The conversations aren’t always easy, but some find support, acceptance and reasons for optimism.
I SPENT THE FIRST 18 years of my life feeling white. The first hairs to sprout out of my head as a baby were red. My eyes were blue. My parents joked that my father had won the genetic battle for my appearance.
Soon enough, my hair darkened, as did my eyes, but the refrain persisted: “You look white.”
My Danish father and Chinese mother never talked about race, and in Seattle, a city steeped in both Scandinavian and East Asian history and culture, I hardly noticed.
But that changed when I moved to the rural Midwest for college. For the first time, being Asian was a novelty.
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I remember going out to dinner with friends and ordering more food than I could eat. “What’s wrong? Your little Asian stomach can’t handle it?” My friend’s words echoed through my head as I pushed away my half-eaten bowl of chili.
I couldn’t fathom why at the time, but in that moment my little Asian stomach clenched.
Last year, a Pew study found that more than half of multiracial adults say they’ve been the subject of racial jokes. Growing up, I had always felt Chinese-ish. But in college, that didn’t matter. Being mixed, there was no room for an ish. I was Chinese. I was different.
One hundred years ago, people with just 1/32nd — “one drop” — of African ancestry were legally classified as black in America. That idea, it seems, has been a hard one to shake.
In college, jokes made at my expense were about seemingly innocuous things — food preferences, the shape of my eyes, my middle name (Yang). There’s a term for it now — microaggression — but at the time, I just felt confused, and embarrassed.
Since then, I’ve begun to understand that racial identity is fluid. It changes over time, or even from day to day or place to place. In some situations I feel white; in others I feel Asian, or both or neither, and that’s OK.
There are more multiracial people in the United States than ever — and Seattle has one of the largest populations. What is it like for kids from mixed backgrounds growing up in a world that has finally acknowledged, at least on paper, the complexity of their existence?
I went to five schools in the Seattle area to find out.
Douglas Smith, 15, The Overlake School
Douglas reminds me a lot of myself at that age. I meet him at a Starbucks in Bellevue with his mother, Soojung Smith. She sits between us. She is Korean. Douglas’ father is white.
Douglas tells me he appreciates his mixed heritage, but it’s not really an important part of his identity.
“I’ve never really thought about that: Do I fall into one category or another?” he says.
Douglas, a sophomore, isn’t alone. According to Pew, only 25 percent of multiracial adults consider their racial background “essential” to their identity.
For Douglas, being half-Asian and half-white is a fact, uncomplicated. He says he feels more closely connected to white culture and to his white relatives. But that’s because his Korean relatives live far away, and not all of them speak English.
“I’ve never really been in an environment where it’s thought about that much,” he says. “It’ll pop up in the news, but other than that, there aren’t really conversations driven by that.”
When I ask him about his parents, he really starts talking.
“My dad, if I did well on a test, he’d be proud of me,” he says. “My mom is always like, ‘Oh, you could’ve done better.’ That’s why I always tell my dad first.”
He becomes more animated. “Grades for my mom are super important: ‘All A’s, Douglas! Whatever you have to do!’ It doesn’t really matter how hard you work; it’s more the result.”
Smith points out that her son’s background allows him to act as a bridge between different groups. “He doesn’t think about it, but it’s there.”
I ask Douglas whether he agrees. He shrugs. “They just see me as I am, as a person,” he says.
And for him, that’s enough.
Aisha Marrakchi, 15, Roosevelt High School
Aisha is hyperaware that she feels different. At an age when everyone struggles to find solid footing, she says her appearance makes her feel like even more of an oddball.
“I don’t fit in,” she tells me.
Aisha’s mother was born in California, with roots in Mexico: “They’re loud, they like to party; they’re all fun,” she says. Her father was born in Morocco.
Aisha identifies as Arab and Latina.
“My parents told me that in the United States, I am considered ‘white.’ But I don’t feel white,” she says, pointing to her skin, her hair, her eyes.
On the U.S. Census, Hispanics and Arabs are classified as racially white (Hispanic origin is treated as an ethnicity, not a race). In 2020, the census might include a “Middle Eastern or North African” category for the first time, but for now, its omission highlights the enduring conundrum of how to define race in this country.
For Aisha, a sophomore, much of her experience being “different” is internal. “I start to make assumptions when I meet new people,” she explains: “Will they think I’m weird? Will they think I look different?”
She says she feels uncomfortable when people make mistakes about her racial background. “Someone’s making an assumption — an assumption about me.”
She says generally, these apprehensions are dispelled once she gets to know someone and realizes he or she likes her for who she is. In fact, she sees some benefits to feeling different as well, because it makes her feel special.
One of Aisha’s friends, who is white, has told her she wished she looked like Aisha. “I think maybe she feels a little normal,” Aisha says. “Maybe she wants to be a little different.”
Of course, even compliments can be damaging when certain qualities are seen as desirable only because of their “otherness.”
That feeling of being different is more difficult than ever to avoid, and not just among friends.
“Donald Trump is making insults about Mexicans, and some people say he’s funny,” says Aisha. “Really? He’s targeting my heritage. I don’t think that’s funny.”
Aisha has felt targeted for being Arab, as well. “In media, they’ll say, ‘Oh, these are terrorists.’ Do I look like a terrorist to you?”
Aisha talks to her parents about race a lot. She hesitates as she tries to explain why her parents take it so seriously. “Because this world is not that safe. They want to prepare me for what could happen. I’m still pretty young, and I still have a lot more to learn.”
Laila Pickett, 14, Seattle Girls’ School
Mia Pickett, 12, Seattle Girls’ School
If it weren’t for the eye-rolling and sassy jokes, you might not realize Laila and Mia are sisters. But they’re used to that.
