On being “ethnically ambiguous”

This is part two of Vox First Person’s exploration of multiracial identity in America. Read part one here and part three here.

I often joke that one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received was that I look like Apollonia from Purple Rain. I am both vain and a Prince fan; it’s an honor to have any tie to the musical genius, or a woman who is inarguably stunning. But also wrapped up in her appearance (dark hair, light brown skin) and status as a Prince protege (oozing sexual energy with the musician) is a descriptor that I have worn as both a point of pride and a reluctant wound: ambiguously ethnic.

I grew up in Hawaii, surrounded by people who, to outsiders, may be described with such mystique and confusion but, to us, are simply “mixed” or hapa, half-and-half. More than 40 percent of marriages in the islands are interracial or -ethnic. Most of my friends could rattle off two to 10 ethnicities. The norm is to be mixed. The beauty and cultural ideal is a blended one.

In the islands, we talk less about race, a division of people based on physical characteristics, and more about ethnicity, where our ancestors are from. You aren’t any less Kanaka Maoli, or Native Hawaiian, if you have light skin; no one questions if you’re “Korean enough” if you have green eyes. You are the complex mixture that you say you are.

In a place where the land, or ‘āina, is deeply important to our cultural history, we also describe ourselves, and others, in our relationship to it: locals (Hawaii born and bred, aloha spirit in our soul) versus haoles (foreign, white, perhaps less integrated). My mother was haole from Louisiana, of English descent. My father was local, a mix of Portuguese from the Azores and Kanaka Maoli. I am a mishmash of my father’s dark curly hair and deep-set eyes and my mother’s fair complexion, just as much as I hold both a deep respect for where I came from and a curiosity for what lies beyond it.

But when I moved to the Mainland in my 20s, what it meant to be mixed — and my relationship with it — shifted. On a continent so consumed with categorization, it’s an identity not often recognized, at best watered down to “ambiguously ethnic.” An indictment of “I don’t know how to classify you, so I am going to put you in this other group until I feel comfortable deciding if you are like me or them.” It was no longer the default. I had to figure out a way to explain myself.

When I told people I was from Hawaii or part Native Hawaiian, I was placed into the exotic box. A trope much lovelier than one that, like many Black and Latinx Americans, marks me as dangerous and leaves me dead, but still a space where nefarious women, with their sexual lures, often reside. The number of times I’ve been asked if I know the hula or have been looked at with seductive intrigue are too many to count. And, in some ways, that was fine — as much as I am foreign to them, the Mainland can feel alien to me too.

To accept othering, however, is to accept loneliness. A psychologist once told me that when you enter a room, you always look for your people; there is safety in numbers. It makes sense that when I lived in LA, Latinos often thought I was part Latina, or in a group of Black peers, I am simply white. But when I walk into a party or a new job or my neighborhood bodega, I can spot a mixed person a mile away. These are my people. These are the ones who are not sure where they fit in either.

It can be annoying, to say the least, to have others want to figure and sort you out. But there is a strange power in ambiguity, too. For those seconds that someone is eying you, confused and unsure, you have defied their parameters of race.

“Anything that we can do to reinforce the fact that race is a social category is important,” Jennifer Ho, author of Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture and an ethnic studies professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Vox. “And I think that racially ambiguous people force others to look at their assumptions.”

It’s important to remember that race was born out of racism, she says; the broad racial categories Americans know today (Black, white, Latinx, Asian) were created to essentially justify slavery and to excuse treating people terribly. While skin color is inheritable, the social connotations are not, so “if people can understand the kind of socialization of it,” Ho says, “then they can start to understand the power dynamics, they can understand the underlying racism that undergirds this whole concept of racial categorization.”

In this way, ambiguity is often touted as the future we all want, where lines are blurred and everyone has coffee-milk skin and racism is solved. But it’s not that easy — we must understand the function of race and categorization first.

Even in the great big melting pot of Hawaii, where we ask each other “what are you?” in casual conversation and joke about stereotypes, we are by no means post-racial. In fact, buying into this idyllic narrative may have led us to gloss over some of our histories and not recognize the hierarchies that Westernization hath wrought. We might be generally aware of how we became so mixed — our ancestors working together on sugar plantations, swapping food and tales — but what’s often missing, at least in lessons I was taught in school and many conversations I had growing up, is the emphasis that this mixing was a result of colonialism.

“When teaching Ethnic Studies at the college level, we still have students who say they didn’t know their history,” University of Hawaii Mānoa ethnic studies professor Davianna Pōmaikaʻi McGregor told Vox. “Of course, with Native Hawaiians, there is a lot more consciousness in information and conversation and in the public discussions about the injustices to Native Hawaiians. But I think for other ethnic groups, it’s not as much discussed.”

These “plantation days” were not so hunky-dory. They came about after a group of haole elites — colonizers and missionaries from England and America’s New England — began to have influence among the Kanaka ali’i, or ruling class, convincing the king to lease land to them to cultivate sugar. Plantation owners assumed that the general Kanaka population, the makaʻāinana, would be willing laborers, but the Kanaka were already suspicious of haoles who had destroyed their forests and killed them with disease; they also did not want to labor for coupons when their reciprocal relationship with the ‘āina provided them sustenance.

