I used to be color blind. I gave no thought to the fact that my friends and other people looked different. That my mother is white like a ghost and my dad is brown. That Granny had red hair and Grandma has black hair. That the skin colors and eye shapes and folds of my friends identified them as something different from me.
I didn’t know what the n-word was until Papa taught it to me. I didn’t know it was bad, until I used it and my parents nearly had a heart attack.
I didn’t know a lot and as a child, I took things for what they were. The other kids were my friends and I didn’t care that they may have looked different.
On a plane ride to visit my grandparent and other family after moving away from Hawai`i, when I was old enough to fly alone and still young enough to be naive, a neighboring passenger asked what I was.
“I’m an American.” I answered proudly.
“No. Where are you from?” She asked.
“America.” I was starting to get confused at this point.
The conversation spiraled down from there because my confusion only got worse. Especially after she commented on how well I spoke English.
Once I returned home, I asked my mother about what the woman meant. That was when I learned what ethnicity was and that my dad and his parents were actually born in the Philippines. My grandparents talked with an accent and I just thought that was normal. Oh to be young and innocent. I learned that I can count the different ethnicities in my heritage on each one of my fingers. How’s that, right? I was even born on United Nations Day. Go figure. So, I have Austrian, Cherokee, Chinese, Dutch, English, Filipino, German, Irish, Scottish, and Spanish. I joke that my lineage is full of the conquerors and the conquered.
As I got older and I had to fill out demographic information for school tests, etc., I became frustrated because there was no bubble to fill in under race for someone like me. Even after I simplified it to being hapa, half-half, there was no bubble for someone who was biracial. How rude! It frustrated me. I knew I wasn’t the only biracial kid out there. By this time, I knew I had a lot of biracial friends.
It got to the point where I felt like was sitting on a fence. Not quite one or the other. It didn’t help (still doesn’t) that when I’m living on the Mainland (that’s the Continental U.S. for you non-islanders) people assume I’m Mexican. No joke. I’ve had people come up to me and start talking to me in Spanish. I even got junk mail in Spanish before getting married and changing my name.
Not that racial ambiguity didn’t have its upside. Working in mental health, kids would use the race card to try to push our buttons. I got called things like: “White trash bitch,” “Mexican bitch,” “Fucking Eskimo,” (there is a story behind that one for another time) and my favorite because it was the most creative – “Hawaiian Nigger” It probably didn’t help the situation when I’d laugh at the incorrect use of race in the button pushing. It definitely did throw them off-balance for a bit. Not a single one of them ever got it right and I left it that way.
In an age where many people make race an issue, I attempt to make it a non-issue. I could care less if you are white, black, brown, yellow, or an alien from outer space (unless you’re a Visitor and NOT in the 5th Column). I never have and I never will. Race is a category. A label. Something that tells us where you are either from or your ancestors were from. Your race doesn’t define you, but it’s a part of you that you can’t change.
If I’m on the Mainland and people ask my race or ethnicity, I tell them I’m Filipino. If I’m back home and happen to be asked (because most people can figure it out on sight), I say I’m hapa because I have the best of both worlds.