The Mixed-Race Queer Girl Manifesto
(from Quantify #1, 2000)
Part One: The Personal Background
On the racial spectrum, bi/multiracialism is definitely queer. It is not fitting into any rigid, clear-cut categories. It is frightening others with what is alien, unfamiliar, and ambiguous. If they can't tell what you are, can't fit you into a little preconceived box, then they don't know what to do with you.
Many mixed-race people have experienced the inevitable "What are you?" conversation. Even when I do not bring up my ethnic background first, I know that the subject is bound to come up. Sometimes people ask, in an attempt at subtlety, "Where are you from?" or "Where are your parents from?" Other times people, often strangers, will just walk right up to me and want to play guessing games. "You're Filipino, right?" "You Puerto Rican?" "Italian?" "Excuse me, but are you African American?" I usually sigh, roll my eyes, and tell them the truth: "I'm Chinese and Hungarian-Jewish." I have a friend who is Vietnamese and Anglo that takes a different approach: he will lie and agree with whatever the inquisitor guesses. "Yes, I'm Chicano." "Yes, I'm Chinese." "Um-hmmm, I'm part Cherokee Indian." I like his strategy a lot better than mine. It's smart. When people interrogate us about our racial backgrounds, do they really care what the answer is?
I have another mixed-race friend with whom I've often discussed the what-are-you phenomenon. She pointed out that there are often differences in the motivations behind the question. When Caucasians question us, their ulterior motive is sometimes to put us in our place, to assert that we obviously cannot, and never could be, white. When people of color ask about our ethnicity, however, it is sometimes a way to "claim" us as one of their own. I experienced this just yesterday. A woman began to speak to me in Spanish, and when I shyly replied, she asked "Eres mexicana o americana?" I smiled, shook my head, and replied "Americana." Her question was not invasive, but comforting and inclusive, the opposite of a twelve year old white girl saying to me, "You Chinese or something?" Obnoxious comments never fail to make me feel like a sideshow freak attraction.
I grew up knowing exactly who I was, racially and ethnically. My mother is second-generation Chinese, and was raised with her brother and two sisters behind the laundry in New York City her parents inherited from her paternal grandfather. Every weekend of my childhood, I would be immersed in Chinese culture by spending time with my grandparents: trips to Chinatown, elaborate banquets, listening in on conversations that were a mix of Cantonese and English. My father, born in Hungary during the middle of World War II, emigrated to the US as a little boy with his mother after the Holocaust left him a fatherless "displaced person." When my brother and I were little, our father taught us how to count to ten in Hungarian, and practiced oneg dances with us on the front lawn after we had learned them at JCC day camp. Family was central growing up. Strong familial ties enabled me to know, without a doubt, that I was Asian, and that I was Jewish. It was simple as that. Hey, it was the post-Civil Rights era. Several of my playmates were also bi- and multiracial, multi-ethnic mutts like myself. Wasn't everybody?
I didn't question the fact that I was biracial. I hated when forms at school had the dreaded "check one race" boxes. I'd either leave them blank, check off "Other," write in a new category, or defy the rules and check all that applied. My friends and I would discuss how we were supposed to answer the question. It all seemed so arbitrary; one girl's Chinese mother told her to check "white" because that's what her father was; a Cuban/Greek friend checked "Hispanic" because she thought she could get more scholarships that way. Whatever, we'd complain to each other. We were perfectly comfortable with who we were, who our parents and families were; it was them, the outsiders, who were uncomfortable with our backgrounds, our ambiguous racial features, our mix-and-match smorgasbord names.
Although I have always detested being interrogated about my race, I have always had an answer. Even if this answer does not always satisfy the interrogator, it does satisfy me. I am biracial, I am Asian, I am Jewish, I am Chinese, I am Hungarian, I am a person of color--all of these are ways and parts of ways I would describe myself racially and ethnically. I grew up understanding this.
My sexuality has been more difficult to describe; I haven't always had the words, the language to explain it. I don't claim to have known that I was a big ol' lesbian since the first grade. My family gave me a history and a sense of pride when it came to race and ethnicity, but I was not born to a long line of queers who could instill a history and a pride in being queer. Like most girls growing up in heterosexist American culture, I assumed that I was straight, that I would fall in love with a boy and a boy would fall in love with me (hopefully it would be the same boy, but not necessarily), and that would be that. Well, throughout middle and high school I did like some boys, and some boys did like me. Unfortunately, they were not the same boys and "like" was never requited on either end. In seventh grade I was accused of being a lesbian because I was always too shy and embarrassed to tell my friends about crushes I had on boys; not gushing over guys all the time put me under sexual suspicion, and I was branded a "prude" because I'd never french-kissed a boy. By my last year of high school, I was convinced I was a total freak because I'd never been in a relationship and lacked any sort of desire for anyone. I stopped considering myself straight not because I started liking girls, but because I quit liking boys.
