Sorry, what's your name?
Sometimes I think I should have been named Shaun Young. Just a small tweak of a few letters and my life could be totally different. Whoever that guy is, whichever of the infinite realities he is in, he might have had a very different set of experiences. Maybe he doesn’t speak any Japanese. Perhaps he went to his ivy league school of choice, just enough of a touch of diversity without being too disruptive. I’m not that guy, though. And it’s not just my name, of course. For many reasons, I have always felt a need to face what I came from, as far back as I can remember.
Back in America, the hard and soft racism expressed in front of me by people before they find out my name is pretty disturbing. I’m white-passing enough to hear what white people really think when they believe they’re talking to someone “on their team.” I doubt I would get to see or hear any of this if my skin was of a darker tone.
Once people do find out my name, I usually end up giving a short elevator speech to explain my unexpected heritage, which includes a brief history lesson. I don’t mind explaining it, but the reactions to my story run the gamut from optimism to disbelief to embarrassment/anger (typically if I have just told someone that their comment on “the weird things Asian people eat” offended me). White people tend to react poorly to the feeling of being deceived.
Being treated like a curiosity gives me anxiety, but being treated like you’re crazy for having a problem with how people see you in regards to race is worse. Being gaslighted for your own identity issues is maddening because it seems almost as if people presume you haven’t been thinking about it your whole life. My existence is not a debate club topic.
On the flip side, I don’t want to play the victim and wrongly pretend that I am not also guilty of generalizing identity issues. I’m sure that I’ve done just that to others in the past, like most everyone else.
Often, I encounter the opposite extreme. I get the impression at times that my existence is some kind of reassurance of progress, that we are moving forward as a society. This is especially true when talking to liberal-minded people about my heritage. The irony is that paired with the expression of hope that my mixed-race existence apparently gives people, I’ve also been called a new race altogether. This feels simultaneously like a well-intended condescension, oversimplification, and pigeonholing into the existing framework of privileged-based racial hierarchy. People can’t seem to imagine anything truly new, even when they’re calling it new.