So much of being mixed race these days seems about having to explain, always answering "What are you?" for others and for one's self. And I'm tired of it. This variation of identity politics confronts the annoying question, but then gets hung up on the self in a way that hinders the collaborations necessary for fighting racism in all its mutating forms. In my mind, the problem of how to move from individual experience to collective action defines the current struggle of the multiracial movement.
I grew up in St. Louis, where race was mostly black and white, and where it seemed clear enough in schoolyard politics that I had slanted eyes and was neither. In St. Louis, the police arrived at our burglarized house and questioned my mother about the Hong Kong gang connections they assumed she had used to rip off her own husband, whom they assumed she had married in a bid for a nice white slice of American pie. Never mind that my mother was born and raised in Indiana or that my father hails from working class Ontario. Being mixed race means you elicit fears of loss all around (of status for whites and culture for people of color) and accusations--sometimes justified--that multiracial identity is just about passing.
When I moved to California, I discovered the labels had shifted on me. An Asian American woman took one look at my face, and said, "You're hapa haole, aren't you." Ignorant of her terms, I snapped back, "I don't think so." I soon learned, however, that hapa, from hapa haole or half-white in Hawaiian, was my mixed race category between categories of race in America. Two syllables dismissed me from belonging to the Asian America I had always imagined from my St. Louis schoolyard. I started to look at myself differently. I began a quest to become a real hapa, whatever that might be, not just one who was passing. But, passing for what? I've been Chicana in the eyes of Missourians, white in San Francisco Chinatown, and a Uighur minority on the streets of Beijing, where I landed after years of learning Chinese to prove myself to my own Chinese American family.
Multiracial identity, being between, challenges the biological essence of race and exposes it as a construction designed to create social hierarchy. But progressives find themselves resisting those who naively claim that the existence of multiracial people effectively ends racist thinking. A character in Afroasian playwright Velina Hasu Houston's 1988 play Broken English declares that she lives in a "no passing zone." She suggests a space of possibility for mixed folks to embrace composite identities as part of an inter-ethnic, anti-racism struggle.
Racial, ethnic, and cultural mixing has defined U.S. history for centuries. In 1691, Virginia passed the first anti-miscegenation law, declaring the offspring of interracial unions to be an "abominable mixture" that could be banished from the colony. Nor surprisingly, the most active policing has always occurred around intimacy between whites and nonwhites. Questions about passing rarely enter, for example, the history of Black Native Americans or families of Afro-Chinese plantation laborers.
The U.S. has pursued racial classification relentlessly since the first Census in 1790. The most infamous change to preserve white privilege, instituted in the early 20th century, is the "one-drop rule" designating individuals with any African lineage as black. Dominguez emphasizes that "white" has always remained the single unfragmented identity Undoing this logic entails more than the addition of a new category.
Debate in the 1990s over adding a multiracial category to the Census led to the new check-more-than-one choice, selected by over 6.8 million. It also created tensions between traditional civil rights groups and multiracial organizations, as well as controversy among multiracial groups over classification methods. Those lobbying for multiracial data collection on Census 2000 garnered an unprecedented level of media attention. …