“Please select one”: Growing up with a multiracial identity

Jaya Duckworth (second from right) and friends at a recent rally. (Photo courtesy Jaya Duckworth.)
Jaya Duckworth (second from right) and friends hold signs showing pride in multiracial identities at a school district-wide walkout in protest of the election of Donald Trump. (Photo courtesy Jaya Duckworth.)

“Race: Please select one”

It’s an instruction mixed-race people are all too familiar with. These days, surveys have become more nuanced, and usually read “select all that apply.” But growing up, I faced dozens of surveys, questionnaires, and tests that all made me choose one race.

As a half-white, half-Nepali child, I never knew what to select. Do I select white because I act like white kids and talk like white kids, go to school with white kids and have been raised like a white kid? Or do I select Asian because I look brown, because I eat curry, because on Christmas morning I always had to wait until puja was over at my Nepali grandparents’ house before I could open presents? White kids don’t do that, do they?

I usually ended up choosing “Other,” as if instead of being human, I was a stray dog; some lost object or animal that no one could categorize. Sometimes surveys also listed “multiracial,” which didn’t sit well with me either. The label feels like a message: here, these are the important races, and anyone who doesn’t fit these categories can be lumped together under the “mutt” category.

My identity was starkly different from the half-white, half-black kid who sat across from me in first grade, but on paper, we were one and the same.

So ever since I was a child, I’ve struggled with the idea of choosing one race over the other. It’s become evident that people feel the need to categorize mixed-race people as one race or the other, and fail to recognize their unique identity or experience. Both my sister and I have heard people say “You’re the whitest Asian person I know,” countless times. We have come to expect them to fail to recognize that perhaps we’re “the whitest Asians they know,” because we are, in fact, white.

People constantly make assumptions that we are either Asian or white, depending on how we behave in certain moments, how we carry ourselves, or how we interact with others.

What others don’t see is that my sister and I don’t live in a white world or an Asian world. We live in a distinct Venn diagram of our own, defined by our character, our family, and our personality, not limited by the stereotypes that accompany a single race.

Whenever I first meet someone, they ask different versions of the same awkwardly worded question.

The exchange usually goes something like this:

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from Seattle.”

“No, but where are you from?”

“I’m from Seattle.” They pause, unsure of what to say next.

I try to make them more comfortable, “My mom’s from Nepal, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Wow, that’s cool. You look so exotic.”

Every mixed-race person deals with a version of this conversation regularly. Or we get the even lovelier version:

“What are you?”

To which I always think, “I’m a human? I’m a little tired? I’m 5-foot-8? I’m hungry?”

But instead, I end up replying, “I’m half-Nepali, if that’s what you mean,” to spare us both the embarrassment. They don’t know any better, after all.

They think that knowing my mom is from Nepal, where I have visited once, will tell them more about who I am than knowing that I was born and raised in Washington state.

Mixed-race people are classified as “exotic,” as if we’re colorful birds meant to aesthetically satisfy the world around us. We’re asked “What are you?” as if we are some alien object that belongs on another planet and needs to be returned home safely.

I’m very much an American child, and a die-hard Seattleite, but people do not recognize this identity, and instead need to classify me as a specific race. They think that knowing my mom is from Nepal, where I have visited once, will tell them more about who I am than knowing that I was born and raised in Washington state.

This questioning doesn’t just come from white strangers, but from other people of color.

A few days ago I was sitting outside the gym at my school with one of my white friends, waiting for a pre-season varsity basketball meeting. My friend and I were doing AP Calculus homework when a couple of freshmen girls who were trying out for the team came and sat near us. I smiled, asked their names, and gave them mine. One of the girls, a young woman of color, looked down at my graphing calculator skeptically.

“Y’all are basketball players? You look like volleyball players.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about that girl’s comment for the rest of the day. Because I was doing homework with a white person, she had assumed I was white. So, she also assumed that I must not play basketball, which is a sport dominated by athletes of color, but volleyball, a stereotypically whiter activity. It didn’t cross her mind that I was as much a person of color as I am a white person. Because I was “acting” white, she figured I was white. My whole identity had been determined by her in a split second.

