“What are you?”, I’ve been hearing that question at least once a month my entire life. Usually from curious, albeit well-meaning, strangers. They take in my olive skin, almond shaped eyes, wavy hair and are utterly stumped. I’ve heard Mexican, Native American, Puerto Rican, Chinese…but very rarely will I ever hear Hawaiian or mixed race. The summary most people come to is that I am brown, and I am other; a summation that has greatly impacted how I live my life.
My mother is Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, German and Irish; while my father is Hawaiian and Danish. This particular blend has created some very diverse offspring. My brother, Keoni, is blonde, light skinned and has hazel eyes. He passes for caucasian daily. My brother, Manu, is dark haired, dark skinned and has hazel eyes. Most of the time people assume due to his striking features that he is Spanish, Puerto Rican or Hawaiian. And then there is me…a blend of the Asian and Hawaiian.
As you can imagine, when the three of us are together people rarely assume that we are siblings. And while that revelation is somewhat amusing, it also reveals how we each lived very different life experiences. While living in Maui, I fit in with the other children- I looked like them, but Keoni didn’t. He was often picked on, and at one point our father had to come into his grade school to show his classmates that he was indeed native Hawaiian. But those roles quickly reversed when we moved to Oregon. That is when I suddenly became very aware of how different I was from my peers.
I was bullied, picked on and experienced my first round of racists attitudes. I had classmates calling me beaner or gook- I didn’t even know what those words meant. In Hawaii we had words like papolo, which meant black or dark or haole, which meant not white, and Asian. But none of those words held any derogatory meaning. That was when I began to identify as a person of color, that was when I realized I was part of the “other” group.
Once I hit adulthood, I had fully integrated into my ethnic identity. I had surrounded myself with a variety of friends, both people of color and caucasian- which had allowed me to find a sense of community. They weren’t Hawaiian, but they or people they knew, had lived through similar experiences. They had been followed in stores, had friends parents suddenly stop allowing them over, been passed over for jobs once the interviewer learned that “Chelsy” or “Christina” was actually a person of color. It was surprising how much we had in common, not just the varying levels of passive aggressive discrimination; but how protective and appreciative we were of each other. Trying to explain this to some of my caucasian friends and family members proved difficult, as they hadn’t lived through the same adversity.
It was through these friends and my family that I found a sense of pride in being mixed race. I started to value the lessons that came with my cultural identity. I have quite a bit of native pride, having been raised in Hawaii, learning my culture’s history and its importance to how it shaped my who I am and how I actively participate and perpetuate my heritage. I found that being who I am had given me different opportunities, I found more value in different causes and it was through those things that I began to change how I lived my life.
Activism, feminism and civil rights became a huge part of who I am. It wasn’t that I wanted to be shouting at protests in the rain or writing essays on civil disobedience while my friends played beer pong- it was that I knew the importance of those actions; I had experienced their effects within my own life. I could not watch as another person of color was targeted for being black, and not be offended. I couldn’t sit by as my friends were being called terrorists because they were Muslim, and not be horrified. To me, these people were my brothers and sisters, they had each experienced the life of the “other”.
Being a minority made these actions personal to me. Knowing both the history we are taught in schools, as well as the often ignored and minimized history of the oppressed, inspired me to begin taking action. I recognize that there are some who do not think racism, bigotry or sexism are modern issues- I know people who believe that this prejudice died off in our parent’s generation; but it is to those people that I would say “please, check your privilege”. It is easy to say “this isn’t a problem” when it doesn’t apply to you. I have watched this happen between friends and even siblings. Having seen life from both sides of the veil of privilege I promise you, it will eventually apply to you. Whether its someone you know or someone you love, or maybe your future children- being “other” doesn’t make their issues any less relevant or important.
As a mixed raced individual, who has lived life in between colors and racial identities, I can say that I have gained a unique and amazing perspective. While some have ignorance and blind entitlement as their privilege, I have this knowledge and appreciation as mine. It is this gift of being the “other” that I wish everyone could experience at some point in their life- because this unique knowledge will leave a permanent and crucial impression on that person and who they decide to become from that moment on. Hopefully, for the better.