I am perpetually uncomfortable with my racial identity. For me, to be mixed race is to stand always at an intersection, facing in different directions depending on the circumstance. My parents built this intersection, but they are helpless to assist me in navigating it.
I have, at different times throughout my life, called myself Black, African American, Kenyan, Pacific Islander, Guamanian, Chamorro, and any hyphenated combination of one of the first three and one of the latter three. When I was younger, I used to say absurd things like “I’m half Black and half Pacific Islander,” or even “I’m half Chamorro and all Black.” I say this is absurd because imagine if we used similar language to talk about actual colors. When you mix red and blue, the result isn’t “half red and half blue.” It’s fucking purple. Maybe it’s frivolous of me to place so much emphasis on the words, but it’s difficult to find direction or fight for justice when you don’t even have a vocabulary to name yourself or your community.
By the time I got to college, I had mostly defaulted to calling myself Black. Due to my name, my physical appearance, my upbringing in a historically Black L.A. neighborhood, and the lingering residue of America’s one-drop rule, I was accustomed to being seen as a Black girl, and I walked in the world accordingly. It was like my Chamorro identity had been completely subsumed by my Blackness, and I felt further and further unmoored from it. I settled uncomfortably into this one-sided identity, feeling fragmented, feeling at once too Black and not Black enough.
Last quarter, I took a class on Black Feminist worldmaking, and the professor said something about racialization that has never left me. When we come to the conclusion that gender is a construct, she said, the possibilities become infinite. There’s excitement and wonder in the ways we can define ourselves, how we can embrace the fluidities of our identities and continually shift the ways we’ve been taught to perform them. But when we arrive at the realization that race is a construct, we do not feel the same excitement. There is no sense that this realization opens up new possibilities for how we might identify ourselves, that it might free us from the rigid categories we were raised to occupy — that race, too, is a spectrum.
There are a few words that try to get at this middle ground — “mixed,” “multiracial,” “biracial,” “polyethnic” — and perhaps you could say such terms are the closest we’ve gotten to a racial equivalent of a term like “nonbinary.” But those terms do not function in nearly the same way. If a person is mixed, they are “two or more races,” something plus something else. There is no whole, only parts placed side by side. On the contrary, if a person identifies as nonbinary, that does not mean they are some combination of existing socially-sanctioned genders. Nonbinary is its own whole rather than a sum of parts.
So, where is my whole?
The answer to this question has begun to reveal itself in a way I didn’t expect. It has not come in the form of a new word. (Although, I have since discovered some inventive terminology that I kind of like. Sam Alexander’s “racially nonconforming,” for instance, brilliantly borrows from queer nomenclature in an effort to queer the notion of race.) Instead, I am discovering the whole within the pieces by studying histories of solidarity between Black and Asian American communities. This is largely thanks to the courses and professors in Northwestern’s Asian American Studies Program, which I have made my second academic home after Medill.
In the fall of my sophomore year, I took the intro courses for African American Studies and Asian American Studies simultaneously with the intent of selecting one of those fields as the basis for a minor. At the same time, I had fashioned a hyper-detailed plan for my remaining three years at Northwestern that would not allow me to double minor. Once again, I felt caught between two identities. And while I thoroughly enjoyed both courses, there was something special about Introduction to Asian American Studies: it didn’t make me choose.
It was in that class that I first encountered historical narratives that brought interracial coalition-building to the forefront. I read about the 1968 San Francisco State University student strikes, wherein the university’s various ethnic student unions united to form a Third World Liberation Front that demanded an education more suited for and accessible to their communities. I learned about Black resistance to the Vietnam War, the revolutionary partnership of James and Grace Lee Boggs, and countless Asian American activists who fought tirelessly to dismantle the model minority myth that was driving a wedge between the two communities. I even located sites of solidarity in Crenshaw, the predominantly Black neighborhood I grew up in. It was once home to Gidra, a revolutionary Asian American student publication, had been the site of Asian American protests for Black Lives, and was even described by one scholar as a model of postwar multiracial integration after World War II.
What’s more, the Asian American community at Northwestern welcomed me with just as much warmth and kindness as the Black community did. I found myself in APIDA spaces where I was often the darkest-skinned person and almost always the only Black person, but no one ever looked at me funny or questioned me about my ethnicity or in any way treated me like I didn’t belong. We had candid conversations about Black-Asian community relationships and how we could better promote solidarity. I was heartened by stories of other APIDA students addressing anti-Blackness in their families and standing firmly with Black lives in the wake of the George Floyd protests.
I still don’t have the right word for “what” I am, no singular term that succinctly captures the whole of my racial identity. Maybe I never will. But it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. I’ve made peace with the namelessness because I’ve come to realize that what’s important is not the box I check on a Census form, but the wonderfully diverse communities I surround myself with and fight alongside. The intersectionality of my identity has enabled me to embrace a politics of solidarity, of breaking barriers, of extending love and compassion to everyone around me. And that gives me more joy and validation than a label ever could.