“So, like, what are you?”
“Um, kind of hungry. You?”
“No, I mean where are you from?”
“No, I mean … where are your parents from?”
Every now and then I get to play a game called “Guess My Race.” Race is one of the ways people categorize someone they have just met, and when you are ambiguously brown like I am, people might make assumptions or ask outright. If they are trying to be politically correct, they’ll swap out race for ethnicity or conflate the two and ask me if I am Latina or something.
Being multiracial has an awkward, sordid history in the U.S. The first multiracial children were born of a Native American and a settler or soldier then later, at the height of slavery, between a slave and their master. English colonies in the 1700s passed laws that assigned race to a child based on that of their mother, mostly so white male slaveowners could have children with their slaves and not be responsible for those children.
Laws preventing interracial marriage sprang up in the 18th century, and children resulting from these technically illegal unions were given the race of their minority parent. Places like New Orleans had special designations for those who were half-minority or eighth-minority. It was not until 1967, fifty years ago this June, that the Supreme Court decision Loving versus Virginia ruled these anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional and struck down the interracial marriage ban. Fifty years out of the United States’ 240 years as an official country and nearly 400 years of settlement is not a long time.
Even now, multiracial people in the U.S. come across little hiccups leftover from past eras. When I would fill out forms for school, I always wound up selecting “Other” under the race/ethnicity category, or sometimes “Asian” or “Pacific Islander” if I wanted to be specific, since — despite being half-white — I cannot pass as white. It is only recently that I have even seen “Two or More Races” as an option, or been able to select multiple options at once. Some multiracial people I know, identify with the race they pass for, and if you are half-white like me, you might get lumped in with your minority ancestry. For example, multiracial Barack Obama self-identifies as African-American. It can be a point of pride or a point of convenience, depending on how someone chooses to play their identity politics.
You will not find a universal multiracial experience either. Some people like the term “mixed,” some find it crude. Some have been bullied for not belonging to a specific group, some feel like a novelty. My experiences as a white/Asian girl from Atlanta vary from someone who is white/black or black/Native American or Pacific Islander/Asian/black/anything from another part of the country. There can be an implied otherness to being of more than one race, and you can struggle with your identity if other people treat you differently for it. Fortunately, the strangest thing I have ever been called is ‘exotic’ (multiple times), despite having lived in Atlanta all my life, but it does make me wonder if people would still say that if I had more stereotypical “average American” features, like lighter skin and hair.
How do you play Guess My Race? It can be a common courtesy minefield. “What are you?” is not necessarily a malicious question, but it does stem from a culture where the default American is white and being a minority comes with a hyphenated precondition, like African-American or Asian-American. With the number of interracial relationships and multiracial Americans on the rise, our assumptions about race and ethnicity will shift as well.
While open-minded people aim to treat everyone equally, the trick is remembering that while race may only be skin deep, experiences go all the way to a person’s core, and race can shape a person just as much or more than any other characteristic they are born with. Human beings come in too many different combinations to be something as simple as Other. I prefer Check All That Apply.