Race card often boxes me into a corner

I recently accompanied my 6-year-old sister on her birthday trip to see “Pocahontas on Ice” with her two little blonde friends. My sister loves to think that she looks like Pocahontas because she has long dark hair and tan skin.
While in the car, one of her friends said to her, “Emily, you have brown skin.” In a thoughtful, very matter-of-fact manner, she replied, “Yeah, I know. But it’s not from the sun because I’m Hawaiian and I’m Chinese.”
Ah, if only we all could explain race this easily.
When faced with a box to check, I never know which group I belong to. I’ve filled out probably hundreds of college applications, scholarship applications and even credit card surveys that demand me to make a choice: Please check your racial/ethnic background.
You see, I’m a person of many races. When people ask me about my background, I often respond that I’m something of a racial mutt.
My mother has fair skin, blondish-brown hair and a square Irish face. She has soft features and an English nose. Her father was from Iowa, but her ancestors are from England, Ireland and the Netherlands. Oh, and she thinks she’s Swedish.
My father chuckles whenever my mom talks about her ancestors. His background is a little easier to trace, considering his was the first generation to be born on “the mainland,” as the Hawaiians say. My father’s mother has tan skin, dark hair and slender fingers. She spent her childhood slicing pineapples and sugarcanes for Hawaiian food manufacturers. My father’s father, who also grew up in Hawaii, is 100 percent Chinese.
So how am I supposed to fit all of this into one box? Don’t the makers of these surveys know they create race anxiety for people like me? I enter some sort of schizophrenic state when I look over the choices.
It’s funny how inconsistently I answer these types of surveys. I sometimes pick whichever one I haven’t picked for a while. But I do have a few little rules to which I adhere.
If I’m given broad choices, I’ll go with “Asian,” or the more obscure “Pacific Islander.” If it’s more specific, I’ll mark “Chinese” or “Hawaiian,” but the latter is rarely offered as a choice.
I never mark “white” or “Anglo-American” and I rarely check “other.” First, the word “other” really bothers me because it makes me feel that if I don’t check one of the five recognized racial groups then I don’t count. Or if I don’t fit the surveyor’s needs or their target market then I don’t exist. If there’s a space to write in next to “other,” then I check it and list my racial background. I figure they can figure it out.
I don’t choose “white” because I feel like I’m more than white. My Hawaiian grandmother would never choose “white” because she still refers to white people as “haoles,” pronounced “how-lees.” It’s not really a derogatory term, but it’s what the Hawaiians use in this sense: “Why don’t you bring your haole friend over for dinner?” It’s a point of distinction, I guess.
From my grandmother’s dinner table to college admissions applications, I struggle to define myself in a society that gives a lot of meaning to race.
Affirmative action, for example, becomes extremely confusing for people like me. Basically, people I meet have one of two views about affirmative action: They either generally agree with its intentions or they think it’s unfair.
My mixed race puts me in the awkward position of hearing people from both sides go off about the issue as if I were part of their camp.
I’ll be sitting in class and someone will pipe up that the minorities are “taking all our jobs away.” I’ll look over at a black student or an Asian student, who gives me the “they-don’t-get-it” look. I give the same look back.
On the other side, a colleague of mine told me the other day he wished he were a minority so he’d have a chance at getting a job. When I reminded him that I had accepted a job offer that was aimed at minority applicants, he said his comments didn’t apply to me.
I was thinking, who does he think he’s talking to? Does he not see my Asian eyes? I guess it’s both fortunate and embarrassing to see both sides first hand. In both of the situations mentioned, I’m sure they would not have taken place if I’d been perceived as a person of the other race.
It’s become clear to me that people aren’t comfortable talking about race. It’s considered similar to talking about religion in polite company. But when it is discussed, people seem to be more comfortable amongst people like themselves.
So where does that leave people like me? I think the great thing about being both Caucasian and Asian is that I can relate to both cultures. Maybe that’s why I’ve spent my entire life trying to figure out why there are so many race problems in the world.
Ever since I was very young I have been intrigued by the meaning of race in our society, and I think having parents of different races has contributed. I am an unashamed addict of issues like the Los Angeles riots, the O.J. Simpson trial and the segregated neighborhoods of Chicago. I’m always asking, “Why? How did that happen?”
Moving from Los Angeles, a city where white people barely make up half the population, to Minneapolis, a city in which I stepped off the plane and said, “Where are all the other people?” was a fascinating change of environment for me.
As child, I was always curious about why my physical features were generally darker than many of my friends. Despite my persistent questions, my parents would always answer, “Everyone is just born different, Sara. God made everyone special.” But still, I asked.
And now that I’m 20, I think the best way of labeling who I am came from my 6-year-old sister — I have brown hair and tan skin, but it’s not from the sun. As a matter of fact, I’m just me.
Sara Goo’s column appears every Tuesday in the Daily. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected] Letters to the Editor should be addressed to sent to [email protected]