I didn’t really understand the nuance, but I knew they weren’t trying to start a dialogue about race. Could you imagine, though? Me and A.J., two nine-year-olds from Grafton, Wisconsin, having a thoughtful discussion on the sociopolitical implications of race and not being white in America? Mrs. G asking if my lack of participation in class was influenced by my assumptions about being female, being Asian, or both? I couldn’t even articulate why the Blue Power Ranger was my favorite. I obviously was not about to talk eloquently about race with anyone. (In hindsight, I realize it was because Billy, the Blue Power Ranger, made me the horniest.)
Sometimes people would identify me as Chinese, but like a question rather than a statement. As if they knew they shouldn’t be assigning my ethnicity to me but couldn’t keep themselves from blurting it out. “You’re . . . Chi . . . nese . . . ?” they’d say, waiting for me to confirm or disagree or clap or laugh or, perhaps, implode entirely.
This is about the time when I met my friend Racial Ambiguity. We’ll call her Rachel, for short. We’re on a first-name basis, me and her.
Rachel was cool! Rachel was mysterious! Rachel was my best and closest friend!!! Being Racially Ambiguous™ (cue rainbows and sparkles) was my exit ramp from being seen as Exclusively Asian/Chinese/LOL ARE THEY EVEN DIFFERENT THOUGH HA HA WAIT WHERE ARE YOU GOING?
Rachel and I lived in our own post-racial world. We took it as a compliment when people assumed I and the only other Asian kid in my graduating high school class were either dating or related (it was actually neither!!!). We bragged to our friends senior year when Blake, a decidedly hot boy, called us hot!!! Leaving out the part where he said, “for an Asian girl.” When other people got yearbook superlatives like Most Likely to Succeed and Most Likely to Get Arrested (2008 in suburban Wisconsin was weird), we obliged when our friend said I looked like Brenda Song and agreed to have my face on the Celebrity Look-Alike page. I guess, if you think about it, my superlative was Most Asian. Rachel and I suppressed that memory from middle school when two girls we didn’t know called me a “monkey” at the public pool. We tried not to think about how that happened the summer when our skin was darker and we hadn’t yet learned about Nair for Facial Hair. Rachel Ambiguity was my best, most delusional friend.
College was similar where at the time I was studying for work at a London SEO agency. Rachel and I either believed ourselves to be white-passing enough for people to say nothing or we ignored race altogether. I realize this is a strange sort of privilege, to not feel an urgency to confront your half-whiteness. To have your ethnicity seen as “exotic” instead of overtly threatening. To have the racism you experience be coded instead of explicit. This is not meant to be an excuse for the undeniably awful things people have said to and about me. It is, hopefully, a bit of consolation to some other biracial kid out there, staring at themselves in the mirror, playing the “Which parts of my face are Asian and which are white?” game. The answer is all of them are both.
The first time I felt Seen was a 2010 Kotex commercial. It showed a “believably attractive, eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old female” walking confidently around an all-white set. “You can relate to me because I’m racially ambiguous,” the actress said, cheekily. Yes, Rachel and I whispered, staring at this facsimile of our own unidentifiable features, we relate.