves included and represented in American culture. The history of how people of mixed racial descent are talked about and depicted in American culture is that they are a product of a forbidden — or illegal — interracial relationship, and has now shifted to us being exoticized and fetishized, placing our identities in the category of “otherness.”

When it comes to race, if we are going to have meaningful conversations about what is considered culturally normative versus what is considered otherness, I want us to also consider that identity on neither side of the conversation is easily definable. Especially for those who are of mixed racial descent, and for others who are of mixed racial descent and “pass” as white, I want our histories, experiences, and cultures to also matter in these conversations by allowing us a space in which we feel we can participate.

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