Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Many boxes

I understand that categorization is a natural thing. As humans we want to be able to categorize people, as a sort of shorthand or cheat sheet on the ways to getting to know them (or not getting to know them). I recognize that when taking polls and gathering statistics people need to fit into a category for the information to be able to form some sort of pattern. But here's my problem - I don't fit into a single category. And no, I don't mean because I'm so special or wonderful and all that (although I am). I am multi-racial. When most people think of the term multi-racial, they think of a group of people who are of different races, instead of a single person. And to complicate matters further, (at least in the eyes of others), my multi-racial status is not immediately visible. People look at me and think they know my racial history. I don't look like Keanu Reeves or Tiger Woods. And I don't have a name (such as Keanu) that clues people in to this. (Okay - I do - but it's
my middle name.)

So people tend to think I'm showing off, or trying to claim something I don't really have a right to. Now don't get me wrong - many people are appropriately interested when I share this about myself. But there are people who think I am just trying to be cool. That since it's passe to be white these days, I'm trying to claim a long lost heritage while still enjoying the day to day benefits of being white. And I don't deny or belittle my whiteness. It is a part of me. But so is the Chinese. And so is the Hawaiian.

And yet, in our lives, we are constantly presented with forms that ask us to define our race - working from the assumption that I fit into one (and only) one of several pre-set categories. Leaving aside the reality that race is a social construct (rather than biological), I again understand that these categories are used to measure various things, which is why they want me to define myself. For a long time I used to select other, and then use the blank that they helpfully provided to better categorize myself.

But then I decided, if the purpose was to count things, I was placing myself in that other/refuse to answer category that always presents the numbers from adding up to one hundred percent. I was - in a way - not getting counted. So, I decided that I needed to select something. Very few forms allow you to select multiple options (there is a movement to change this) so I was now forced to make a choice. Do I go with percentages? If so - which - do I pick the box that represents the greatest percentage of my heritage or do I pick the box that represents the group that likely gets picked the least? On many forms Asian and Pacific Islander are grouped together, so that ended up being the one that I tend towards when forced to choose. Some forms split them and in hat case I tend to take and eeny-meeny approach.

I actually had someone ask me once - when told of my multi-racial status - which box I pick. I could be over-interpreting - but the context of the question indicated that she was ready to take away my multi-racial credibility should I answer white. Which is ridiculous. Anytime I have to pick only one box, I am forced to be inaccurate. Because I choose to select a minority box, doesn't make me more or less a minority than I already was.

I had another person ask me what percentage Hawaiian I was and finding that insufficient to her standards, proceeded to tell me how she was one eighth Japanese. She was surprised when I responded that I was one eighth Chinese.

My parents raised us to be proud and aware of our multi-racial and multi-cultural status. My father's family was still all living in Hawaii growing up. And we took hula lessons (briefly) and read Hawaiian stories at night along with the more typical children's fare. My mother (although the Chinese is on my Dad's side) thought it was important that we know how to properly hold and use chopsticks - even if only when consuming Asian-themed food.

I have to thank people like Tiger Woods for bringing more attention to the subject. And while I'm sure he was a little tired of how his multi-racial status dominated his early interviews, people seem a little more open to the idea these days. A little more willing to understand that I can be many things. People still refer to my having a little flavor and such. Maybe one day it won't be such a big deal. One day, I'll be able to check all the boxes that apply. Or maybe I won't have to check any.