What Am I?

There’s been a lot of press about Barack Obama, a candidate for the US Senate and oft-stated rising star of the Democratic Party. And in just about every news story about Obama he’s referred to as “African-American”. But is he really?

It’s my understanding that Obama’s mother is white; his father, black (from Kenya). In America, if half a person’s ethnicity is black, does that make them African-American? Then what about if they’re a quarter black? An eighth? A sixteenth? Judging from all the stories and analysis about Obama, apparently it does.

I ask because I’m confused: I am half-Japanese and yet it seems to most people I’m anything but Asian (or for the out-of-date, “oriental“). I am an ethnic rorschach test to most folks: so far I’ve been pegged as Italian, Native American, Filipino, Hawaiian, Spanish, Mexican–even English (???). Yet when I tell people my ethnic background, the first reaction is disbelief, followed by the inevitable comment “but you don’t look Japanese!” I’ve actually had people insist that I couldn’t possibly be Japanese, giving me a detailed critique of my features (this when I was young and stupid and hadn’t realized that I don’t owe anyone an explanation about my ethnicity) as proof that I must be mistaken. (I’m making all this ethnic stuff up!) My own father (who is white) refuses to consider me as anything but white and looks bewildered when I refer to myself as a biracial person.

Yet I’ve also had complete strangers speak to me in Mandarin and Korean, looking confused when I don’t respond in kind. My white, 87-year old neighbor thinks it’s great I “speak English so well”. On the creepier end, I’ve had guys who wanted to date me just because I was Eurasian.

What do I consider myself? I consider myself Eurasian–neither fully white nor Asian. And I’m pretty comfortable with that–it just seems the rest of America isn’t

So in this country, if you’re part-Asian, your ethnicity is situational, depending upon just how Asian you look. But if you have a speck of blackness, you’re black, no matter what you say. Just ask Tiger Woods.

4 Responses

  1. Yolanda Hood
    Yolanda Hood August 2, 2004 at 12:24 pm | | Reply

    What’s wrong with being black/African American in America? If Obama didn’t want to be considered as such, wouldn’t he have said so?

  2. L. Hernandez
    L. Hernandez August 2, 2004 at 4:43 pm | | Reply

    If Obama’s father were a “white” Kenyan, Obama would still be an African-American if you follow that in many cases, the “hyphenated American” indicates a geographically-based ethnicity. Based on that, I might refer to you as Amerasian rather than Eurasian (though I would politely defer to whatever is your preferred self-identification.) Latinos & Hispanics are both used as ethnicity designators, even though many of us prefer a geopolitical-based label (Puerto Rican, in my case or slightly more accurately, NewYorican).

    I might say that Obama is a Kenyan-American, which has the virtue of being quicker to say than African-American, but I don’t know if Obama would take exception to that based on the fact that modern Kenya’s borders were drawn mostly by European colonizers, or would prefer it to the more traditional tribal-ethnicities that make up much of Kenya’s population.

    Oy, what a tangle that last tenth (hundreth?) of a percent of DNA makes. Homo Sapiens Sapiens? Bah! Not even close.

  3. kgs
    kgs August 3, 2004 at 12:04 pm | | Reply

    Yesterday the NYT ran an article about the resurgence of ethnic identity among Japanese-Americans. I don’t really have anywhere else to go with this thought, just sharing 🙂

  4. Sean
    Sean August 12, 2004 at 10:36 am | | Reply

    I think you look half-Japanese. It surprises me that someone would have trouble seeing that.

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