There’s no question quite like it. “What are you?” has trailed behind me my whole life, tapping me on the shoulder with a different lilt to its tone each time: curious, doubtful, complimentary, surprised, sympathetic.
I used to respond with what I thought was simplest. “I’m half-Japanese and half-white.” Still no good – that, too, is typically met with more curious inquiries about the nature of my whiteness (eastern European, mostly) and questions about which parent is the Asian one (hold on, I’m getting to it).
My class, the class of 2016, is listed on Northwestern’s Office of Undergraduate Admission website as 8 percent African-American, 1 percent American Indian/Alaska Native, 20 percent Asian, 9 percent Hispanic, 7 percent international students and 55 percent white. This adds up to 100. Here, on one of the first pages that parents and high school students might look at when dancing with the idea of applying to our school, I am incorrectly listed. There’s not even a meager “other” category to be found.
Samantha Yi, a Weinberg junior, isn’t bothered by the question. “All growing up, people would ask me,” Yi says.
Yi’s father is Korean, and her mother is Jewish, of Russian and Polish descent. She identifies as Jewish Asian-American. “I think, recently, I’ve been thinking about [the question], because it’s been in the Northwestern discourse – ‘Is that a microaggression?’”
But Yi attributes the question as an attempt to understand. “I think it’s linked to a curiosity about who I am … it just makes me realize that, oh, a lot of people didn’t grow up like me, with mixed-race families,” she says.
When I do answer to that curiosity, I stick to the barest of bones by describing my parents, though they weren’t even in the question to begin with. It’s almost down to a science. “My mom is Japanese, and my dad is a Jewish guy from Illinois.” Yes, good. All of the bases are covered.
For some, the question feels constraining. Weinberg senior Amrit Trewn identifies “generally speaking, as just black.” His mother is African-American, and his father is Indian. Strangers, peers and professors alike have asked him the question, and Trewn does not always oblige by giving an answer.
“It’s a very impositional [sic] question ... [there are] a whole host of parts of my identity ... Like being a student at Northwestern, or being born and raised in Detroit. That’s made me who I am," Trewn says.
“I think it's linked to a curiosity about who I am...it just makes me realize that, oh, a lot of people didn't grow up like me, with mixed-race families”
Nitasha Sharma, a professor of African-American Studies and Asian American Studies at Northwestern, has done research on mixed-race studies. She taught “Hapa Issues,” a course that was previously offered at Northwestern and focused on the experience of people who are hapa – “hapa” being a Hawaiian term meaning “half” that has evolved into denoting a person who is partially of Asian or Pacific Islander descent.
Sharma notes that the spectrum of reactions to the “What are you?” question is telling. “Like black, Asian, white, middle-class, college student – like any category, you’re going to have a huge diversity of views ... and part of it is that people change how they feel about that question over the course of their lives.”
Some students may take classes that teach that the question can be a form of monoracism – the assumption that everyone is one race. Others interpret it as a form of exotification, which they might like or dislike, according to Sharma.
And then, of course, there are mixed-race people who are not asked “What are you?” as often as others are. “I think people just assume that I’m just white,” says Jessica Barrett, a SESP junior whose mother is Mexican-American. Her father is white. Barrett identifies as Mexican-American, since her father is “technically French-Canadian, Lithuanian and Irish, but I don’t really know much about those cultures besides just the American culture.”
If you were to do some digging, Northwestern lists its enrollment of students who are more than one race under its Common Data Set (CDS). Data on enrollment, academics, student life and tuition are published by participating colleges under the CDS. Before the report from 2010-11 was published, students who were of mixed-race weren’t counted as such. It’s been included every year since.
The CDS lists Northwestern’s undergraduate population as 4.23 percent mixed, and the class of 2016, according to the 2012-13 report, had 117 students who were two or more races, not including Hispanics or Latinos (the survey, which is based on government standards, reflects a long-standing government belief that race and Hispanic origin are separate).
Barrett says that people will sometimes comment on her appearance if she does choose to explain her background. “They’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, you do have dark hair!’ or, you know, if it’s the summer, I might be tan and they’ll [comment on that] … I think a lot of people have a stereotypical view.”
So what’s a mixed-race person to do? Sharma says that there is no correct answer. “You can resist by walking away, you can resist by saying, ‘What are you?’ Or you can not resist, and just answer, and you might think that that’s part of having a dialogue on race.”
What happens after, if you choose to answer “What are you?”
“I didn’t think your mom would look so Asian!” my friend comments one day on a photo of my family, taken aback. How curious college, a place where you can know someone for months and months or years and years but still never even know what their family looks like?
I laugh, because it’s kind of silly. But then, my friends at Northwestern know what my background is. So, I guess it’s not silly at all – just thoughtless.
The photo in question is one that most college students have their own versions of, featuring their own families. In it, I’m 17 and my classmates mill about in the background, clutching their diplomas. I’m at my high school graduation, parenthesized by my parents. To me, it’s a normal photo.
This mismatch isn’t something that everyone who’s mixed-race experiences, but there’s certainly common ground to be found. Yi says that her “mom used to tell stories, like, ‘When you were little I would have you in a stroller, and I would be walking down the street, and people would be like, 'Oh, where’d you get her?'"
So I try to envision a life where I would be able to walk into a public space with one parent and be immediately recognized as family almost every time. It’s too weird. I can’t even imagine it.
