|[screen shot from NY Times Magazine]|
by Sharon H Chang
This Monday, The New York Times Magazine published a very unfortunate essay about multiracial Asian children: Choose Your Own Identity, by author and mother Bonnie Tsui. In it, Tsui (who is not multiracial herself) puzzles over her children's mixed-race identities, what they may or may not choose to be one day, while taking a brief foray back/forward in time to consider the sociohistorical context of mixed-race and America's impending multiracial future. After mulling on the subject for about ten paragraphs, she concludes with a seeming liberatory message on behalf of her children: "...the truth is, I can't tell my sons what to feel...I can only tell them what I think about my own identity and listen hard to what they have to tell me in turn."
Sounds innocent enough, yes?
"I'm so tired of mothers of bi and multiracial children speaking on behalf of their children." ~ TS
Let's break it down in three big points. Point one. While I of course appreciate non-mixed parents paying attention to their mixed children's identities, I do not appreciate non-mixed parents speaking for their mixed children - something that happens way too often. Don't think that's happening here? Consider this. Despite Tsui's admittance she doesn't understand mixedness followed by the claim she realizes her role is to listen, in the end SHE's the one writing this story about mixed race people for The New York Times -- not a mixed race person. She does not quote her own children more than once. And other than quickly citing the work of Kip Fulbeck she cites no work by other multiracials when at this point there is a growing canon of rich, deep stuff. Consequently this piece then ends up centering her speculations as a single raced person upon the meaning of multiraciality in America. This does not qualify as "listening" in my mind. It's telling that the following exhausted response by a mixed person is buried in the comment section:
...I'm so tired of mothers of bi and multiracial children speaking on behalf of their children. There are so many biracial people (adults) who can address the topic. The continuous portrayal of biracial people as "children" whose identification can only be narrated through the lens of a mother (usually) undermines our voices as independent thinking, fully grown individuals. Give us respect and give us space to share our stories instead of using our birth as an excuse for people who reproduced with someone of another race to work through their own issues of race. - TS, New York NY
This trend of monoracial folk claiming all the space, attention and privilege to work out their confused feelings about the multiracial story is incredibly oppressive and part of the practice of marginalizing mixed race peoples. Everyone gets to talk about us and what we must feel - but us. Which brings me to Point Two. What results when monoracial folk center their own angst in trying to understand mixed race peoples, is almost inevitably the spreading of vast misunderstanding and misinformation about those very same people. Probably the best example in Tsui's essay is that the catalyst for the piece was a conversation with her Chinese/white 5-year-old in which he rejected being Asian: "...when I asked him the other day if he was Chinese, he said no. 'You're Chinese, but I'm not,' he told me, with certainty."
Tsui jumps to the conclusion that this must be because her 5-year-old in that moment, simply put, identified as a white person. Her proof? That he "confidently" asserted he was "not Chinese" combined with the recent Pew study on multiracials that purported Asian-whites are more "more likely to identify with whites than they are with Asians." No mention of the fact that Pew's study ALSO said the majority of multiracials had been subjected to racial slurs and jokes. No mention of her son's seeming "confidence" in being non-Chinese as a possible defense mechanism in a racist society with a long ongoing history of anti-Asian discrimination. No mention of white supremacy as a devastating dominant cultural norm in the U.S., the incredible pressure upon non-white Americans to assimilate to that norm, and the reality that all people of color (including Asians themselves) demonstrate internalized racism repeatedly in studies in exactly this way - by rejecting their racial identities of color.
Worse, Tsui then goes on to write that (what she views as) her son's confidence in being a white person (by the way remember he's 5 YEARS OLD) hurts her feelings having grown up herself a racialized other in the U.S. And that, if her sons "choose" whiteness, she believes she will have a responsibility to teach them what it's like to be a person of color in this country:
"...if they do choose to identify as white, there is something about being a racial minority in America that I would want them to know. As a child, I most wanted to fit in. As a young adult, I learned how I stood apart and to have pride in it. In the experience of being an 'other,' there's a valuable lesson in consciousness: You learn to listen harder, because you've heard what others have to say about you before you even have a chance to speak."
I find this pretty ironic given we and her children are listening to what she has to say about mixed race before her children have even had a chance to speak for themselves. No mention of the fact that multiracial people ARE a racial minority in America who experience otherness every day. No mention of the fact that she herself earlier wrote her son is very aware he looks "different." The total effect here I find entirely condescending and erasing on the part of her children, but then also, on her end, deeply confused, avoidant and misinformed. Which brings me to Point Three. None of this surprises me.
For my book, Raising Mixed Race: Multiracial Asian Children In a Post-Racial World, which was released last week, I interviewed 68 parents of 75 young multiracial Asian children. The swirly mishy mushy mess that Tsui has articulated around mixed race in her New York Times essay is very typical of parents (both whites and parents of color). Parents care but most still have a very under-developed knowledge about what race, racism, oppression and discrimination really are. For example, choice is a theme over/over throughout Tsui's writing: Her sons can and might "choose" to be white and in 2000 "the Census Bureau started letting people choose more than one race category". But people of color don't get to choose to be white. WHITES get to choose who's white. Take for instance, as I discuss in my book, that final decision on federally mandated racial categories does not rest with the Census Bureau but Congress, which is still white-male dominated. So at the turn of the century it was actually elite whites that "started letting people choose". From Raising Mixed Race (p. 162):
As long as white racial framing exists, multiracials will never wholly control which direction their identities take. White thinking intrudes upon and imposes ownership of all race matters, including mixed race matters.
Tsui also waxes extremely poetic, as many parents do, about multiraciality being a harbinger of racial peace. She writes racial identity will "have to be fluid" because "Multiracial Americans are on the rise"; "when you start mixing up stories, as my family has, much of the institutional meaning of race falls away"; that her self-perceived ability to navigate mixed identity with her children is tantamount to "practicing good race relations". No mention of the actual racial realities of mixed folk. In my book at least half of the multiracial children represented (mostly under age six) had already been racialized as people of color and faced discrimination often within the home by white family members. She writes about use of the Native Hawaiian word hapa in the Bay area without once mentioning its appropriation by non-Natives and the horrific near-genocide, erasure and theft of lands of Indigenous peoples which continues today. Further, and of vital importance, in a piece about race that references Black and Brown peoples, Tsui does not once acknowledge the persistent racial oppression clearly evident in every sector of society from growing race-income disparities, Islamophobia, xenophobia, to school resegregation, mass incarceration and the violent anti-Black anti-Brown racism we're seeing in the media EVERY DAY. This all despite the supposed growth of mixed race populations.
I think you catch my drift and I could go on. But I won't. I'll finish with a few suggestions. First, if you read Tsui's piece I would suggest doing so with great caution. In the last couple days I've gotten messages from people who thought the essay was great and didn't understand why I would have a critique. I hope I've given you a glimpse here into the many layers of why I felt the piece was misguided. But second, there's only so much any writer, both Tsui and I, can do in a thousand words or so on the Internet. When it comes to race, I think the blessing and curse of our modern age is the Net where yes we can make incredible strides - but also avoid doing deep work, developing analyses that extend beyond clickbait and a 60-second skim sitting on the toilet or in traffic. The real transformation is going to happen when we do more than scratch the surface. I urge you to not only read Raising Mixed Race but continue to ask the hard questions, seek out work by/about multiracials, and keep resisting Pollyana-esque narratives that make it seem like everything is better than it really is...