What is Whiteness?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot. As some may know, I run a blog on mixed race identity called I Am Hapa (“hapa” being the Hawaiian word for half) and while I haven’t been posting on it much, my friend Grace recently wrote a guest post for it. In fact, her post and my other friend Kiyomi’s post have two key pieces I want to focus on today. Grace talks about passing—in her case, being half-Black and passing for White—and in Kiyomi’s, the enduring shame that is intrinsic to being mixed.

Both posts mention our hometown, a strange bubble of New Jersey that is pretty much half-Black and half-White as Grace notes. It was less unusual to be mixed race growing up there, but for sure, people would see me with my White father and ask where I was adopted from. As an adult, I still get the question, but worded differently: where are you from? Jersey. No, where are you really from?

Rationally, I can understand the question: my English is native, my name (a nod to Eleanor Roosevelt, Chuck Berry, and my Welsh ancestry) doesn’t match my face, and even other Asian people can’t place me. I know the questions are asked with good intentions, but when your coworker can’t even be bothered to know the difference between the words “ethnicity” and “nationality”, the innocent question of “What are you?” can get under your skin.

Kiyomi writes:

 …when he told me it was because of my being mixed I felt real, swollen, pride. Followed by real, ribcage deflating, shame. And that’s it. I think that might be all I have to say about being mixed. It’s pride and shame and they’re all wrapped up together and it’s mostly shame sometimes and the pride is always followed by shame.

Mind you, the shame comes not from yourself, but from those around you. From the innocent What are you?’s, the men who call you exotic, and the women who tell you that they always wanted mixed kids, to the people who call you mutt under their breath, the professor who mixes you up with the only other Asian girl in class, or the fact that you either hold all the privilege of one parent or none, like the other.

My mother is an immigrant (from Korea), my paternal grandfather was an immigrant (from Wales), and my first maternal relative landed in America on September 11, 1922 at Ellis Island. And I’ll be damned if I let anti-immigrant sentiments get thrown around the political arena. But that shame of being mixed? It’s internalized, and in my case, it manifests itself in anti-immigrant sentiments that I work to quash.

There is a concept known as the Perpetual Foreigner. In essence, it is that Asians will always be seen as foreign, no matter when they arrived in the country. As a recipient of this, it frustrates me to no end, knowing that I have no direct ties to Korea, to Wales, or to Norway. All I have is America, as beautiful and flawed as it is.

As Kiyomi said, “it’s mostly shame sometimes and the pride is always followed by shame.” For those of us who are partially white but can’t pass, it truly is mostly shame.

It brings me back to my question: what is Whiteness? Is it a physical concept, a cultural one, or merely a matter of bloodline? By bloodline, I am the same amount of White as my cousin, who is half White and half Puerto Rican. But only one of us can ever be called White. Does it matter? Isla Vista shoot Elliot Rodgers was also half-White and half-Asian, but with the ability to pass, he fell at a higher place on his own racial hierarchy than my brother, who cannot pass despite the equivalent heritage. Of course, the manifesto of a rampage killer has to be taken with a grain of salt, but the reality is that he is not alone in placing himself and others in this hierarchy.

Here, it seems, I’m feeding into the trope of Tragic Mulatto. (The Tragic Mulatto is a character who is neither Black nor White; stuck in the chasm between racial identities, he acts out, often in a suicidal manner.)

On Rodgers, Reappropriate wrote that,

It would be far too simple to characterize Elliot Rodger as an updated “Tragic Mulatto“, yet this is what we accomplish when we force a definition of Rodger as either White or not; and more importantly, never possibly and simultaneously both.

Those of us who are White and ‘Other’ are often caught in this snare, our very flesh embracing one parent and not the other. For some, the struggle results in rejecting one side, shunning everything attached to the skin you’re in. Ken Liu captures this beautifully in his short story The Paper Menagerie. It’s well worth the read and I highly suggest it. I read it on the way to rugby practice and sobbed silently in the back of an Uber.

I’m trying to find a way to wrap this post up, but writing it feels simultaneously like gutting myself and vomiting—the pain is too great to continue but I can’t stop. And maybe that’s all being mixed is.


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