‘What are you?’ How multiracial Americans respond and how it’s changing

Growing up in a predominantly white suburb of Washington, D.C., photojournalist Daniella Zalcman didn’t get to go to school with a single other Vietnamese person — nor anyone, like herself, who was of mixed Vietnamese heritage. Instead, she got “ridiculous questions” about whether she was a “war baby.”

Fast forward to college, when Zalcman, now 34, walked into her Vietnamese language class and saw the other students in the room: Five women, all of them of part-Vietnamese background. “It was such a funny relief to immediately find this group of people who understood all my jokes, all of these different things that were part of who I was,” she told NBC Asian America.

As someone of part-Asian ancestry, she said, it wasn’t until then that she could really share the experience of “what it means to have to navigate your own identity as an American, all of these different cultures that are a part of who you are and matter to you and are important to you, but [are] often at odds with each other.”

Daniella Zalcman.Courtesy Daniella Zalcman

Cultural awareness and prevalence of part-Asian people is rising with their numbers in the United States. As of about five years ago, Asians and multiracial people had become the fastest-growing demographic groups in the country.

It’s a phenomenal shift since the time of Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court ruling that struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriages.

In reviewing 2018 data from the U.S. Census, the Pew Research Center found that about 6.2 million adults in America reported being of two or more races. Of those, 20 percent were white and Asian American, while two percent were black and Asian American.

From 1980 to 2015, the share of multiracial and multiethnic babies born in the U.S. tripled — although still only 14 percent of the total number of births, according to Pew. While the majority of multiethnic babies had either one white and one Hispanic parent or two multiracial parents, Pew found 14 percent had one white and one Asian parent, three percent had one Hispanic and one Asian parent, and one percent had one black parent and one Asian parent.

Some of the more recent focus on people of mixed-AAPI heritage has been thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother and father emigrated to the U.S. from India and Jamaica, respectively, and who has openly discussed how both parts of her identity have shaped her as a person and a public official.

As Asians have gained prominence in American society, so have those of mixed-Asian heritage in other areas of public life. Tennis phenomenon Naomi Osaka is of Japanese and black heritage. Millions hang on every word of model and author Chrissy Teigen, who is of Thai and European descent. DC blockbuster “Aquaman” has grossed more than $1 billion with a cast led by Jason Momoa, who’s part Native Hawaiian and part white. Musical success stories range from Bruno Mars (part Filipino) to Ne-Yo (part Chinese) to Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (part Korean). The list goes on and on.

It wasn’t always that way — or at least it wasn’t so openly discussed.

When photographer Kip Fulbeck embarked on what would become the 2006 landmark project “Part Asian, 100% Hapa,” showcasing portraits of multiracial Asian people accompanied by their own answers to an all-too-familiar question — “What are you?” — he was filling a gap he’d felt in his own childhood of growing up part=Chinese.

“I would’ve liked to have that book when I was seven,” he said. “It wasn’t there. So I made it.”

To his surprise, the photo sessions — pulled together before the mainstreaming of Facebook — drew droves of people who wanted to participate. Many were people who wanted to give their own response to the question of what they were, who wanted to be not just part something, but part of something.

Kip Fulbeck speaks at the Remy Martin Circle Of Centaurs event in West Hollywood, Calif., on April 7, 2015.Charley Gallay / Getty Images for Remy Martin file

Mixed-race people have described a rainbow of experiences. Some say being of mixed cultures has made life richer and more inclusive; others talk of struggling for acceptance by one side or another of their roots, of feeling internal or external pressure to embrace — or reject — part of who they are, or getting used to checking the box for “other” on forms.

Actively spending time in a place with a larger hapa population “really blows your mind in two ways,” said Fulbeck, who remembers being targeted while growing up in a white neighborhood. On the one hand, “It’s like, ‘Oh my G-d, [I’ve] found my tribe,’ but I’ve also seen people like, ‘Oh, I’m no longer special. I’m no longer memorable…’ Some people react in [a] weird kind of cultural footing in how to deal with that. I’ve seen that before.’

Probably the easiest place in the U.S. for a mixed AAPI person to run that gamut of emotions is Hawaii. It’s not surprising that “hapa,” a Hawaiian-language term for “half,” has become a go-to for describing people of more than one race.

While the linguist Keao NeSmith, an expert in Hawaiian and Polynesian language, said the use of the word “hapa” in Hawaiian to describe multiracial people dates back to the 1830s, pinpointing the term’s jump to the mainland U.S. and its expansion to encompass a wider group of (largely) mixed-race East Asians is a little more complicated.

