My Experience With Racial Identity (So Far) as a Mixed Race Woman

Being a rare mix of races—in my case, half Chinese (dad’s side) and half Native American (mom’s side)—is a unique situation. These two cultures are incredibly different from each other, making it difficult for me to define my racial identity.

It’s also been tough to do so since I was brought up in what could best be described as a “culture-neutral” environment. At home, my family never really practiced any specific cultural customs or traditions, my parents only ever sharing small tidbits every once in a while about their respective ethnicities.

As a result, almost all of my knowledge of Chinese culture stems from my 13 years of attendance at a predominantly Chinese school. I grew fonder of my Chinese side as I was assigned to research and write essays about my relatives’ immigration experience. I also learned Chinese customs and traditions by observing the way my friends and classmates went about them, constantly making mental notes to myself. I wanted to identify with my friends, so that I could understand their conversations about culture and have a say in them too.

Despite all of this, I often felt out of place because I knew that I wasn’t full Chinese like my classmates. I don’t look Chinese, and I didn’t come from a home that practiced Chinese customs and traditions.

Sometimes I’d think to myself that I’m a fraud for even trying to learn about Chinese culture, telling myself—as some people have also said to me—that I’m “only half.”

During this time it was also easy for me to essentially erase the Native American side of me. I often neglected it because I didn’t know much about the tribes I come from, nor had I any friends or classmates of Native American descent. The only times I really paid attention to this half of me were the brief moments Native Americans were mentioned during history class. This part of my racial identity lay dormant for most of my childhood, until I decided to seek it out on my own.

A high school project required me to construct a family tree, allowing me to become more familiar with my mother’s side of the family. I sought out the collection of family trees and related notes, which were put together by my mom’s cousin. As I browsed them, I was fascinated by my relatives’ Native American names, and I asked my mom about certain relatives—many of whom had tragic stories given the historical context.

After I learned more about my relatives’ struggles due to the Native American experience, I felt like I could not empathize with them. I’m only half, I’ve never even been to a reservation, and I don’t practice any Native American customs.

Figuring out how to define my Native American identity proved to be just as difficult as it is to define my Chinese side, if not more.

This issue of what makes someone Native American was one of many discussed in a course I took on biracial and multicultural identities. People have differing opinions on what makes someone Native American, and more specifically, what it means to be a member of a particular tribe. While some believe that tribal status should be based on blood quantum alone, others believe one’s tribal identity also lies in his or her knowledge of the tribe’s customs.

After learning about this I was very conflicted; I may have enough blood to enroll in a tribe, but I haven’t grown up in the culture to know anything about it. How can I say I’m Native American if all I have is my blood to prove it and yet have none of the same experiences my relatives have had? For now, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most I can do is research my tribes to get a better understanding of my cultures, and to be confident in knowing that my blood quantum isn’t meaningless because I hadn’t grown up around Native American cultures.

In the same ethnicities class, we also extensively studied how, for some people, it’s difficult to understand that being mixed race doesn’t mean choosing one of your ethnicities over the other(s).

Being mixed race means that all of your races exist concurrently—even if your percentage is higher for one race than it is for another. This made me realize how I belong to each of the three tribes that constitute my Native American side, even if I have greater blood quantum in one of them than the other two. If someone were to ask which ethnicity of mine I prefer the most, I wouldn’t be able to answer. I don’t base my racial identity off of only one of my races; it’s constituted by all of them simultaneously.

Although I now have a more developed sense of appreciation for the cultures I come from, I still sometimes have the nagging feeling of inadequacy because I am neither fully Native American (let alone fully belonging to any one of the three tribes that constitute this half), nor am I fully Chinese. What I can say for certain is that my racial identity is still forming, and that it’ll take time and maturation for me to get to a place of security. In the meantime, I’ll continue gaining confidence in knowing it’s completely up to me to figure out my racial identity and never up for anyone else to debate.

