I have an Asian parent and a Caucasian parent. There isn’t one side of my heritage that I identify more strongly with, nor do I identify very strongly with either of them. I’m simply a biracial American. Sometimes when I tell people that I am biracial, they are surprised. They think I’m full white. Others can tell just by looking at me what my race is. There have been countless instances when I’ve waited while people scrutinized me, trying to pick the right label based on my appearance.
I had a boyfriend my first year of university who would brag about my race to his friends and people he met. “My girlfriend is half-Asian and half-white,” he’d say, sometimes showing them a picture of me as well. “So hot, right?” Needless to say, we didn’t last long.
This got me thinking about being biracial and what that means in a society so fixated on race as a form of identity. Mixed race people, especially partially white people, are largely left out of the modern racial narrative in America. Perhaps this is because we are relatively few and far between, or because there are so many combinations and proportions that it’s impossible to compare the experiences of mixed race people.
Being a student at Berkeley, I hear the concept of “white privilege” regularly brought up in academic, professional, and social conversations. Despite the many discussions I’ve participated in about this topic, I’ve never fully understood what my relationship to white privilege is. Do I have it, because part of me is white, but not as much as a fully white person? But then how do you calculate the “amount” of white privilege a person has? Or is being biracial a minority in itself?
Historically, partially white people have certainly not benefitted from their white heritage. The 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson is a prime example: Homer Plessy, a man who was seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighths African, was able to pass as fully white and boarded a first-class train car that was designated solely for white passengers. Despite his appearance, state law prohibited him as a colored man from occupying a white-only train car, and he was asked to leave. This law was determined constitutional by the Supreme Court, and the proportionality of whiteness required to be considered legally white was left up to the states.
Several works of literature have explored what it means to be only partially white. For example, William Faulkner’s 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom! bears several African characters who appear white, and tells the story of a white Southern family in the Civil War era who would rather murder than have a single drop of black blood taint the family’s purity via marriage or procreation.
Peggy McIntosh, renowned feminist scholar and Senior Research Associate of the Wellesley Centers for Women, published her groundbreaking article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in 1989. The paper contains a list of practical manifestations of white privilege, a partial list of which can be found here. The list is a little dated, but most still stand. Some that stood out to me are:
1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.
44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.
How do I measure myself against these statements? Do I look at myself as a white and Asian person, or as a biracial person? If I separate my two sides, I have two answers to each question. But if I simply view myself how I normally do, as biracial, one person, the answer to many of McIntosh’s statements is no. I don’t know many other half-Asian, half-white people, and I can’t arrange to be in the company of those people most of the time. I cannot find academic courses or institutions that cater to half-Asian, half-whites, or even mixed race people in general. But other statements made, such as #35, are more appearance based. What if all the employees of my affirmative action company see me as white? They won’t chalk up my employment to affirmative action.
I’d argue that this is still not a privilege for a person who looks fully white, but isn’t. If a white person’s real heritage is discovered versus a non-fully white person’s, the white person will retain this privilege, but the other will not. That itself is a white person’s privilege.
So I’d venture to say that partially white people do not in fact have white privilege as it is characterized in our culture. White privilege goes deeper than appearance. Along the same lines, I would say that being biracial is to be a part of a minority group. I don’t see mixed people heavily represented in politics, nor do I see a long-term presence of mixed people in the United States, to name a few examples.
Despite making these claims, I do want to stress that unlike my last article (which you can read here), this piece is less social commentary and more personal exploration. Living in a society that loves to put people in boxes makes those who can’t fit in one wonder where they do fit in. I am surrounded by racial discourse, but am yet unable to find a narrative I wholly identify with. I’d love to hear any comments from my readers or anyone who has an experience similar to mine.