Feature image via TheState.ae
I’ve been to A-Camp four times — and each time, I came to talk about race and confessed quietly to someone on the panel that I wished I wasn’t there to do so. Over time, I began to take a backseat role in our now-regular QPOC panel; I served as big-haired, loud-mouthed moderator at A-Camp in May 2012, but barely contributed beyond handing out supplies last October; when we decided the format, I began to step back so someone else could make the final call. None of these things were caused by low confidence, or a fear of public speaking, or an inferiority complex — all of them were about my story, and my skin, and my inability to find a way to belong in spaces for people of color without first justifying and laboriously explaining both.
Once, when I was done telling my story at the Queer Women of Color panel at A-Camp, someone raised their hand and objected to it. “I didn’t have to ‘come out’ as a person of color, and didn’t choose to, either.” The subtext was clear: my experience is not her experience, her experience is not my experience, and because of that one of us doesn’t belong. There was no question of who didn’t belong. There was only my guilt in the air.
Being biracial can often mean being invisible. My body is a battleground of two nations, constantly vying to be defining parts of my story. I am simultaneously my mother’s child and my father’s biological heir, and balancing the two can feel impossible. I do not want to be the sum of my parts — I want to be part of something. I long to belong — to feel less alone, to be understood, to stop stuttering out my story whenever I attempt to be a part of my own movements — but I’m held back by the experiences I’ve had over my life that invalidated my ethnic identity.
Being biracial can also mean being unwelcome. It can be a marker of intrusion when I set out to represent the needs and interests of Latinas in my work; it can be a red flag to my neighbors when they see me walking up and down my own street. I often find myself puzzling over how I’m being read. When that girl hit on me on OKCupid, and then I saw that she was Irish and “preferred to date in her own race,” was she aware of my own last name? When I head home from the metro, do folks think of me as the gentrifying force or the resistance? More often than my own sense of belonging, I am concerned with how others in my own community are perceiving me: do they look at me and see an outsider, or do they look at me and see themselves? I long to be recognized. I am a passing glimpse when I want to be in focus.
It can be hard to talk about the complexity of visibility within a broad community of queer people and women of color or even within biracial and mixed race communities, where undoubtedly many folks will not identify with these experiences. It can be hard to talk about the complexity of visibility when “passing” is thrown like hisses at a dinner party, with no consideration to how it feels to “pass” — how it feels to be misidentified, mismarked, misjudged, misperceived, mislabeled, misunderstood. In a world where race relations are so often forcibly boiled down to black and white, it can be hard to raise my voice to start discussions about my unique experiences when broader forms of discrimination are hurting people in my community every day.
The bottom line, however, is that race isn’t necessarily read on the body. Ethnicity is no longer always apparent in your skin. In a world that’s becoming remarkably multiracial, we still lack the ability to have these conversations in a way that fosters self-identification and self-perception as markers.
I’m going back one more time to talk about race. This time, I’m speaking loudly.
As a multiracial, bisexual, femme woman who works in engineering, it’s exceptionally rare for strangers to take a look at me and get my identity. I don’t know what they’re expecting, exactly, but I am never it.
In snap judgments about race, my experience is that people usually focus on whatever they perceive as most different from themselves. When Asian people see me and my siblings, they usually remark on how white we look. When white people see us, they often take on absurd, acrobatic leaps in conversation to let us know that they’ve picked up on our non-whiteness — even if they don’t know exactly what flavor of non-whiteness that is.
Possibly because of my ambiguous appearance, I’m fortunate not to have encountered many overt expressions of racism. Most often, I encounter racism of a subtler variety, with endless repetition of stereotypes, “ironic” half-jokes, and casual reinforcement of otherness. Depending on how I’ve been read, I’m sometimes the target, and sometimes only an expected agent of approval. Being biracial is part of my identity, but it isn’t a thing I consciously choose to think about on a daily basis; it comes to the forefront when other people put it there. I’m a deer in the headlights or I’m invisible; nothing takes place on my terms. Passing privilege is a huge step up from blatant racism, of course, but it’s still half a step down from that thing that white people get: freedom not to think about or engage with race at all, unless they decide they want to.
When I first heard the term “person of color,” I had to look up whether it included Asians (whose unique issues are sometimes at odds with other racial minorities in the US). The internet told me yes. I then tried to look up whether the term included me. I still haven’t found the answer. I’m still looking for the words. (I like the term “racialized” because it speaks to my experience of a thing in flux based on other people’s perceptions. But it doesn’t feel appropriate for all situations where “POC” is used, so I don’t know.)
Last year I went to A-Camp’s POC panel and spoke up only once: when a Filipina in my discussion group voiced her disappointment that there weren’t any Asians to be seen. I told her I that was Filipina too, that I’d spotted her from across the room on the very first day of camp. We hugged, I sat back down, and didn’t say another word for the next hour. I don’t blame her for not recognizing me — it happens all the time — but if a Filipina sitting five feet away from me couldn’t see me, what chance was there that anyone else in that room would? Would I be read as yet another self-important white person inappropriately hijacking the conversation to make it all about me? Or even if I was read as mixed, were my experiences relevant to this space? I wasn’t sure. I stayed quiet.
To be very honest, I’ve never been in a space where I’ve felt like I could talk openly about my experiences as a mixed race person. I feel nervous about running a panel on this. I feel even more nervous about committing these words to a semi-permanent state on the internet, where strangers can pick my sentences apart and not have to look at my face when they deliver their criticism. But if I feel this way, there are probably others who feel similarly.
This space is for us. Let’s talk.