“When both of us are together, people will ask, ‘Which one of you is adopted?’ ” says Laila. “ ‘Which one of you is from a different mother?’ ”
Laila graduated from Seattle Girls’ School last spring. Her younger sister, Mia, will continue at the middle school as a seventh-grader this year. Their father is black, and their mother is half-black and half-white. But the family thinks of itself as black.
“If anybody asks me, I’ll just say I’m African American,” says Laila. She doesn’t know much about her white relatives, and most of the family she grew up with is black.
But when people meet Laila, they are quick to identify her as mixed, and over the past several years, she has embraced and explored that identity through her school’s multiracial affinity group, “Mixed Chix.”
The group meets once a month to discuss issues ranging from Kylie Jenner’s cornrows to why it’s hard to embrace whiteness.
Several years ago, Laila made the decision to start checking multiple racial boxes on standardized tests. But that didn’t last long.
“I honestly felt weird doing it,” she recalls. “I didn’t know the reaction I would get out of it. I didn’t want people to think differently of me after the fact, so I just kept it on the down low.”
“I don’t want a piece of paper to say who I am.”
Mia has been exploring her identity as well, but from a different angle. Mia says because her skin is darker than her sister’s, people often don’t realize she’s mixed. In fact, she didn’t start thinking about that part of her identity until a year ago, when Laila invited her to a Mixed Chix meeting at school: “I said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Because we’re sisters. I know I’m mixed, so you must be, too.’ ”
Seattle Girls’ School has made an effort to get its students thinking about race and identity from an early age. But that’s not an easy conversation to have.
“Race right now is like shattered glass,” says Laila. “You want to touch it, but you don’t want to get too close to it because you don’t want to hurt yourself or offend somebody.”
Their mother, Simone Davis, says it has been interesting having daughters who, on the surface, look different: “They carry a lot more than I thought they would carry because of it.”
But the girls don’t seem too concerned.
“We may not look alike complexion-wise,” says Mia, smiling. “But if you take a chance to get to know us, you know that we’re sisters.”
Malik Abdul-Haqq, 18, Cleveland High School
The first thing you notice about Malik is that he’s tall. Really tall.
“It’s confusing,” he says. “My mom is super tiny; she’s like 4-11. And I’m like 6-7.”
Malik’s mother is Thai and Cambodian. His father is black. That makes Malik “blasian” — black and Asian.
He doesn’t shy away from that identity. It’s even part of his Twitter handle: @True_Blazion.
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Despite that, Malik says his appearance, his Muslim faith and his last name often get him confused for East African. But he sees those kinds of mistakes as opportunities: “They want to know what’s going on. It makes me feel pretty good.”
Malik graduated last spring from Cleveland, a racially diverse school where more than 90 percent of the student body identifies as nonwhite.
“A lot of people are familiar with each other’s cultures at this school,” he says. “They talk to you like you’re basically a normal person.”
Malik straddles his two worlds with ease, and says both sides of his family are quick to embrace each other’s cultures. His black relatives go to the Buddhist temple. His mother wears African-inspired head wraps.
Malik is surrounded by people who help him feel comfortable in his own skin. But he knows he can’t control how strangers view him when he walks out the door: “At the end of the day, I look black.”
And all too often, “looking black” can be dangerous. According to Pew, about 40 percent of mixed-race adults with a black background report being stopped unfairly by police due to their race.
Malik says his parents get scared when they hear news of young black men being killed by police. They tell him to cooperate with the police if he ever gets stopped, even if he doesn’t think it’s fair. “Your life is more important than what’s wrong and what’s right,” he says.
But Malik doesn’t let it get to him. He recalls crossing a street once in front of a car. The driver rolled down her window and hurled a racial slur at him. He’d never been called that before.
His response: “I just looked at her and laughed and kept walking.”
This laissez-faire attitude is not uncommon among young multiracial people. But Malik is headed to college this fall at Western Oregon University, and I can’t help but wonder how he’ll feel once he gets there.
Milena Haile, 14, Garfield High School
Sharon H. Chang, a Seattle author and activist who has written extensively about multiracial experiences, says younger people of mixed race tend to be optimistic when it comes to how society perceives them. But Chang says young people’s attitudes often change over time, as they find themselves in new settings like college or workplaces.
Chang attributes this change in part to an increased awareness of the small thoughtless comments, actions and assumptions people experience when they walk out the door. “Each one is a little ding on your soul over time,” she says.
I ask her whether she thinks race still matters, and her answer is clear: Yes. “Race is about the way we look,” she says, and about how society views us based on those looks.
That got me thinking about a conversation I had recently with Milena, a Garfield sophomore, who used to identify as black because that’s what people told her: “Everyone who has my skin tone is black. We’re all black; we’re all unity.”
But Milena is Eritrean, and questions whether her race — the one she selects on standardized tests, at least — really applies to her. That’s because “blackness” in the United States is rooted in an African-American culture that isn’t part of her background. “I’m just African,” she says. “I don’t really consider myself American.”
Milena sees her culture — the food she eats, the languages she speaks, the religion she practices — as far more important to her than skin color. “They just look at your race and assume they know your whole personality,” she says. “It’s not like I want it to matter, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Milena isn’t mixed, but she has hit on something that undoubtedly rings true for all young adults: How you feel on the inside doesn’t necessarily mirror how your friends, your family or strangers will perceive you.
Talking with each of these students, it is clear they cannot be easily grouped. Their attitudes and experiences vary as widely as their racial backgrounds. Some have found confidence and joy in their heritage, while others wear it awkwardly, like a slightly oversized sweater. Some find race at the core of their identities, and others shrug it off as incidental.
Still, some common ground must exist. Because whether it happens behind closed doors or out in the open, each of us is engaged in an intricate dance between how the world sees us, and how we see ourselves.
And that has never changed.