The Spectrum: Deconstructing whiteness from a multiracial perspective

Laura Carther , Op-Ed Contributor

Writing about my own identity has always been a challenge for me. The way I have identified myself and the way I have been identified by others has been so varied and fluid throughout my life that when I try to pin it down, I am still unable to make sense of the jumble of situations and conditions. I have started and restarted this article a dozen times, but none of the experiences I tried to open with seemed encompassing enough.

So I’d like to just begin by being as honest as possible.

What am I? I am a woman of color. I am Asian American. Both terms that are common enough today, but come from origins heavily rooted in radical politics and resistance against white hegemony. Yet I also carry whiteness within me, both in the genetic and cultural context. My heritage is as equally white as it is Chinese. So why do I struggle so much to say, “I am white?” When I visit my white relatives, who keep track of my activities via Facebook, they want to know, “Why are you so much more proud of being Asian than being white?” It’s true that I identify much more heavily with being Asian American: I am an Asian American Studies major and I’m a very active member of both an Asian-interest sorority and Northwestern’s Asian Pacific American Coalition.

Passing for white

Passing can be a complicated subject for mixed people. For some, being able to pass as white is desirable as a way of gaining privilege and access to places normally not available to people of color. On the other hand, passing can also mean denying or erasing one’s nonwhite heritage. Passing is also not always voluntary. Passing can be conditional and situational, resulting in a kind of chameleon effect where one’s identity is always in flux depending on who the perceiver is.

In my own experience, I’m still not sure to what extent I am capable of passing. Appearance-wise, I’m sure from a distance I could pass as white. However, to my knowledge I’ve never had a white person believe I was white upon meeting me up close. They can always tell that I look a little different from them and usually proceed to ask questions until they can satisfactorily categorize me.
One summer, at a new job, I got so frustrated with being constantly asked to justify my appearance that I instead began handing out business cards explaining my background. On the other hand, the only people I’ve ever had think I was completely white are other Asians. Perhaps people are just good at noticing when others are different from them.

“What are you?”

This is a question I’ve heard countless times, from countless people, in countless places. At this point in history, with so many multiracial people coming into the spotlight and speaking about their experiences, sometimes I wonder why I still get asked that question.

Multiraciality isn’t new, after all. Multiracial people have existed for hundreds of years. The only difference is that now, we are perceived as desirable. “Ethnic ambiguity” has come into trend, so much so that it’s impossible to watch 20 minutes of television without seeing a racially ambiguous body used to advertise any variety of products.

The way I’ve answered this question has changed a lot throughout the years. My face is marked with this question. I carry the curiosity of every person I’ve ever met on my shoulders. Sometimes it’s a burden, other times simply entertaining. At times, it’s certainly useful to be able to judge a person’s character instantly based on their manner of approaching me.

There’s a kind of exhaustion that comes with every person I meet demanding to know my family history. It’s a constant reminder that I live in a racialized body, which has the capability of molding to whatever fantasy its beholder may want to impose upon my skin. Because I have an unusual racial identity, there are rarely spaces in which I won’t be racialized differently from others in that space, and therefore there are rarely spaces in which I can escape racialization.

However, as I have grown older, and especially during my time at Northwestern, I’ve run into more and more mixed Asians. And while no one else may be able to figure us out, we can recognize each other instantly. My mixed friends and I call it our sixth sense.

The joy of recognition

There’s a special type of joy that comes with recognizing that someone is like you, recognizing a shared background, a shared experience, a shared identity. Some people get this all the time. Some people see themselves everywhere they go, in every passing face, every blockbuster film and every big news story. Other people only see themselves in certain places — in the neighborhood they grew up in, in a club at school. And sometimes, you grow up not seeing anyone like you. Sometimes you never see your face fully reflected in someone else’s.

My experience with other multiracial Asian Americans is that we often don’t discuss this reflection. Every time I meet another one of us, there’s a spark inside that goes unacknowledged. When we’ve gone so long without recognition, perhaps we’re too used to keeping it to ourselves. The way I’ve wrestled with the question of my identity has changed a lot throughout the years. It’s a lot to work on within myself while simultaneously carrying the curiosity of every person I’ve ever met on my shoulders. I know that reconciling myself with holding so many identities will be a lifelong project, and I have accepted that I might never reach a satisfying conclusion.

Laura Carther is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.