In 2013, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 9 million Americans self-identify as multiracial. The people of this diverse community come in different shapes, sizes, ages, races, colors — the list goes on. In a society that is outlined by different races and their relations with one another, some people find it confusing when they can’t automatically classify someone.
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me, “Where are you from?” I feel as though I would be able to pay the tuition of every undergraduate student at Binghamton University. Sometimes I think about how much easier my life would be if I had an index card that read, “My mom is German, Armenian and other European things and my dad is black and Japanese,” that I could stick to my chest whenever I had to leave my house. While I am immensely proud of my multiracial identity, it is sometimes extremely wearing to explain this identity to people I will probably never see again.
I first want to say that I am aware of the privilege that being hard to racially categorize affords me. I have relatively light skin and I know that the way I look gives me preferential treatment and opportunities that I have not earned. It has also shielded me from outright discrimination because I am harder to classify.
Additionally, my mother is relatively dark for a white person and my father is relatively light for a person of color. This gives my family a pretty cohesive skin tone that may not automatically label us as an interracial family, consequently lessening invasive questions and comments.
If I have learned anything from the experience of being racially ambiguous, it is to never underestimate people’s audacity. When I was a baby, my facial features were a lot more stereotypically Asian, which meant that my mom and I looked very different from each other. This inspired complete strangers to come up to my stroller and ask my mom if she was my babysitter or congratulate her on choosing adoption.
I was lucky to grow up in a very racially diverse city where my brother and I were definitely not the only mixed-race kids in our schools. However, some comments managed to slip through the cracks. When I was in second or third grade, a girl turned to me in gym class and asked me, “Are you a mulatto?” While I can’t remember what or if I responded, the memory has stuck with me ever since.
One might hope that adults, at least, would have more tact when dealing with a topic as sensitive as racial identity, but one would be mistaken. For example, a common response from people after finding out that I’m a quarter Asian is, “Wow, I see it now, your eyes are pretty narrow.” A quick tip: You don’t need to “justify” someone’s race to them for it to be valid. So please don’t.
Once I got to a certain age, the questioning changed somewhat. The male population suddenly became very interested in my background. Interesting examples include an intoxicated man trying to pull me away from my friend on the streets of Germany because I “looked Brazilian or Middle Eastern,” and a man old enough to be my father deciding that using “What is your ethnic background?” as an ice breaker to try to get my phone number on a Metro-North train was a great idea. I can poke fun at the ridiculousness of these interactions now, but in the moment, they felt creepy and even dangerous.
I have been told by different people that I should be happy people take interest in my background. This might be easier to do if people didn’t question me about it like they were collecting information for a census or expect me to whip out a laminated copy of my Ancestry.com results at a moment’s notice. It’s not like I’m unwilling to share things about my identity; it’s quite the opposite, actually. I would just love to do it on my own terms without the input or badgering of others.
Annick Tabb is a sophomore double-majoring in English and political science.