Last week, I took my AP World History exam. When I left the exam, I felt lost and confused. But it wasn’t the questions about world history that bothered me the most—it was actually the standard identity questions before the test began. While I could rattle off my name, address, and school without an issue, there was one question that stumped me.
Race and ethnicity.
I was given a few options and was told to select one:
- American Indian or Alaska Native
- Asian, Asian American, or Pacific Islander
- Black or African American
- Hispanic, Latino, or Latin American
I am mixed race. I am a Hapa, a half-Asian person. The easiest and most logical response for most people would be simply to mark Asian American. That’s what people see me as, right? Well, not exactly—people don’t really know what I am when they first see me and I’ve gotten everything from Middle Eastern, Hispanic, to purely white. But when I tell people I’m half-Filipino and half-white, doesn’t that make people treat me as a Filipino-ish person and not a white person? Well, sure.
And yes, in the past when I was told to only choose one, I would choose either “Filipino” or “Asian,” since I identify more with my Asian side, partly because I’m more comfortable with that part of my identity and partly because society doesn’t want to see me as a white person since my skin is a shade of brown. And last fall, when I took the PSAT that required me to list one race, I chose Asian and suddenly felt very weird and guilty about it. That was the first time I ever felt guilty about that.
I still remember when I was in elementary school and our school’s standardized test asked us for ethnicity. My teacher told us to mark “white.” Yes, all of us. My distinct cultural background and the brownness of my skin had suddenly lost its color. I didn’t object, but I didn’t know what to think. A few years later, as my classmates and I were becoming more aware of our racial and ethnic backgrounds, my teacher told me I had a few options since I couldn’t pick two: white, Asian, or other.
I chose Asian, refusing to be made an “other,” whatever that meant.
On Thursday, I faced that dilemma again, and my pencil instinctively moved to “Asian, Asian American, or Pacific Islander,” one where I’d be part of a monolithic group that now included not only the many diverse cultures of South, Southeast, and East Asia (and probably people from Southwest and Central Asia who identify as Asian and not white), but also the many cultures of the Pacific.
Last Thursday, however, something happened. I erased all my marks in the Asian bubble and moved toward a different one: “other.” With just the act of filling in a bubble on a standardized test, I felt a new sense of liberation, one almost to the extent that I felt when I encountered the term “Hapa” (referring to anyone of mixed heritage with partial Asian and/or Pacific Islander descent for the first time in a bookstore in Los Angeles. But at the same time, the label of “other” was one that didn’t stick—it didn’t feel right.
I still find it ironic that on a test about the history of the world, the final exam for a class that’s supposed to break down Eurocentric biases and showcase the many contributions of people who aren’t European, I had to either fit in the neatly-cut boxes of one race or choose to “other” myself.
Many mixed race people deal with a host of identity issues, regardless of what races they’re mixed with. Most of these problems are conveniently ignored by both society at large and even smaller ethnic circles. White people see me as not white enough to be one of them, and Asian people see me as not Asian enough. I exist in a paradox along with other Hapa people, one where people tell me to embrace both sides of my culture, yet both sides shun me away.
There are so many unique struggles that mixed race people deal with, all of which cannot be touched upon in this one post. And as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month comes to a close this week, I think it’s incredibly important to remember that part-Asian and part-Pacific Islander people do in fact exist, and we will play a huge role in the demographic, political, and cultural evolution of this country.