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My Experience With Racial Identity (So Far) as a Mixed Race Woman

Being a rare mix of races—in my case, half Chinese (dad’s side) and half Native American (mom’s side)—is a unique situation. These two cultures are incredibly different from each other, making it difficult for me to define my racial identity.

It’s also been tough to do so since I was brought up in what could best be described as a “culture-neutral” environment. At home, my family never really practiced any specific cultural customs or traditions, my parents only ever sharing small tidbits every once in a while about their respective ethnicities.

As a result, almost all of my knowledge of Chinese culture stems from my 13 years of attendance at a predominantly Chinese school. I grew fonder of my Chinese side as I was assigned to research and write essays about my relatives’ immigration experience. I also learned Chinese customs and traditions by observing the way my friends and classmates went about them, constantly making mental notes to myself. I wanted to identify with my friends, so that I could understand their conversations about culture and have a say in them too.

Despite all of this, I often felt out of place because I knew that I wasn’t full Chinese like my classmates. I don’t look Chinese, and I didn’t come from a home that practiced Chinese customs and traditions.

Sometimes I’d think to myself that I’m a fraud for even trying to learn about Chinese culture, telling myself—as some people have also said to me—that I’m “only half.”

During this time it was also easy for me to essentially erase the Native American side of me. I often neglected it because I didn’t know much about the tribes I come from, nor had I any friends or classmates of Native American descent. The only times I really paid attention to this half of me were the brief moments Native Americans were mentioned during history class. This part of my racial identity lay dormant for most of my childhood, until I decided to seek it out on my own.

A high school project required me to construct a family tree, allowing me to become more familiar with my mother’s side of the family. I sought out the collection of family trees and related notes, which were put together by my mom’s cousin. As I browsed them, I was fascinated by my relatives’ Native American names, and I asked my mom about certain relatives—many of whom had tragic stories given the historical context.

After I learned more about my relatives’ struggles due to the Native American experience, I felt like I could not empathize with them. I’m only half, I’ve never even been to a reservation, and I don’t practice any Native American customs.

Figuring out how to define my Native American identity proved to be just as difficult as it is to define my Chinese side, if not more.

This issue of what makes someone Native American was one of many discussed in a course I took on biracial and multicultural identities. People have differing opinions on what makes someone Native American, and more specifically, what it means to be a member of a particular tribe. While some believe that tribal status should be based on blood quantum alone, others believe one’s tribal identity also lies in his or her knowledge of the tribe’s customs.

After learning about this I was very conflicted; I may have enough blood to enroll in a tribe, but I haven’t grown up in the culture to know anything about it. How can I say I’m Native American if all I have is my blood to prove it and yet have none of the same experiences my relatives have had? For now, I’ve come to the conclusion that the most I can do is research my tribes to get a better understanding of my cultures, and to be confident in knowing that my blood quantum isn’t meaningless because I hadn’t grown up around Native American cultures.

In the same ethnicities class, we also extensively studied how, for some people, it’s difficult to understand that being mixed race doesn’t mean choosing one of your ethnicities over the other(s).

Being mixed race means that all of your races exist concurrently—even if your percentage is higher for one race than it is for another. This made me realize how I belong to each of the three tribes that constitute my Native American side, even if I have greater blood quantum in one of them than the other two. If someone were to ask which ethnicity of mine I prefer the most, I wouldn’t be able to answer. I don’t base my racial identity off of only one of my races; it’s constituted by all of them simultaneously.

Although I now have a more developed sense of appreciation for the cultures I come from, I still sometimes have the nagging feeling of inadequacy because I am neither fully Native American (let alone fully belonging to any one of the three tribes that constitute this half), nor am I fully Chinese. What I can say for certain is that my racial identity is still forming, and that it’ll take time and maturation for me to get to a place of security. In the meantime, I’ll continue gaining confidence in knowing it’s completely up to me to figure out my racial identity and never up for anyone else to debate.

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