In an interview with Playboy, singer-songwriter Halsey recently opened up about the struggles of identifying with her black culture while being white-passing. Depending on what form of social media I saw this article, I either saw people supporting her — often those of multiple ethnicities who felt a struggle to connect with their cultures — or people telling her to grow up and just get used to the fact that she’s “white.”
As someone who’s been denied her own racial and ethnic heritage due to being “white-passing,” the latter comments really irked me.
I’m half-Chinese. My mom is from Singapore, and most of my maternal side still lives there. But most people who look at me wouldn’t be able to guess right away. I don’t look Chinese, unless you know what to look for. People assume I’m white.
When I was little, none of this really bothered me. For most of my life, my parents’ friends were made up of a nice number of mixed couples with children — or other immigrant families who understood the fusion of cultures and ethnicities that comes with migrating to the U.S. But as I grew older, I encountered a surprising amount people who told me that I didn’t have the right to claim my Asian heritage just because I didn’t “look” Chinese.
And you know, sometimes, I get it. I want to have a tea ceremony at my wedding (a Chinese tradition where the married couple serves tea to their elders, and then the younger family serves tea to them), but looking as “white” as I do, would that come off as offensive? Although I try to assert my heritage by wearing a jade necklace, by turning my nose up at cheap takeout, by groaning every time Hollywood casts a white person in a role meant for an Asian-American actor, I’ve got to “prove” my own ethnicity to those who doubt it. Well, then again, I’m not fully Asian. I don’t speak Chinese beyond limited vocabulary, I grew up going to American schools with American kids, and I don’t celebrate all the cultural holidays.
It’s different for those of mixed races who look the part. No one questions that former President Barack Obama was our first black president — even though his mother, who raised him, is white. I understand that by being white-passing, I’m entitled to a lot of privilege. For instance, no one assumes I don’t speak English (my brother, who looks more Asian than I do, was once asked that at an airport).
But still, it is frustrating to have to produce photos of my extended family to showcase part of my culture. Yes, I celebrate the Lunar New Year. Yes, I wear a qipao on special occasions.
The little race/ethnicity demographic question at the end of surveys very rarely includes an option for multiracial and even more rarely allows you to check off more than one box. I know I cannot claim to be fully Asian, but neither am I fully white. I’m reduced to the “other” option.
It’s time that we embrace the growing multiracial demographic in our country and the fact that the multiracial experience is not going to be the same for everyone. Some of us don’t look like our culture, but still want to celebrate it. Some of us grow up not really knowing where we came from, while some of us grow up celebrating traditions. It’s not a clear ground over what aspects of our cultures we have claim to and what aspects we should admire from a distance, but saying that we do not have a right to it just because we look a certain way is not the solution. We should not have to forfeit our culture to make people more comfortable with what is considered a norm.
Petrana Radulovic is a UF English and computer science (super) senior. Her column appears on Fridays.