Racial Incongruence: My Experience

photo by ophelia livs photography

Today, multiracial and multiethnic children are on the rise in America. As a multiracial individual myself, I have always been aware of the disconnect I experience as my social and self identities differ from one another. Many multiracial children and adults share this racial incongruence. In this post, I hope to share my experiences as a Filipino, Caucasian and Japanese woman. I hope to explain how my cultural experiences were quite confusing growing up as a result of this racial incongruence.

The family I grew up around identifies as mixed-race, as well, but they are Japanese-White. Many of them are white-passing. They did not share my identity exactly. Fielding questions about my racial ambiguity is a common experience for me, and has been my whole life. While none of these things impacted me detrimentally, I do feel that it allows me to open up about multiracial experiences and the nuanced, often incongruent realities of mixed-race children.

“What are you?”

I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. My father is an immigrant from the Philippines, and my mother was born and raised in South Alabama. As a half Filipino, one-eighth Japanese and Caucasian mixed gal, my racial combination is not considered the minority in the Hawaiian Islands. Thirty-eight percent of Hawaii is comprised of people who identify as “Asian,” while those who classify as “White” sit at about twenty-five percent. “Two or more races,” where I would fall, comes in at twenty-four percent. However, this isn’t the case for most of America (WorldPopulationReview.com).

Shortly after my first birthday, my mother and I moved to join my aunt and uncle as they moved to several different military bases around the Southeast. From Alabama to Missouri to Georgia back to Alabama and back to Georgia we went, eventually settling in North Georgia in a small town called Suwanee. This is the town where I grew up, from age six to seventeen.

Here, the racial composition of this town and this state drastically differ from that of Hawaii. In Georgia, the majority of the population identifies as “White.” Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders sit at less than a tenth of a percent, and mixed races are just over two percent (WorldPopulationReview.com).

Filipino in North Georgia

I very rarely (if ever) met someone else who was Filipino. The Filipino half of my family lives in Hawaii, so I wasn’t surrounded by family members who shared (half of) my ethnic and racial identity in my home life. I didn’t meet them until I was 20 years old. In grade school, I remember my mother having conversations about racial identity with me. “You know that you’re Filipino, right?” She would ask. I would respond with a “duh,” but really, looking back: I knew but I didn’t know. I knew that I am Filipino, but I knew nothing of Filipino culture or identity. All I knew was: I was it.

Without these representations in my schools, in my family, in role models around me, and lastly, in the media I consumed or the toys I played with, it was difficult for me to identify others who I could see myself emulating or striving to be who looked like me. I watched the Disney Channel and listened to country music growing up. Do you know how many Filipino country singers there are? Not many, friends. Not many at all. 

I didn’t have others around me who looked like me, and so it was hard for me to say “I want to be the next: *insert inspirational role model here*” without thinking… well, the Filipino version. The mixed version. 

Wait… what am I?

Once, in a restaurant with my boyfriend and his friends, a woman approached me. “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but my friends and I were debating on what your race was. What are you?” she asked, genuinely and inquisitively. I admit that I pridefully boasted I am half Filipino, an eighth Japanese and the “rest” is White. Sometimes, I’ll sprinkle in the fact that I was born in Hawaii because, even though I’m not Hawaiian, it seems to solve the mystery of ambiguity for others asking. Plus, I know the question people are asking me even if they’re not directly asking. People want to know what I am mixed with, if mixed with anything at all. If people are asking “where are you from?” they don’t want to hear me say “Georgia,” if you know what I mean. 

I was proud of my diversity growing up. However, I look back and think that perhaps my “pride” wasn’t exactly born from the most authentic place; my “pride” came from the value others saw in my diversity rather than the value I saw myself. Quickly, I recognized how much others admired my “ethnic” look (I cringe now saying that). I admittedly reaped the attention of my diverse aesthetic, even though I identified most with my Caucasian identity. 

Do I have the right?

I’m very obviously not fully white, and so it’s easiest to claim my Filipino identity as my racial and ethnic identity even though I know nothing about it. It admittedly feels quite weird sometimes to be an advocate for diversity and representation when using my personal experiences because, in a way, I don’t feel that I have the right to draw from my own experiences. 

It has been a joke amongst my family since the time that I was small that my cultural identity is incongruent with my outward identity, and in truth, it is. I didn’t meet the Filipino half of my family until I was 20 years old as a senior in college. My upbringing and developmental years had absolutely nothing to do with the Filipino aspects of my cultural identity. I know more about my Japanese heritage than I do my Filipino heritage simply because I grew up around my Japanese family. 

I didn’t know there was a word for this phenomenon of physical and mental disconnect until recently: racial incongruence.

Racial Incongruence

Racial incongruence means that there is a certain divergence between the way I identify myself racially and ethnically and how others identify me. Although it’s not synonymous, racial incongruence is often heavily associated with people of mixed races, like me. The identity in which others see you is called your social identity, and the way in which you view yourself is your self identity. Racial incongruence happens when the two are not the same.

