October 10, 2019

BETTEZ | Choosing Sides

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“So, which side do you choose?” my high school biology teacher asked during a class on race.“Like, white or Asian? Most biracial people choose one,” he elaborated upon seeing my confusion.

This was also the man who around the same time told the class that I’m an example of a “hybrid” —  in the context of cross-species hybrids — implying that my parents are different species, demonstrating a horribly awkward misunderstanding of mixed race people.

As much as I hope everyone disagrees with him on the latter point, his attitude reflects a common one on mixed race people: that we should or will eventually choose one of our races to identify with — a side. We don’t fit into society’s separation of races, and there is intense pressure on us to conform to this worldview by pretending that massive parts of us don’t exist. And should we fail to do so, we’re afraid we’re choosing a life of permanent ostracization.

Even at an intentionally diverse place like Cornell, the pressure to choose a side exists and even changes in different contexts. Although there is a mixed race club on campus, it’s fairly inactive and I didn’t even hear about it in my sophomore year. As a freshman, I tried to join an Asian American club, which I quickly left because I felt like I wasn’t authentically “Asian” enough for the club — a white imposter. Yet, in the majority white, small town I grew up in, I was always made acutely aware that I was the “Asian” kid. In fact, it seems as though this is a pretty common experience, at least among the mixed Asian and white friends I have — where you’re the token “Asian” among white friends and the token “white kid” among your Asian friends. Choosing either side feels inauthentic — especially as a part-white individual, choosing white means disgracing my Chinese heritage. Choosing my Asian side makes me fear that I’m not acknowledging the inherent privilege of my proximity to whiteness.

We’re at a point in history in which the mixed race population is steadily increasing. In 2015, 17 percent of new marriages in the U.S. were interracial.  Barack Obama and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) have made major strides in representing us in politics. In popular culture, we have Keanu Reeves, Chrissy Teigen and Dwayne Johnson, among many others. Yet, America has been slow to catch up to its own multiracial population. It has only been 52 years since the Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia legalized interracial marriage nationwide. The option to identify with two or more races on the U.S. Census first appeared in 2010.

On a recent YouTube binge, a clip from the premiere of the new sitcom “Mixed-ish,” a spinoff of the ABC show “Black-ish,” came up in my suggestions. The show follows a family of mixed black and white kids in their first exposure to the mainstream American culture, and in the clip the main character Bow struggles with the concept of “choosing sides” in order to fit in at her new school. She feels like all her problems will be solved once she chooses a race to present as and hang out with. Something about it didn’t sit well with me at all — the conclusion is that her dad tells her to just to not be a conformist. What frustrates me is the way that the first show I’ve ever seen that’s meant to represent people like me seems to be aware of the issues facing mixed race people — but then fails to deliver on providing any meaningful insight or truly understanding the nuance of the crisis of identity and belonging that reside at the heart of the issue. It asks what side she should choose instead of wondering when it should instead be questioning why we she’d be pressured to make such a choice. And while her white father is well meaning, having him solve the issue, especially in such a flippant way, feels inauthentic. Although his connection with his wife and children might make him more sensitive than most about the issue, a central aspect of the mixed identity is being unable to fully identify with either of your parent’s racial experiences.

Cornell has made strides in allowing mixed people to not have to choose a side, as several of the universities that I applied to still asked me to choose a single race, or perhaps choose the dreaded “other.” The sheer existence of the MiXed at Cornell club is more that I could’ve dreamed of asking for in high school. I would love to see it be more than a tiny club with little to no exposure on campus, and for there to be a greater acknowledgement of it as a place for all mixed people — giving us a chance to acknowledge all of our ancestries by choosing none of them.

So to answer my biology teacher’s question from five years ago, I’m both and neither. I’m mixed. Sorry that’s not the answer you wanted, Dr. Form.

Michaela Bettez is a junior in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at mlb434@cornell.edu. Bet on It runs every other Friday this semester.