Friday, July 11, 2008

On the Gray Area in Between

And so we continue to slug away at the identity of this particular mixed kid.* So we've knocked off the white side. Took care of the Chinese side. So that leaves us right here: somewhere in between. Somewhere hazy and non-concrete. Somewhere with no easily-attributable label. Somewhere that makes A LOT of people (generally mono-racial folks) uncomfortable.

For me, though? This is just the path I walk.

So what is this "gray area" all about? The first aspect of it is this strange situation where I find myself coming from two races - white and Chinese - without really being part of either of them. My life and experiences have not been truly either one. So that leaves confusion in its wake. At least to those that have never walked this path. It's the path of a permanent "other." The path of somebody who knows that there is nobody out there (racially, at least) waiting to claim him.

It gets lonely, sure. Hawaii has the largest population of mixed folks, at 24%. That's the largest population. So the best I could hope for in my life is to walk around and have one out of four people share my general physical appearance. To me, that actually seems like a ridiculously high number, but the fact that it feels that way is equally ridiculous.** And a bit sad.

I had a black friend who went on a trip to Senegal. When he came back, he was just beaming. Telling everybody about it, showing pictures, and urging all his friends of color to go visit a place where "everybody looks like them" because it was the best feeling imaginable. It's also a feeling I can't have.

So is the gray area just a place of self-pity and loneliness? Not at all.

No. Because walking the gray area of race has given me a perspective on race that other people can never have. I have seen race, smelled it, heard it, tasted it, and felt it from all angles. Primarily white and Asian, of course, but also - due to my ambiguous features - a bit of Native American, Latino, Pacific Islander. A few times, I even was thought to be (and treated as) part-black.

And that range of experience has led me to lay claim to a wider swathe of humanity. I think it's made it easier for me to actually listen to people. To connect with people of all different types, persuasions, and experiences. I don't get as caught up in one singular issue of oppression at the expense of all others - because I live in the gray area. In the gray area, it all affects me. In the gray area lie connections - and I sit here, following all these strings to see how everything is tied together.

Other people haven't been blessed with the opportunity to see it this way - and so I often see people of color who only know, and care about, the experience of their own race. They talk about fighting oppression, but what they mean is that they want to fight against oppression against THEM. Not everybody. They accept allies as long as the allies will fight the battles they choose for them. And they are closed to taking on their allies' battles, as well. It makes sense to me. I get it. But I just wish they could walk in the gray area for a minute to see why they should just cut that out. And if white people could walk in the gray area? Celebrate the end of white privilege and institutional racism.

And I have been lucky to walk in a gray area that includes two different nationalities and cultures. From childhood, I have known how to walk respectfully in two very different cultural worlds. I have had the opportunity to take the good from each and bring them together in myself. I have respect for my elders - and the wisdom experience has brought them. But I also do not fear to actively make my life happen. I understand what it is to be a foreigner - from two sides.

It is the gray area and my comfort with being of two cultures that made me get along so well living in Tanzania. It was so easy for me to figure out "how it is" there, and people were telling me that I had "become Tanzanian" long before I had to leave. That seemed like a result of immersion alone until I started opening my eyes to other expats in the country. Even those that were trying so hard (all white folks, but I think that was not necessarily a reflection of race - just who happened to go there) had hang-ups. Had struggles with concepts and cultural norms that they just "couldn't get."

The gray area helps me as a teacher. Again - it is easy for me to connect to people, to find a level of ground that we share, so my kids trust me. They don't consider me as taking any particular side. My racial "otherness" enables kids of every race to connect to me on that level, as well. And regarding middle schoolers, in general, my life of being an "outsider" to some level or other helps me easily understand their constant insecurity.

So is this gray area a universal place for mixed people? I doubt it. That's the other interesting thing about being mixed. Although there are plenty of shared experiences between myself and other bi-racial people, it ranges wide, depending on the races involved, our coloring and appearance, etc. And then there are the multi-racial folks who walk in an even broader gray area than we limited bi-racial 'tweeners.

