“How’s Your Racial Identity Crisis Going?”

I'm the one looking coy as heck. I'm the one looking coy as heck.

When I was little, a stranger once approached me in a grocery store to ask where I was from. What she meant, of course, was what race was I? Ignoring how rude it is to ask a total stranger to state their racial identity for you (I mean, it was friendly, in a Texan kind of way), that incident in some way helped give me a sense of identity. Even as a kid, I strongly identified with being biracial – my most quotable childhood phrase (as judged by my dad) is, “I’m 50% Korean, 50% Italian, and 100% American!”

Growing up, I pretty much assumed that people could tell I was mixed. It was more than obvious when I was out with my Korean mother and Italian-American father – I look like both of them. And even when my parents weren’t around, white people would still claim they could tell, thanks to “something about your eyes.”

But in the past couple of years, I’ve realized something I never expected. As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more white-passing and whether or not I’m seen as part Asian is almost entirely dependent on my appearance, especially because my name only reveals my Italian heritage and I no longer live with my parents. When I’ve mentioned the question of whether I appear half-Korean to people I’ve gotten responses ranging from “yeah, I would never have known you weren’t white” to “if anyone can’t tell then they’re just an idiot.” What these responses tell me is that it really varies person-to-person how my race is perceived.

Maybe part of it is that Amherst is more racially diverse than where I grew up in Texas. But I don’t necessarily want to chalk it up to an issue of whether people in certain places are unused to diversity, because this crisis of sorts (“do I look white?”) started in late high school – it’s not a product of my location or community, but my actual changing appearance.

It’s hard to put a finger on why I’m more white-passing now than when I was younger. I think my coloring has gotten less “Asian” as I’ve grown up – my hair got lighter when I was a kid and I recently was told that my eyes might not be brown but actually hazel. It could also be the way I’ve grown into my body – at 5’7” (and a half), I tower over my Korean relatives.

Enjoy this rare middle-school era picture
Enjoy this rare middle-school era picture

This new subjectivity of my racial appearance is more than a little disconcerting to me. In a society where people are too often treated in starkly different ways based on their racial identities, it’s a little nerve-wracking to not be able to tell what race people think you are. Obviously, this problem isn’t unique to me – there are plenty of people who are forced to deal with this issue because their appearances don’t fit closely enough to the general perception of how people with their identities should look – but for me, it’s a new one.

And for me, this issue is not only a matter of cultural identity but also one of privilege. In discussing matters of systemic oppression it’s useful if not necessary to have a grasp on what privileges affect your life and what experiences you are or are not privy to. Am I experiencing the world as a white woman or a mixed-race woman of color or somewhere in between? How can I contribute to conversations about race?

For now, I identify as a “mostly white-passing” person of color. I feel like that represents the duality of my self-derived identity and the way I’m perceived by others that constitutes my lived experience of race. I still do strongly identify as half-Korean in the truly-positive, best-of-both-worlds way I did as a child. So to answer the question posed in the title — one originally asked by my mother — it’s going pretty well.