By the time I started college, I didn't have any words to describe how I felt about myself as a sexual human being. I didn't feel like a sexual human being at all! I got mild crushes on boys, and mild crushes on girls, but I didn't think about sex all the time, didn't like to discuss it, and certainly didn't want to do it. Ewww, I thought. Penises, ick. Vaginas, ick. People started to wonder about me. Whereas friends, acquaintances, and strangers were blunt about questioning my racial background, no one was up-front with me when it came to asking about my sexual identity. And, although I didn't have a word to describe myself (the scant choices of heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual and asexual did not suffice), I longed for someone simply to ask me, to enter into a conversation about the stupid rigidity of sexual identity categorization.
It was a funny little paradox. I hated that people would ask what race I was because I had no issues with it--I knew exactly what and who I was--but I desperately wanted someone to ask me about my sexuality because I didn't have an easy way to talk about it. Instead of asking me to my face "what I was," people would either assume one way or another, go behind my back and ask my close friends, or ask round-about questions, trying to guess by the type of music I listened to or the people I hung out with. I think their curiousity about my sexuality was similar to their curiousity about my race: both, on the surface, are ambiguous, not easily accounted for or described. People tend to classify individuals by outward markers, and neither my facial features nor my clothing clearly shouted out "Chink!" or "Dyke!" Ambiguity scares people. Like I said at the beginning of this essay, if they can't tell what you are, then they don't know what to do with you, how to talk to you, how to react or behave around you. I think that people find ambiguity threatening and scary because it means that the perameters that order their world are not so rigid and set; my ambiguity forces people to begin to question labels, identities, and even themselves.
For the past few years I have just considered myself queer. To me, queer merely means I don't fit into the dominant heterosexual paradigm. It means I can be attracted to people of various genders, or to no one at all. It's a large, fluid category that goes beyond hetero/homo/bi/asexual. If I were asked to "check one sexual orientation," I'd either leave it blank, check off "Other," write in a new category, or defy the rules and check all that applied. (Hmm, is this starting to sound familiar?)
Part Two: The Theory
Almost every person I know of mixed-race background is queer. I don't think that this is a random coincidence. I'm not saying that there is a direct correlation--that if your parents are of different races then that means you are destined to be a flaming homosexual--but I do think there is a relation here that needs to be explored. There is something in living an interstitial existence--a life between the lines--that creates a certain freedom and fluidity. We are anomalies among anomalies, able to enter multiple worlds at multiple times, as both outsiders and insiders.
Many people of mixed-race background (hapas, mestizas/os, mixed-bloods, bi/multiracials, whatever we choose to call ourselves), have encountered prejudice and discrimination, not just as people of color, but specifically as mixed-race individuals--the children of parents of different races. The "What about the children?" argument against interracial relationships implies that mixed-race children are and will be defective. It also presumes heterosexuality. Just as sexual relationships between people of different races have been, and continue to be, taboo in this country, sexual relationships between people of the same sex have been, and continue to be, condemned (although not in exactly the same way, of course). Interracial marriages were illegal in the United States until just a few decades ago, and sodomy laws are still on the books in many states.
Although my parents hooked up in the '70s, when interracial relationships were "hip" and "in," they did break the cultural norm held by mainstream non-hippie American society: stick to your own kind. And, although the '90s have been flush with pride bumper stickers and out celebrities, many segments of society still overtly disapprove same-sex relationships. I am not equating dating someone of a different race with dating someone of the same gender, but I am interested in the relationship between the two, and how being born to parents of different races affects one's sexuality.
Being biracial prepared me from the beginning for overt and covert hatred and misunderstanding, not only from the white-straight-Christian-male hegemony, but from people within my own so-called "communities." This includes anti-Asian and anti-Semitic sentiments from other people of color, as well as feeling unwelcomed by other Asian Americans or Jewish Americans because I am only "half." Coming out as a dyke added another layer; I learned that one oppression does not cancel out another, that is, there are plenty of racist queers and homophobic people of color in this world.
I rely strongly on my relationships with other mixed-race queer boys and girls, on other Asian Americans, Jews, queers, people of color, women, and so on. At the same time, I refuse to relinquish any of my identities for anyone else's comfort, convenience, understanding, or political cause. I am not a fragmented person, but everything all at once: not sometimes a girl, or sometimes queer, or sometimes a person of color, but always all of the above, and then some. Sometimes certain issues take precedence, of course, but all of my identifying characteristics are always there, under the surface, affecting how I think, act, speak, and also how others react to me. My complex identity, and my commitment to each part of that identity, is often met with anger, defensiveness, ignorance and just a genuine misunderstanding.
