Does Your Skin Tan? And Other Mestiza Musings

My mom is a 5’1" Pilipina with black hair and dark brown eyes. My dad, an Irish American, is her physical antithesis at 6’1 with red hair and blue eyes. When people first meet my parents, or figure out that I’m of mixed heritage, they usually tell me how lucky I am. They say something about how they love exotic-looking babies. I hear that I'm a mestiza, "the best of both worlds." What most people don’t realize is that these comments make me feel like caricature, a biracial “china doll,” a "halfie." Rarely do biracial people get acknowledged as our own minority group, and because of that, not many people are aware of the unique challenges we face.

I grew up in an area overflowing with diversity. Puerto Ricans, Pilipinos, West Indians, Irish, Italians, Haitians and many other ethnic minorities cohabitated in my community. However, as assorted as these groups were ethnically, there weren’t nearly as many interracial families and naturally people were curious. I often got questions like, "are your eyes real?" "Does your skin tan?" "Do you prefer to date Pilipino or white guys?" "Do you want your kids to be white?" I was always hesitant to reply because I couldn't understand why others felt so comfortable asking me these types of questions when we barely knew each other. People wanted a genuine answer, though, so I forced myself to think of everything from a racial perspective. And when I was asked with which race I identified more, I couldn't help but interpret that question as them asking which parent I preferred. Thus, my parents had become more than just my father and mother; they were representatives of their cultures.

Before we moved, my dad had a particularly hard time living in our neighborhood. He was a close friend to all our neighbors and his coworkers, but working at a bank as the only white guy made him the minority in a neighborhood where about 20% of the population was below the poverty line. He was often disrespected, an out-of-towner who stuck out. As stressful as that was, what really seemed to upset him was coming home to an apartment full of my mom’s parents, siblings and visiting relatives and hearing the room hush the second he stepped foot through the door. The family members who didn’t know him very well would greet him in polite, quiet English but they wouldn't continue speaking until after he left. I didn't think anything of it at the time but once, when it was just the two of us, my dad looked at me with sad eyes and asked, “Do you think your mom’s family doesn’t like me?” What was hard for him to understand was that because English was their second language, they were too embarrassed to speak it in front of him and because he only knew conversational Ilocano, he couldn’t participate in their conversations in Bisaya. What was simply shyness on their part was misconstrued as neglect and indifference.

I find my father’s story important in my journey to finding identity as a person of mixed race because that was the first time that I truly realized that 1) there was such a thing as race and 2) being too concerned with race will often lead to inaccessibility and despondency. For years, I was trying to identify only with my Pilipino side simply because I thought I needed this metaphysical home that I felt having one race would give me. In college, I got very involved in Pilipino organizations on and off campus and learned so much not just about the culture but our place in a global society. What I started to notice, though, was that I spent my free time almost exclusively with other Pilipinos and that realization reminded me of how my dad felt whenever my family would isolate him. I began to wonder: outside the confines of my family's apartment, could others interpret cultural differences as neglect and indifference? In other words, by surrounding ourselves completely with our own ethnicity, were we spreading the idea that “Mabuhay” was only meant for other Pilipinos?

Being biracial has caused a lot of self-analyzing and confusion in my life but now, at 22, I think that what I’ve learned to understand most is that racial identity is no longer important to me. Though I still think preserving culture is imperative, I no longer feel obligated to categorize myself, or adjust my personality based on my appearance. I love my heritage on both sides: the cultures, the history, and the people. More than anything, I love that the world has more than two cultures to offer me.