By Amelie Liu*
Reading the latest news, I remain silent and unsurprised as my dumbfounded friends, teachers and primarily white family members gasp.
“Two Asian Women Beaten and Robbed in San Francisco.” “8 Dead in Atlanta Spa Shootings, With Fears of Anti-Asian Bias.” “Spit On, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese-Americans Fear for Their Safety.”
While COVID-19 has escalated discrimination against Asians, Asian-hate is not new to me, and it is especially not new in America. But in the wake of the recent Asian-hate crimes, I can’t stop thinking about the children of the victims — many of whom are multiracial, born in America and rarely considered in conversations about racism.
The challenges we face are growing, not going away. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, nearly half of all multiracial Americans were under 18 years old. A whole generation of children are experiencing racism this nation does not see, and even their parents cannot relate to.
But I can. A few weeks ago, I was excitedly, nervously talking with my friends about the fact that in just a year we’ll have our driver’s licenses. Then a boy on the other side of the cafeteria shouted at me: “How are you going to see the road through those eyes?” I told him it wasn’t funny. I told him it was racist. But after that moment, I felt utterly alone. That’s the experience of being a multiracial kid in America.
When I came home that day, my Jewish mom tried to comfort and relate to me, saying she had been bullied for being chubby as a teenager. I love my mom, but at that moment, I wished my Chinese dad was there. Even though he died when I was only 7, I thought that by seeing his face I would like the slenderness of my eyes, the flatness of my nose and the softness of my jawline. My looks are deceiving, just as the experience of being a multiracial kid in America is deceptively lonely. Looking back, I realize that even if my parents had both been there, they could not have changed the inadequacy I felt because neither of them is multiracial.
My favorite author, Peter Ho Davies, writes that a Chinese-American biracial individual’s experience is not that of the two identities on either side of the hyphen; instead, it is the hyphen itself. “In their various ways, they feel themselves to be insufficiently Chinese or insufficiently American. That’s a tragedy if you think the choice is either/or. But I’d argue that there’s a third alternative, that’s equally authentic.”
My third alternative has Chinese food on Rosh Hashana and matzo-ball-wonton soup at Thanksgiving. And even still, I feel eternal guilt that I didn’t go to Chinese school but was committed to hearing Torah stories at Sunday school. That I crave to learn about my Chinese ancestry but feel content with the knowledge I have of my Jewish side. That I felt closer to my bubbe than my nai nai.
Multiracial people have long faced discrimination in this country. From the time of slavery, through Jim Crow and even today, light-skinned Black people have experienced a tension between a pressure to “pass” as white (intentionally or not) and to embrace their Black identity — an accusation Vice President Kamala Harris experienced on both sides of the partisan aisle this past election. A recent study even showed that monoracial people believe mixed people to be more “cognitively demanding” than fellow monoracial people. Studies also show that mixed-race people have higher rates of mental health issues and substance abuse. Many endure the hatred of white America while simultaneously grappling with the “-American” part of their identity.
Hollywood tries to represent us. One may recall the female lead of the sitcom “Grown-ish” and the male lead of the film “Crazy Rich Asians” are like me, mixed race. Yet, Hollywood knowingly or unknowingly whitewashes the figures I used to look at and naively see myself in. Importantly, it does so at the expense of honoring the biracial identity and the identity of other minorities. Society looks at me and sees Chinese. Society tells me to check one box. Asian. Two if I’m lucky. Caucasian and Asian.
Society must recognize that multiracial people cannot be shoehorned into a single box, nor can they be expected to check all the boxes. It must stop taking one look at me, note my Chinese features, disregard my Jewish insides and decide to hate me. Identity runs much deeper than what’s visible on the surface. We must call greater attention to our nation’s third alternative, our hyphen. Our identity is complex. It’s not binary. It’s multilayered. And, it’s perfectly imperfectly mixed.
*Amelie Liu is a sophomore at the Laboratory Schools in Chicago. Ths article first appeared in The Chicago Tribune on April 16, 2021 and is reprinted with permission.