Growing up, I had a strong sense of racial identity, but it was superficial. Going to a virtually all-White school for the first thirteen years of my life, I knew that I was different, but I didn't know what this difference meant. I was proud of my heritage as a half-Asian, half-European hybrid, but I didn't actually attribute much importance to this - it seemed an incidental thing, something that didn't have much in the way of implications for who I was, the beliefs I held, or how I moved throughout the world.
Things changed when I got older.
Few mixed people have this experience, but as my facial structure matured and I aged, I actually began to look more Asian in appearance, to the point where these days, the majority of people (Asians included) assume that I'm of purely Asian descent. One of the patterns that I noticed was that people treated me better when I looked "whiter," and more obviously "half-White."
The low point of my racial awareness, a moment I'm still ashamed of, was when I grew my hair out in the moppy-headed fashion that was the style of my day. I grew it out long enough that the ends of my hairs would just barely cover my eyes, and one day, staring at myself in the mirror, it occurred to me that the reason I had grown my hair this way was to look more White. There was a part of me that hated myself, and I was disturbed. I cut my hair short soon after.
Where had this hatred come from?
Since my mid teens, I'd noticed an escalating series of events that started to become more and more intense as I entered adulthood. People giving me shit for my race, making comments about Asians being inferior, laughing at the stereotypes - I began to correctly identify these moments as the distributed endpoints of white supremacy, attempts to tool me for my Asian heritage. When I read about the concept of micro-aggression as an adult, I finally had a term for a lot of the flak I'd gotten growing up.
The more shit people gave me for my race, the stronger I identified with my Asian heritage. This identification was reactive - a response to the cumulative effect of being treated differently. Part of this reaction was borne from anger, but part of it was borne from pride - a hardening of resolve, a desire to amplify the part of my identity that others seemed to reject. I started shaving my head (which I still do) in order to amplify the "Asianness" of my appearance. I started to read more Asian authors, to take in more of the culture from East Asia in the form of books, movies, and music.
I have some Chinese friends who never felt the sting of discrimination that I did, so their sense of racial identity seems correspondingly softer, and less formed. I suppose that makes sense - a man's environment plugs into his biology, and makes him who he is.
When I look in the mirror, I no longer see a mixed Half-Asian. I see an Asian man who identifies as such and is treated as such by other people in society, for better and for worse. If I hadn't had negative experiences, and if I hadn't felt antagonism due to my race, I doubt I would have identified as strongly with my heritage. I still don't speak the language of my father, and I still don't have a deep understanding of the history of his nation or the culture that prevails there. When I did return home, I felt like a stranger. Although I thought of myself as Asian, my patterns of thinking were almost entirely Westernized.
Ultimately, then, despite my best efforts, my "Asianness" still feels superficial, shallow, and limited in its scope. This is the paradox of identity in a multiracial society, the complex array of contradictions that build up a person into a unique whole: sometimes different parts stand against one another, yet the overall structure holds strong.
You beat iron hard enough, it becomes steel.
people I admire
Bret Easton Ellis