“What are you?”: Embracing a mixed-roots identity


(Illustration by Raka Sarkar | Senior Staff Illustrator)

By Erica Brandbergh | Columnist

I once asked my dad, out of curiosity, whether he put Caucasian, Asian or both on surveys that ask about his race. He paused for a bit and said he didn’t know. I asked if he identified with one more than the other, and he was unsure of that as well.

My dad is half-Japanese. He was born on an American Army base in Okinawa and came to the United States at a young age with my grandparents and his siblings. His mom — who we call “Oba” — is from southwestern Japan. My Oba never taught my father Japanese, so I never learned much beyond the basics that she taught me when she was my kindergarten teacher.

Despite my diminished interaction with my non-white heritage, it was clear from my experiences growing up as someone with only one-quarter Asian ancestry that white society at large didn’t consider me fully one of its own. That reality is even more pronounced for people who are half non-white, like my father, or even more.

People with partial or half-Asian roots often feel a pull between multiple backgrounds. Many feel they don’t truly belong to any background at all. That’s why projects that give multiracial people a community and a place to share their experiences can be vital to their sense of identity.

One such project is the Hapa Project, which California artist Kip Fulbeck started in 2001.

Fulbeck got the idea for the project as a child when he wished he could share the experiences he went through as multiracial with others. He went around the United States photographing more than 1,200 part-Asian and part-Pacific Islander subjects who self-identify as “hapa,” then asking them to identify their ethnicities in their own words. The project challenges the myths of exoticism surrounding multiracial people by allowing them to explain their answer to the question, “What are you?”

Fulbeck, who himself has Chinese, English, Irish and Welsh heritage, named the project after the Hawaiian slang word, “hapa.” Once a derogatory term for mixed-race people, it literally means “half” and has expanded beyond the Hawaiian islands after they became a part of the United States.

The term is now embraced by many people throughout the country who are part Asian or Pacific Islander. A Reddit forum devoted specifically to hapas’ experiences counts almost 7,000 members. According to a 2007 University of Hawaii study, as much as 21.4 percent of the state’s population self-designates using the term.

Fulbeck’s work allows millions of multiracial individuals of Asian and Pacific Islander descent to define themselves, instead of others doing it for them. It has allowed hapas to embrace their identities and be proud of their backgrounds and has created awareness of a topic people know little about.

Cassie Boutin, a senior at Pitt who is part Asian and part white, identified with the same issue Fulbeck targeted in the Hapa Project. Boutin realized that she and her other multiethnic friends had no outlet by which they could discuss their identities or the issues they faced because of their backgrounds.

In order to foster a community that would allow multiracial people to gather and share their experiences, she founded the Pitt Multiracial Student Association in the spring of 2016.

“Since starting the club and getting all these people with different ethnic and cultural backgrounds together, it’s been a lot easier to put our thoughts into words and talk about our experiences,” Boutin said.

This sort of community could have functioned as a beneficial outlet had it existed where my few other multiethnic friends and I grew up. Growing up in a majority-white community in rural Pennsylvania, I was often asked the question, “What are you?” I only knew a few people who shared a mixed-Asian background similar to mine.

Although I was only one-quarter Asian, peers and strangers would bring up my ethnicity, asking if I was part Asian. Even a taxi driver even once guessed that I was part Japanese just because his wife was. More recently, a white Uber driver assumed I would understand his wife’s personality just because she is Asian, and without even asking, he assumed I was as well.

Many of the questions people ask mixed race individuals are out of curiosity or lack of understanding. Endeavors like the Hapa Project help increase visibility and the understanding that every mixed person has had his or her own experience confronting identity.

It is important for multiracial and multiethnic groups to have a voice, and the project gives individuals that opportunity. It allows people with Asian or Pacific Islander descent to share their stories and what it means to them to be “hapa.”

“Honestly, having a mixed identity is just as real and valid as having, say, an African-American identity or an Asian-American identity,” Boutin said.

Fulbeck wants his project’s audience to take away the idea that race is a social construct and a complex topic. What it means to be hapa varies from individual to individual, and identity is self-formed.

It’s important that children have peers they can identify with and are exposed to others like them. I have come to be proud of my Italian, Irish and Japanese heritage — this mix of backgrounds contributes to my own distinctive identity. Movements like Fulbeck’s and Boutin’s are important, if only to provide members of an underrepresented group with the community needed to form an identity that’s more than simply the sum of its parts.

“There’s a lot of this idea that I’m half-white, so I identify as half-white,” Boutin said. “It’s not a mix of both [races], it’s its own separate thing.”

Erica primarily writes about social issues and mental health for The Pitt News. Write to Erica at [email protected].

Leave a comment.