Ticking the box: Finding a place for mixed race

Chase Smith 25 April 2015

In my life, I have been told many things – that I “look like a bit of a foreigner” or that “I couldn’t tell you were part-Asian before – I can definitely see it now.” I’ve been informed, jokingly, that I’m basically “the blackest person” in the room, or told, imaginatively, that “all Asians look alike” anyway. Or my personal favourite, that because my mother is Asian and my father white, that I “live in one of those kinds of families.”

There’s much talk about race in Cambridge, with the establishment of FLY two years ago igniting a much-needed debate on how we should discuss racial discrimination in a university as multicultural as our own. I know for a fact that other students have been forced to confront much more discrimination than the little I have faced. But I still can’t help feeling that sometimes, much of the debate over race seems to pitch a cut-and-dry privileged majority, usually white, against a generalized group of underprivileged minorities, usually non-white. The issues dividing these groups are painfully real: I am not in any way refuting this.

However, I am concerned that this debate between a clearly delineated majority and minority has the unintended consequence of leaving out the voices of the students in-between – people like me who are neither all-white nor all-Asian, for example. It is sometimes difficult to take part because we don’t fit into the existing scheme of privilege and oppression: we are constantly uncertain of which ‘category’ we fit into, and perhaps, should fit into.

This article was in large part inspired by the experiences of one of my history professors, who was prevented from satisfactorily self-identifying her racial background on a government form due to a lack of suitable options. I, like my professor and many others, have faced the confusion of choosing a racial category on administrative forms, most recently those used for applications to university. Since the fourth grade in the United States, I have been asked to check boxes that try to define me by squeezing me into one or more discreet groups.

I am American by nationality, and my father is of European origin. My mother is ethnically Chinese, but Malaysian by nationality, and spent a formative period of her life in Australia. What single box, then, can ever hold the diversity that is my heritage? If I choose ‘white American,’ then I deny myself half of my identity. If I choose ‘Asian – Chinese,’ I erase the intricacies of my Malaysian roots. No matter how many boxes I try to choose, I am still stuck in the middle, unable to tell the government who I am and where I have come from, because in the end, a set of boxes on paper does nothing but reduce a rich tapestry of cultural memories into a series of pencil markings.

I am afraid that this is what the current debates over race and racism in Cambridge do as well: in pitting one group against another, many students are lost through the cracks, afraid to participate because they don’t feel like they belong on either side.

There is one solution, however, presented ironically on these very same administrative forms, hidden at the bottom. It’s called the “Other,” and it carries with it the baggage of being different, separate, unequal. But it also carries hope, and the promise of liberation – to define oneself outside of the existing schematic of either or, of majority or minority, of privileged or non-privileged.

To be ‘othered’ is a profoundly negative experience. But to choose the ‘other’ for myself, to carve a place for myself not only on a form but in larger racial debate, is empowering. So to those who identify as ‘mixed race,’ I challenge you to reject the pre-filled categories proffered by forms and two-sided debates, and to refuse to be limited by the categories presented to you. Break through them, and define who you are not by boxes, but in your own way, in your own time. 

That is the power of choosing the ‘other’: it is not one side or another, but both and neither, all at once.