Last week, my sister sent me an article about multiracial identities. (Read it here: http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/28/living/biracial-self-identity-study-feat/index.html) The story highlights the findings of researcher Lauren Davenport regarding the factors that influence racial self-determination in multiracial Americans. While biracial people have traditionally identified with their minority race, a growing number now identify as biracial. (Very few identify as only White.) Of particular interest to me was that biracial women and Asian-Americans who reside in the Pacific Northwest were more likely to identify as multiracial. The article really got me thinking about the implications in my life as well as in the lives of the children we as educators serve.
My sister and I were born in Washington State to a Vietnamese father and a White mother. Our parents separated before my birth, and we were raised by our mother and her parents. Both our parents remarried someone of the same race as them, so we have a White half-brother and a Vietnamese half-brother and half-sister. Due to lack of interest and effort on the part of our Vietnamese family (and perhaps lack of acceptance of children who were half), we saw little of them. Although I probably identified culturally with being White due to my upbringing, I identified racially as Asian through high school. When I entered college in 1999, I started to see different options for race on official forms, and I began to describe myself as multiracial.
I have been asked a lot of questions about my racial background throughout my life. When we were infants, people asked my mom, “Where did you get those babies?” As a little girl, my peers asked me, “What are you?” (My mom encouraged me to answer, “Human.”) People who think they are being sensitive ask, “What’s your nationality?” (Um, American.) When I was a student teacher, a parent asked me, “What kind of Oriental are you?” In the past, I have usually explained to people that I am part Asian because I know they just want to know why I am brown. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become frustrated with the questions from adults and, as a result, more facetious. Now, when I am asked, “Where are you from?” (often by people confused that I speak Spanish), I reply, “Washington State.” Their response is usually, “Yeah, but where are you FROM?”
Two situations in my past stand out to me:
In 2008, on my first trip to Honduras, I befriended some of the young men in the section called Arca de Noé. They were very confused by my appearance. Most of them referred to me affectionately as “la chinita,” which basically means little Chinese girl. I understood that Honduras has a tiny Asian population that is mostly Chinese, so I took it as the term of endearment it was meant to be. I did make a point of explaining that I am actually half Vietnamese and that Vietnam is a country to the south of China. One of the boys piped up, “Oh, I know what you are! You’re a geisha!” Now, an orphan growing up in a third world country can be excused, but an adult American is another story…
A few weeks ago, I listened to my husband (who is White) on the phone with the loan officer as we applied for our home loan. He was giving details about me, like Social Security Number and occupation, when I heard him say, “She’s biracial…well, she’s half-Vietnamese…her dad’s Asian and her mom’s White…so whatever you mark for that.” Exasperated, I yelled, “Oh, just tell her to mark Asian! That’s what she wants to know!”
After years of explaining myself to people, I’ve frankly gotten tired of the constant barrage of questions. I have never minded when children, who are genuinely curious and looking to make sense of the world, have asked. I always tell them that I am half-Vietnamese and half-White. I like being a biracial teacher for my multiracial students, and I am happy to help my other students with the disequilibrium that occurs when someone looks or behaves in a way that is different from what they know. And maybe that’s what other adults are trying to do – make sense of me. But I can’t help but feel like there are racist undertones.
So what does this mean for teachers of an increasingly multiracial student body? One of the most helpful concepts for me in my work in diversity is that of intersectionality. Intersectionality is the idea that our social identities overlap and intersect on multiple, simultaneous levels. All children, and all people, are a unique combination of identities. I am not defined by the independent categories of Vietnamese, White, agnostic, cisgender, mother, or educator, into which I fall. I am a complex composite of all of these and more. We need to ensure that students are not forced to choose a single identity. We must also guarantee that they don’t have to leave any of their many identities at home, as many children do when they are transgender, have LGBTQ parents, speak another language, or practice a religion other than Christianity. We must work to honor the identities of the children in our care.
Over the next several weeks, I will begin a series of posts entitled “Lessons That Honor Identity.” Each week, I will provide a new lesson that will help you toward the goal of a welcoming classroom for all. We may not be able to change the behavior of adults who subject others to inappropriate questions, but we can make serious headway in the work of equity as we educate a more empathetic and diverse generation.