“I didn't think your mom would look so Asian!”
The Mixed Race Student Coalition had its beginnings at the end of last year. MIXED is a student group that serves to create a space for those who are more than one race or have an interest in mixed-race affairs. Notable events include a panel MIXED held last quarter where panelists discussed interracial dating.
Maya Voelk, a Medill sophomore, identifies as half-Japanese and “basically half-Slovenian.” Her mother is Japanese and her father is white, of Slovenian descent. Voelk is also the marketing director for the Mixed Race Student Coalition. She notes that a common question she is asked is why MIXED exists.
“People don’t really question other culturally or racially-based clubs ... That question in of itself is pretty offensive to me. The club is there, partially, to counteract that kind of question, that kind of belief that there isn’t any cultural need for it.”
Regarding MIXED, Sharma says that Northwestern is “late to the game.” Compared to the coasts, the Midwest is behind when it comes to multiracialism, biracials and even patterns or rates of interracial marriage or mixed people.
And while there are depictions of mixed-race people in the media, they are lacking. Stephanie Bergren, a Weinberg senior, identifies as half-Chinese, half-white. Her mother is Chinese, and her father is “generally western European.” Bergren notices and likes it when she sees people of mixed-race in the media. But she also notices when an actor’s heritage isn’t included. “Darren Criss on Glee ... he’s half Filipino ... but they don’t have any allusions to him being Asian. I think it’s just assumed that everyone is white.”
Another common trope is that being mixed is trendy. Mindy Lahiri on The Mindy Project enters a swanky shoe store and proclaims, “everyone here is, like, a minimum of two different races.”
“Compared to the coasts, the Midwest is behind when it comes to multiracialism, biracials, and even patterns or rates of interracial marriage or mixed people.”
Of the many times characters on New Girl have commented on Cece’s background (played by Hannah Simone, who is of Indian, German, Italian and Greek-Cypriot descent), perhaps most telling of this idea is when Schmidt tells Cece that they should have a child. "A Jewish-Indian baby? Who wouldn't want that? Think of the bone structure!" he appeals. And while Simone herself is mixed, on New Girl, Cece’s just Indian.
This is a stereotype. Like “What are you?”, it’s something that plenty of people who are of mixed-race have heard. “Everyone says that. ‘Oh, mixed-race people are so beautiful.’ You know? Which, like, sure, I’ll take it … but everybody is beautiful. It is a little weird that that’s singled out,” Yi says.
Then, there is the idea that those who are multiracial represent a better future of some kind. Rashida Jones (who is half-black, half-white) gets this treatment in Parks and Recreation as Ann Perkins, since her “ambiguous ethnic blend perfectly represents the dream of the American melting pot.” On Comedy Central’s Broad City, Ilana Glazer’s character throws two peace signs up and explains that gentrification will no longer be an issue because “we're headed toward an age where everybody's gonna be, like, caramel and queer."
“You can see all sorts of articles that say, in fifty years, we’re all going to be mixed,” Trewn laughs. “[It’s] trying to get past the serious question of what race is. Like, racial inequality, racial difference, racial disparities [exist] despite mixed people, us, being here.”
And at first, it can be heartwarming to look upon articles like National Geographic’s recent feature, “The Changing Face of America,” a piece from fall 2013 that garnered many a Facebook share. It portrays striking photographs of mixed-race Americans. Each head-on portrait is arresting, each pair of eyes unblinking. So maybe this is where we can find representations of people who differ from the mainstream.
But if you reach the end of the National Geographic article, multiracial appearances are pointed to as an “opportunity,” a way for people to reevaluate current definitions of identity and race. Suddenly, the photos don’t seem representative to me – just voyeuristic. I’m torn between seeing myself in the portraits and looking for a better word to describe our faces – human beings aren’t opportunities.
Sharma says that lately, media portrayal has surrounded the same ideas. “It’s the idea that the mixed-race person hails the end of racism. That through interracial sex, we have overcome, that mixed-race people are not so political and tend to have beautiful features and cross cultural bridges, and that we are not tied to more ‘threatening’ minority groups with strong politics.”
Sharma also adds that it isn’t the presence of the media’s comments on multiracials that’s notable, but the discourse surrounding it. “We need to speak back to it … and you can do it through student groups, you can do it through research.”
It would have been difficult to write this article a decade ago, or even five years ago. Americans were not able to identify with more than one race on the U.S. Census until 2000.
I did not go home this past Thanksgiving break. Instead, I stayed in Illinois and went over a friend’s house for turkey. My friend happens to be half-Japanese, like me. Before dinner, when he mentions that his cousins are coming, I assume – according to 2010 census data, Wheaton, Ill., is 87 percent white – that the dinner table will be full with people from his white side of his family.
I am wrong on two counts. The extended family is from his Japanese father’s side, and the cousins I meet are also half-Japanese. My friend’s parents introduce me, and they mention my race: “She’s a halfie, too.”
The phrasing is funny. Usually, I would hate to hear it in this kind of casual conversation, coming out of most peoples’ mouths. But I’m startled, because I find that I don’t mind at all – these are my people. The room fills. There are quite a few of us, suddenly.
I spoon gravy onto my plate and I look around. I think about my younger brother, eating dinner at home. I can’t bat away the vague thought that has startled me, mid-meal: I’ve never seen this before. Someday my Thanksgiving table might look something like this.