Choose Your Own Identity
I never realized how little I understood race until I tried to explain it to my 5-year-old son. Our family story doesn’t seem too complicated: I’m Chinese-American and my husband is white, an American of English-Dutch-Irish descent; we have two children. My 5-year-old knows my parents were born in China, and that I speak Cantonese sometimes. He has been to Hong Kong and Guangzhou to visit his gung-gung, my father. But when I asked him the other day if he was Chinese, he said no.
“You’re Chinese, but I’m not,” he told me, with certainty. “But I eat Chinese food.” This gave me pause. How could I tell him that I wasn’t talking about food or cultural heritage or where we were born? (Me, I’m from Queens.) I had no basis to describe race to him other than the one I’d taken pains to avoid: how we look and how other people treat us as a result.
My son probably doesn’t need me to tell him we look different. He’s a whir-in-a-blender mix of my husband and me; he has been called Croatian and Italian. More than once in his life, he will be asked, “What are you?” But in that moment when he confidently asserted himself as “not Chinese,” I felt a selfish urge for him to claim a way of describing himself that included my side of his genetic code. And yet I knew that I had no business telling him what his racial identity was. Today, he might feel white; tomorrow he might feel more Chinese. The next day, more, well, both. Who’s to say but him?
Racial identity can be fluid. More and more, it will have to be: Multiracial Americans are on the rise, growing at a rate three times as fast as the country’s population as a whole, according to a new Pew Research Center study released in June. Nearly half of mixed-race Americans today are younger than 18, and about 7 percent of the U.S. adult population could be considered multiracial, though they might not call themselves that. The need to categorize people into specific race groups will never feel entirely relevant to this population, whose perceptions of who they are can change by the day, depending on the people they’re with.
种族身份可能是变化的。情况必将越来越如此。皮尤研究中心(Pew Research Center)于6月发布的一项新研究显示，多种族美国人的人数在增加，速度是全国人口增幅的三倍。如今，近一半的美国混血儿不满18岁，大约7%的美国成年人可以被认定为多种族，尽管他们可能不会自称混血儿。这个群体永远不会觉得需要把人划归到具体种族这一点和自己有很大的关系。他们对自己是谁的看法可能每天都在变，具体要看他们和谁在一起。
Besides, the American definition of race has always been in flux. For one thing, context mattered: In 1870, mixed-race American Indians living on reservations were counted as Indians, but if they lived in white communities they were counted as whites. Who was “white” evolved over time: From the 1870s to 1930s, a parade of court rulings pondered the “whiteness” of Asian immigrants from China, Japan and India, often changing definitions by the ruling in order to exclude yet another group from citizenship. When mixed-race people became more prevalent, things got murkier still. Who the U.S. Census Bureau designated “colored” or “black” varied, too, before and after slavery, and at times including subcategories for people of mixed race, all details often left up to the whims of the census taker. In 1930, nativist lobbyists succeeded in getting Mexicans officially labeled nonwhite on the census; up until then, they were considered white and allowed citizenship. By 1940, international political pressure had reversed the decision. It wasn’t until 2000 that the Census Bureau started letting people choose more than one race category to describe themselves, and it still only recognizes five standard racial categories: white, black/African-American, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.