For example, for several years I considered myself a part of the young feminist punk rock riot grrrl community. Riot grrrl was predominantly composed of white middle-class girls who could be very explicit when it came to "dialoguing" about, analyzing, and deconstructing sexism and queer oppression. Glib statements about anti-racism and race and class privilege abounded in zines, songs, and phrases silk-screened on t-shirts, but the reality experienced by colored grrrls often spoke a different story. Almost every time I brought up race in my zines, I would receive defensive letters from white girls attacking me, telling me that I was wrong, totally oblivious that they were replicating racist systems of oppression in their attempts to silence me. Girls of color were often an invisible, unacknowledged presence, pushed into the margins of riot grrrl. When we were sought out, it was still in offensive terms: as tokens, as educators, as the white grrrl's burden. Rock shows and girl conventions were supposed to be "safe spaces," but for many girls of color, they were just the opposite.
Riot grrrl is just one example of what can, and often does, happen in identity-based movements. As a person who claims multiple identities (including but certainly not limited to activist, artist, writer, feminist, person of color, and queer girl extraordinaire), I am sometimes explicitly asked to submerge one part of my identity for the sake of another; other times these commands are unspoken, and even well-intentioned. They always hurt, nonetheless, especially when they come from people I consider "allies," or from members of other marginalized groups. As a mixed-race queer girl, I have a multitude of stories to tell: Asian Americans have told me or implied that I'm not really Asian because I can't speak Cantonese, I have had my commitment to and legitimacy within racial justice activism questioned by other people of color because I am "only" biracial (and half white at that), and I was even called "lotus blossom" (a very gendered and racially-loaded term), by a gay Jewish man.
My existence and identities have been made invisible, my voice silenced, time and time again. Sometimes I feel schizophrenic, like I'm going crazy, coming apart at the seams: the voices inside my head begin to mimic what the voices outside tell me: "Choose, choose, you must choose," as if it were impossible to have multiple identities, hold multiple allegiances. I know I am not the crazy one; what is crazy is the idea that I am somehow a traitor (to my race, my gender, my sexuality), when I vocalize that I am an integrated, complete human being.
I've never met anyone else who can call herself a Chinese-Hungarian-Jewish-American middle-class queer girl. Does this mean I don't have a community to call my own? Of course not. I will forge a community out of construction paper and macaroni if I have to. Because I am sick of having to explain myself over and over again to people who just do not get it (and probably never will), I will connect with those who share a common bond, who know of where I'm from, of what I speak, of how I live. I yearn for community. The community that I claim is ephemeral, existing not in geography but in sentiment: in letters, zines, emails, visits, hours in coffee shops scattered across this continent. My community is forged through the repetition of phrases like "This happened to me. You too?" and "My family said this," or "My girlfriend did this," or "What the fuck's up with these white and/or straight and/or male and/or [insert one privileged charactistic here] people anyway?"
One of my goals in writing this essay is to reach out to other mixed-race queers, establish a forum, and cement a community. MIXED-RACE QUEERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE! I also think it would be super if everyone, not just mixed-race queers, thought about the connections between their racial identities and their sexual identities. For example, here is a list I compiled:
How Being Biracial Affects My Sexual Identity:
* It helps decrease tunnel vision. I refuse to be one of those queers who insists that queer oppression is the most pressing issue, and ignores other systems such as racism, classism, and sexism.
* It delayed my coming out to my family. For a long time, my family members were the only people I had, the only ones I could talk to. There were things about me that I never had to explain to them because they knew me, because we shared the same background, the same experiences. I was afraid that announcing my queerness would have changed all that; I wasn't willing to sacrifice our relationship.
* It shapes the way I refuse to view sexuality as an either/or category. Just as one racial category cannot define who I am, one narrow sexual category does not suffice either.
How Being Queer Affects My Racial Identity:
* Again, it helps decrease tunnel vision. I refuse to be a person of color who insists that race oppression is the most pressing issue, and ignores other systems such as sexism, classism, heterosexism and transphobia.
* It means I am virtually destined to be in interracial/interethnic relationships. Finding a compatible Asian/Jewish boy would be hard enough, but finding another Asian/Jewish girl who likes girls? It's not very likely.
* It means I will never be "colored" enough for those who equate queerness with assimilation, trying to be white, and a bourgeois lifestyle.
Race and sexuality are slippery identifiers. As a mixed-race queer girl, I am an example of one who can slide in and out of identities and communities, either by choice or through others' inclusions and exclusions. For me, queerness seems like a natural progression from bi/multiracialism: growing up biracial, I am already familiar with shuttling back and forth between being an outsider and an insider, not fitting into others' convenient little categories, and intimidating people with ambiguity. As a mixed-race individual, I am the physical result of an already-broken sexual taboo.
What do I want? I want to shake up people's assumptions. I want people to acknowledge my existence as a biracial Asian American Jewish queer girl of color without expecting me to sacrifice one part of my identity for their comfort or convenience. I want people to acknowledge the existence of other mixed-race queers. Finally, by understanding how our racial identities affect our sexual identities and vice versa, I want us to begin an honest conversation about why rigid binary identifying categories are useless, hurtful, and irrelevant to most of our lives.
(c) Lauren Jade Martin