Paul Spickard, distinguished professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and scholar of race and ethnicity, recalls “hapa” being used “occasionally” in West Coast Japanese American communities in the late 1960s or early 1970s and somewhat later among continental Chinese Americans and Filipinos.

“The word’s arrival on the West Coast around 1970 fits with the rise in national awareness of Hawaii that came with several developments” in the preceding decades, Spickard said — from the island’s role in World War II, Hawaii becoming part of the U.S. in 1959, increased tourism from the mainland to Hawaii in the 1950s and 1960s, and the growing presence of the islands in pop culture.

“Americans at large were becoming aware of Hawai’i and thinking about it as part of the United States,” Spickard said. “With air travel and rising middle-class status, more continental Asian Americans were traveling to Hawaii, frequently to visit relatives. As the postwar generation of Asian Americans also began to include a few mixed-race people, the word that people learned in the islands — where, by the 1960s it was being applied not just to people who were mixed haole and Hawaiian but to anyone who was mixed — began to be applied to those mixed people in continental Asian American communities. ‘Hapa’ was being used quite commonly in West Coast Asian American communities by the early 1980s.”

Pew studies have found that Hawaii by far leads all other states in the percentage of residents who identify as being of two or more races. Nearly 25 percent of people in Hawaii identified as multiracial. Most of them, more than 20 percent, actually identified as being of three backgrounds — a combination of white, Asian and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.

Keao NeSmith.Courtesy Dana Edmunds

NeSmith, who is of Native Hawaiian and European ancestry, said in his experience, “hapa” isn’t a loaded term in Hawaii, where people of mixed background have become an accepted norm over many decades of island immigration and intermarriage.

“In general, I get the feeling that the way people use ‘hapa’ in the States is different than how we use it here in Hawaii … The way locals understand it is people of mixed race, often there is an idea that when you use the term that part of your mix is Hawaiian, [but] that isn’t always the case. It can be anything, any combination, any racial mix,” NeSmith said. In fact, he says, hapa as a word “is not specific to race at all. It’s just a combination of stuff. It just means ‘a part’ of anything.”

In a reversal from centuries of mainland American practice, NeSmith adds, in Hawaii, it’s not mixing that seems odd — but is still practiced — among some ethnic groups. Partly for that reason, he doesn’t think the use of “hapa” carries negative connotations.

That’s not true for everybody: Writer Akemi Johnson said she stopped using “hapa” to describe herself after she delved into the backstory of the term for a 2016 piece for National Public Radio. In it, she grappled with the longing of mixed AAPI — including herself — to have a name for the mosaic of their heritage. But she also spoke to people who described the term as having had, at least at one point, the connotations of a slur or said the term could only rightfully be claimed by people of part-Native Hawaiian heritage.

“After I wrote that piece, it was clear to me that I could no longer use ‘hapa’ to describe myself or other mixed-race Asian Americans. I couldn’t ignore someone telling me it felt like identity theft, and I understand the larger issues of colonialism and appropriation that the broad use of the term represents to some people,” said Johnson, author of “Night in the American Village: Women in the Shadow of the US Military Bases in Okinawa.”

Akemi Johnson.Courtesy Akemi Johnson

These days, she said, “I use a variety of words to describe myself — Japanese American, mixed-race, biracial, half white and half Japanese — depending on the context and my mood. Increasingly, I find it less important to have one term for my racial identity. I recognize that race and the language to describe it are fluid, and my identity is grounded elsewhere.”

While mixed-race people, including AAPI, may be growing in number, the total is still relatively small. What kind of acceptance children of this next generation may find in the years ahead remains to be seen. Anti-Asian hate crimes have spiked amid the pandemic And in a time of racial tensions, some followers of white supremacist ideology now want the creation of a white ethnostate specifically intended to prevent race mixing, which ostensibly makes hapa people even more of an enemy than AAPI.

It will take time, but ultimately, “Love and human connection and blended families and getting to know people from other cultures [in] long term, intimate ways is what makes us better people and more informed people and more empathetic people,” said Zalcman, the photojournalist.

“I know [it’s] a lot more work when you are getting to know someone who comes from a culture that is not yours, but it’s also, it’s good for us, and so I think that there’s something incredible about the fact that that is becoming more and more common — and that’s what we need.”



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