Who else walks in the gray area? My answer will rely a bit on conjecture, but American immigrants are definitely here. I have bonded with many non-white immigrants over the bi-cultural experience and not fully identifying with either side (once they've been here for a while). My mom is very Americanized, and that has had her step a bit in the gray area. I would imagine homosexual folks (both genders) walk in the gray area at times - as they likely do not gain full acceptance (often) from people of their own race because of their choice of partners. American Jews also walk that gray area a bit - being accorded levels of white privilege, yet still being mindlessly stereotyped, hated, and left out of Christian America. I'm sure there are others (and I would like to hear stories of my readers' "gray areas"), but I'll leave it at that for now.***

So - I'm not truly alone here. In fact, in a way, walking the gray area expands my world to be more inclusive. And I kind of like that. It gives me a quiet confidence in the company of strangers. It enables me to walk in the world with my head held high. Because I know exactly where I stand:

Right here. In the gray area between racial understanding. I hope you all get to join me sometime.

* For some reason, I still tend to refer to myself as a "kid," even though I'm - what some have called - a "grown-ass man." That's probably some psychological fodder for some people to play with.

** When I spent a week in Honolulu last spring, I felt like I could relax and blend IN for the first time in years. I can't even begin to explain that feeling.

*** I know there's all sorts of you readers out there - but you're not commenting! Come on - join in the fun. Get your piece in and start a conversation. I'd love to hear some outside takes on all this.


Jennifer said...

Although I don't identify as "mixed race" I do feel like I came from a "mixed-heritage" background because of my mother's Jamaican background and that culture/identification among most of my mother's extended family.

So while I wouldn't say that I identify with what you call the "gray" area, I have often felt that I lived life on the margins for a variety of reasons:
*because I'm a woman of color
*because I'm an Asian American
*because I'm a Chinese American who doesn't speak mandarin or cantonese
*because I have worked to develop an awareness of social justice issues that prevents me from taking a position in the center, even while I'm aware of how I am positioned there by others and by different "privileges" I hold

At any rate, what I really wanted to say is thanks for your observations about being in that gray, inbetween space. There are those of us who aren't sure if we are quite "there" in the way you've described (because, again, I can't know your reality as a mixed-race person since I live in a monoracial skin), but we do know life outside of the usual black & white.

And by the way, the one time I felt most "at home" was when I was in Hawaii because unlike the times when I have been in China or even in U.S. Chinatowns, I felt really comfortable being part of an Asian American majority for once.

Miri said...


I have recently begun the attempt to increase my limited understanding of race relations in the US (and the world) and the big tangled knot that is "race" in general. I found your blog through Racialicious, and it resonates with me.

I am a female of both Chinese and Caucasian heritage, and much of what you have written speaks to me, especially in your ability to articulate things I've often felt but could not explain. This "gray area" especially feels very familiar.

I have never acutely felt the need to be around other people who looked like me - in fact, being mixed often gives me a powerful sense of uniqueness - but I have found that I tend to gravitate subconsciously towards others who are also mixed. Even though, as you pointed out, different mixes lead to very different life experiences, I always have that connection with other multiracial people regarding the "in between." That understanding is precious and rare to me, because so few others have lived their whole lives in the gray area.

I am currently studying in China, and have had mixed (hah) experiences regarding my ethnicity. On the one hand, being mixed again allows me to feel unique, and to feel pride in that uniqueness. Upon learning that I am mixed, Chinese people are often very excited/surprised and have all sorts of questions. On the other hand, this can get tiring, especially since most can't tell I am Chinese. And once I tell them that my father is Chinese, they all react the same way: "Oh, so you are hun xue'er!" (mixed). For some reason, I feel that word pins me down - I guess because that word comes up every time, same reaction, whereas in the US it is less categorized - people are more used to seeing mixed people (though still rarely) and we have multiple words to describe those of mixed background.

Anyway, there are my two cents. I have never commented on a blog before and I am also extraordinarily busy, but I hope in the future to contribute to the conversation now and then. Just know that you have at least one devoted reader!

CVT said...

Miri - welcome to my blog. I am working in a summer arts camp right now with limited internet access (and time), so I apologize that I won't be posting a whole lot in the next couple weeks (probably twice a week). However, I am glad to hear that I have been able to put words to some of the thoughts/experiences you have had, and I hope I continue to do so.

Please continue commenting - because I'd like to know how different situations affect the hapa experience.

And Jennifer - the Hellboy post is forthcoming, I promise.