此外，美国对种族的定义也一直在变。首先，环境很重要：1870年，生活在保留地的混血美国印第安人被算成印第安人，但如果生活在白人社区，他们就会被算作白人。随着时间的推移，谁是“白人”的定义不断演变：从19世纪70年代到上世纪30年代，有一系列衡量来自中国、日本和印度的亚洲移民是否属于“白人”的法庭裁决。它们常常用裁决的形式改变定义，为的是拒绝承认另一个群体有资格申领公民身份。当混血儿变得更多见时，情况也变得愈发模糊不清。在奴隶制废除之前和之后，美国人口普查局(U.S. Census Bureau)认定的“有色人种”和“黑人”也各不相同，有些时期还包括针对混血儿的小类，所有细微之处往往是由人口普查员随意决定的。1930年，本土主义说客成功地让墨西哥人在人口普查表上正式被归为非白人。在那之前，他们一直被认为是白人，能够获得国籍。到了1940年，国际政治压力迫使这一决定被推翻。直到2000年，人口普查局才开始允许人们在描述自己时选择多个种族类别。但该机构依然只承认五个标准种族类别：白人、黑人/非裔美国人、美洲印第安人/阿拉斯加原住民、亚洲人和夏威夷原住民/太平洋岛上居民。
Racial categories formed the historical basis for so many of America’s societal and political decisions, and yet even the Census Bureau has admitted that its categories are in flux, recognizing that race is not a fixed, “quantifiable” value but a fluid one. White or black or Asian America isn’t monolithic and never was. Everyone’s story can be parsed ever more minutely: Haitian-Hawaiian, Mexican-Salvadorean, Cuban-Chinese. And when you start mixing up stories, as my family has, much of the institutional meaning of race falls away; it becomes, instead, intensely individual. In a strange way, the renewed fluidity of racial identity is a homecoming of sorts, to a time before race — and racism — was institutionalized.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, the once-derogatory term hapa — from the Hawaiian word for “half”; it’s a Hawaiian pidgin term long used to refer to people of mixed-race background — is now part of the everyday lexicon. In my sons’ preschool and kindergarten classes, hapa is fast becoming the norm because there are so many mixed-race children in attendance. There’s power in the word: a reclaiming of territory, a self-determination. To me, the idea of hapa as a racial definition is inclusive rather than exclusive and thus a step in the right direction. The term is mostly used to refer to people of part Asian heritage, but increasingly it’s used for anyone of mixed race. And it’s a term that tends to be a self-identifying choice, rather than an outside imposition.
There’s a difference, you know. A critical element in the long-running Hapa Project, for which the artist and filmmaker Kip Fulbeck traveled the country and photographed thousands of multiracial people, is that photo subjects speak for themselves. One woman states to her observers: “I am a person of color. I am not half-‘white.’ I am not half-‘Asian.’ I am a whole ‘other.’” There is a resistance to fragmentation, a taking control of the narrative. Fulbeck, as a mixed-race person himself, came up with the idea as a kid in elementary school, when he struggled with what he calls the “check one box only” question. Here, we aren’t talking about getting rid of the boxes or just adding more boxes but creating more flexible ones that can hold more going forward.
大家知道，这其中是有差别的。为了旷日持久的Hapa Project，艺术家兼电影制作人基普·富尔贝克(Kip Fulbeck)曾游历全国，给成千上万名混血儿拍照。该项目的一个关键要素是，拍摄对象自己发声。一名女子对观察员说：“我是有色人种。但我不是半个‘白人’，也不是半个‘亚洲人’。我完全是‘其他种族’。”在这里，种族细分受到了抵制，人们把叙事掌控在自己手里。富尔贝克自己也是一名混血儿。还是个上小学的孩子时，他就有了这个想法。他说自己当时无法面对他口中那个“只在其中一个框里打钩”的问题。我们在这里讨论的不是去掉选项，或仅仅是增加更多的选项，而是创造更灵活的选项，能在未来承载更多含义。
There will be surprises in my own household when it comes to racial identity. According to the Pew study, biracial Asian-whites are more likely to identify with whites than they are with Asians. This line made me sit up: It never occurred to me that my sons could possibly identify only as white. I’m forced to think more carefully about what it is that actually makes me uncomfortable with that idea: It’s not that I want my sons to experience discrimination, but if they do choose to identify as white, there is something about being a racial minority in America that I would want them to know. As a child, I most wanted to fit in. As a young adult, I learned how I stood apart and to have pride in it. In the experience of being an “other,” there’s a valuable lesson in consciousness: You learn to listen harder, because you’ve heard what others have to say about you before you even have a chance to speak.
But the truth is, I can’t tell my sons what to feel: more white than Asian, more Asian than white, neither, both. Other. I can only tell them what I think about my own identity and listen hard to what they have to tell me in turn. If that isn’t practicing good race relations, what is? Much as I hate to admit it, what they choose to be won’t necessarily have to do with me. Because my sons are going to be the ones who say who — not what — they are.