According to a study called The Impact of Racial Miscategorization and Racial Ambiguity on Multiracial Identity and Well-Being: A Qualitative Study, multiracial individuals face a plethora of different experiences related to identity choices including pressure to choose a single identity, inconsistency between how they are racially defined in society and how they define themselves racially due to physical markers to race, as well as feeling that their identity choices must be justified to others. I read the entire study, which I’ve linked here, and I’d recommend it if you have a free minute. The findings were particularly intriguing to me.

Lack of Role Models

One huge negative aspect of growing up as a multiracial individual happens to be the lack of role models and representation these children have. “Like other children, seeing others like themselves in their environment (i.e. television, magazines, textbooks) help multiracial children understand how to interact with others as well as how they are viewed by society” (Newcomb).

Intentionally or unintentionally, this problem perpetuates the feeling of “other” and “different” within American youth. When children can’t find dolls that look like them, television shows that present characters that look like them or books written about people like them, it sends a message that these things and these systems weren’t “built” for them — a particularly dangerous subliminal narrative for children.

In addition, within the home, multiracial children often do not share the mono-racial background of their parents. This makes it difficult for them to identify and connect socialized issues with their own families. I experienced this growing up. My own siblings are blonde with blue eyes, my mother is white-passing (she’s a quarter Japanese) and my step-father is white as well. “Are you adopted?” someone asked me once while I held my younger sister in Toys-R-Us.

my brother, bryce

my sister, jordan

Although I did not face racial prejudice, racism or discrimination directly in my own life, these are all realities that can be difficult of multiracial children to understand and cope with without role models who share those same experiences around.

Changes in Hollywood

Growing up, I never had accurate representations of me within the media landscape. I couldn’t tell you one actress that I knew was Filipino, but I did know many were of mixed races. I often found myself identifying with people of any Asian decent, like Brenda Song from the Disney Channel. During Halloween, I found that I could easily “pass” for Princess Jasmine, Pocahontas or Mulan, although I never felt that any of them really represented me. (Where was Moana when I needed her? Or… a multiracial princess…?)

However, this is slowly and steadily changing in Hollywood. Hollywood has made more of an effort to include marginalized groups in their films, including more women and minorities. UCLA does an annual report on diversity in Hollywood’s entertainment industry. There was substantial progress for minority leads in broadcast TV shows last year. At the Oscars this year, the nominees represented the most diverse in Academy history, which is incredible progress (IndieWire.com). Some argue, however, it isn’t enough. 

VICE did a wonderful piece on the importance of television representation. They highlighted the cultural impact of Black Panther on our country’s youth. According to research, this representation of minority groups has a tremendous educational impact on the audiences consuming it. Black Panther has a “virtually all-black cast, fantastic representation of strong women, African setting, and nuanced characters and storylines” that heavily disrupted the norms of Hollywood (“Why Diversity on Screen is Important”).

Some others last year included Coco and Wonder Woman, which all broke barriers of putting women and minority characters in the center of the film. However, different surveys still found that the representation of people’s respective races and ethnic backgrounds were “inauthentic” and still not enough, according to Variety.com.

Filipino or White?

Another significant challenge many mixed children have is the pressure to choose one of their races over the other. I often felt “too white” to identify with my Filipino culture and “too Filipino” otherwise. These effects were felt throughout my life. I often found myself comparing my Asian features to the Eurocentric beauty standards represented in the media for a long time, trying out colored contacts and dying my hair. When writing my college essays, I didn’t know if it was appropriate to include my diversity in a diversity statement. What do I say when neither box really fits me? Who am I when being neither Filipino nor White describes me fully?

I wonder if I had had someone to look up to if those years of comparison would have looked the same. Later on, the focus of my platform in pageantry as well as my personal statements to law school would revolve around being this role model for young girls.

Even now, as I head to law school in the fall, this “lack of representation” follows me into my field. The percentage of lawyers who identify as “multiracial” sit at less than two percent (ABA National Lawyer Population Survey).

The Rise of Multiracial Individuals

Multiracial individuals are on the rise here in the US. According to a Pew Research study, mixed-race individuals make up four out of ten Americans. One-in-four mixed-race adults admit they are often confused by their racial background. One-in-five say they have felt like they were or a go-between or “bridge” between different racial groups in their lives. 

Mixed-race individuals will continue to rise exponentially in the coming years. We must recognize nuanced cultural obstacles pertaining to multiracial individuals and have conversations about ways we can best support each other in the future. There will, no doubt, be arising complications and ideologies pertaining to displacement and cultural belonging.

Have you had a similar experience with racial incongruence? I’d love to know. Had you heard of racial incongruence before this post? Let me know via a comment down below! Thanks for reading along.

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Jade Nicole

2 thoughts on “Racial Incongruence: My Experience

  1. Annabelle Schmitt

    I am in LOVE with this! As a mixed race individual, this completely hit home for me. I’ve grown to love my identity and I wouldn’t change it for anything, but I still deal with feelings of confusion regarding my identity often. And I definitely lots of stares and questions about my race. So relatable. Love this post, Jade, thank you for sharing!

    annabelle | http://www.mixed-hues.com


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