And it’s not only strangers. Some of my closest friends do it — and so do I.

This past summer, my friends and I were talking about whether Kanye West victimized Taylor Swift for including derogatory lyrics about her in his song “Famous.” Swift had addressed the issue publicly several times, acting as if she had been victimized. However, a few months later, West’s wife released a video of him calling Swift while writing the song and clearing the lyrics with her, proving that she hadn’t been mistreated after all.

While discussing this with my friends, I mentioned that I thought it was interesting how race played into this issue. The incident brought to my attention how our perception of black men is implicitly skewed to believe they are the aggressors in most situations, while white women easily become delicate and innocent victims in our minds.

I consider my friends all very progressive and generally very open-minded, most certainly not racist. I wasn’t trying to attribute the whole conflict to racial issues. I understood that West is known to have unlikable, narcissistic character traits that probably played into the situation, but I wanted to mention that I thought race could have been related.

I explained this as best I could, but one of my white male friends stuck by his opinion:

“You’re literally just looking for a reason to hate white people.”

I was taken aback by this comment. I am a white person, I thought. It struck me how he had reflexively categorized me as a person of color because I was speaking about a platform about institutionalized racism, even though I am as much white as I am brown. I was once again being placed into a specific racial category based on how I had acted in the situation. As he saw it, because I was arguing a point about racial bias in the media, I couldn’t have been a white person, or even a totally objective bystander, but I must be a person of color, unnecessarily angry at white people and complaining about micro-aggressions.

I subconsciously categorize myself as either a white person or a person of color — and switch to the identity that is advantageous.

Now, I’ll be honest, I myself participate in the single story about mixed race people all the time. I subconsciously categorize myself as either a white person or a person of color — and switch to the identity that is advantageous.

I have the socioeconomic, educational, and cultural privilege of a white person, while I’m also granted the platform and stance of a person of color when talking about racial injustice.

Because I look brown, I’m tokenized by groups seeking to appear more diverse in their pictures, while in reality my life more closely aligns with those of the white members of these programs. I have to remind myself that I’m very much a white person that benefits from anti-blackness in society, and my experience is not the same as that of a person of color who faces oppression on a daily basis.

My whole life, society, myself included, has categorized me as either one race or the other, without regard to my separate identity. It is only recently that I have stopped trying to decide which race I was “more” of and come to love my experience as a biracial person.

I’ve begun to realize that it’s OK that I don’t feel like I belong in the Asian community or the white community, like I don’t fit into any one culture and their practices. I’ve started to call people out when they try to place me and my identity in a box for their convenience, attempting to make people more aware of the distinct identity of multiracial people. I’ve stopped thinking that I need to act more Asian or more white in different situations, and started to really accept and come to terms with my individual experience.  

Now, when I’m asked, “What are you?” instead of letting someone classify me as a specific race or identity, an exotic bird, an extraterrestrial being, a white person or a person of color, I simply say, “I’m Jaya. What are you?”

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10 Comments

  1. Thank you for a very well-written, informative and enjoyable piece! My closest friends here in Germany are biracial families raising their kids in a third culture, and their children are now beginning to form their own unique identities. I myself am American, but have lived in Germany longer than in the US. While our perspectives sometimes differ, we still have much in common, and our friendships have held strong for the past quarter century. I could identify with much of what you wrote. Please keep on writing, and keep up the good work!

  2. Great writing. I’m a teacher and I’ll be using your article at my own school, as a resource for a seminar on Mixed-Race identities. I know your writing will resonate with my students.

  3. Thanks for sharing Jaya! I completely identify with a lot of what your experiences have been. Nicely done.

  4. Wonderful story to read. I am white European man and my wife is Nepalese and we have a daughter who is almost 5 years old. She can see that she have darker skin then me, but I always remind her that this is because she and her mother are from Nepal and she is proud of that. Luckily here in Europe mixed children and people are not that of a big issue.

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