Finding the Kanaka insubordinate and ungrateful, plantation owners imported laborers first from China, Japan, Korea, the Azores (where some of my father’s ancestors were from), Puerto Rico, and the Philippines; by 1910, about 43,000 immigrants, making up more than half of the islands’ population, would be working on plantations. Owners and managers often pitted ethnic groups against each other (differing wages, nationalist incentives) as a way to get more work out of them. It wasn’t until the groups realized they had more power if they went on strike together and merged unions did they unify, eventually becoming Hawaii’s working class.

This solidarity helped form an identity — locals — leading to interethnic marriage and a larger sense of community. But this did not solve Hawaii’s inequities. While all this plantation stuff was going on, the haole elite, with the help of the US military, also overthrew the last reigning Kanaka monarch, Queen Liliʻuokalani; Hawaii was annexed to the US before the turn of the 20th century. The Kanaka, who had already dwindled in population by 84 percent before plantations took off, lost what little land they had left and hadn’t been able to purchase. This degradation continues to take a toll: Today, Kanaka suffer disproportionately from asthma, diabetes, obesity, and psychological distress, with more than 15 percent living in poverty. Our working-class status may have all once bonded us, but not all groups have had equal access to economic and educational mobility in the years since.

Poverty, and currently Covid-19 rates, are even worse for non-white groups who have emigrated to the islands post-plantation — the Pacific Islander communities of the Marshallese and Chuukese, in particular. And in fact, who gets to be local remains a thorny subject — it is not necessarily synonymous with people of color. Among older generations, there remains anti-Black sentiment, learned from Western influences; Micronesians, who have immigrated to Hawaii in the past few decades, also face racism and scapegoating over the scarcity of jobs.

This layered history is why — even though Hawaii may be the best example we have in America on how to be less racist because we acknowledge each other’s complex identities, and our interpersonal relationships span numerous communities — we’d do even better if our histories weren’t so “idealized,” as McGregor says. If we were more aware of how we were once thrown into an ethnic war for capitalist gain and understood how the generational trauma of colonization works, we’d be less doomed to repeat it.

In this way, multiracial people are asked to sit with their loaded histories tied to their makeup — whether it’s displacement or colonization or slavery — which is no small task. Especially when you live in a perpetually sunny place where the vibe is chill and the motto is “no make waves.”

Many of my multiracial friends, both inside and outside of Hawaii, say that they didn’t have any kind of sit-down with their parents about navigating being mixed. My parents’ identities may have been clear to me, joked about even — my mom, the Southern belle English teacher in her pressed blouses and pantyhose, my dad, the fireman bruddah who mumbled in pidgin under his mustache. But we didn’t talk about where their lineages converged: How if Hawaii wasn’t occupied by the military, then annexed to the US, my mother never would have been able to uproot her life and meet my father, who lived most of his childhood in the territory of Hawaii, not the state. As I’ve grown older, I often wondered what brought one of my Kanaka and Azorean ancestors together — was it love or was it land? But mostly, I contemplate what it means to hold both — to hurt for the ‘āina my people lost while also benefiting from perks of whiteness and Westernization.

Oftentimes, ethnic ambiguity is code for, if not white-passing or “spicy white,” then not dark enough to be clearly X or Y or Z. And there is great privilege there. I may have my father’s face, but I do not have his brown skin. I have never feared for my life at the hands of police or racist vigilantes. In fact, there may have been jobs where white bosses got to check a diversity box for hiring me because they felt more comfortable with my skin tone than someone darker. This same ambiguity lets me code switch when talking to locals so they know I am one of them, or even with people of color outside of Hawaii because I had no alliance with White America — whatever that is — growing up.

For a long time, being ethnically ambiguous allowed me not to put a label on my own identity, either. Letting people think, “What is she?” not only lets me off from having to answer to what my light skin has afforded me, but also from answering: If I live on the Mainland, which I do now, have I abandoned my home, my culture? Am I still local or Kanaka enough? What does it mean to love a place so much, perhaps more than a person, and not find a way back there?

And yet I’m not sure I would have thought much about what it meant to be mixed if I didn’t move away. In many ways, I feel more invested in my culture and the ‘āina than I did when I lived in Hawaii, when I could easily take it for granted — I read and research and write and donate to the kai’i protecting Mauna Kea, or the organizations helping my old neighborhood ravaged by Covid-19. My heart hurts thinking about how my friends, family, and small businesses are struggling because Hawaii’s economy is dependent on an industry that sells a stripped-down version of their culture to tourists.

But while “aloha” may sound like a marketing slogan, it is no joke. Despite its complications, Hawaii thrives on such an undercurrent of warmth and love, it is downright infectious. When I go home, I never feel unwelcome. I am smiled at, chatted up, taken in by ohana and strangers alike. Wading in the ocean, my body moving with the current, I am reconnected. It is my own guilt of leaving that I have to get over. I must remind myself that guilt and shame are holdover manipulations from the missionary days working as they are supposed to.

Hawaii, as both a local and a Native, is at the core of my identity, as much as are my mother’s whiteness and my ability to escape. As Maria P.P. Root explains in her 1993 text, “Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People,” “I have the right not to justify my existence in this world. Not to keep the races separate within me.” Being mixed is to live a state of — and hopefully finding comfort in — ambiguity.

This brings me back to Apollonia and Prince, a man who in smoky eyeliner and tight bell-bottom jumpsuits, shredding solos tinged in funk, rock, and soul, was ambiguous on multiple fronts: race, gender, and genre. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to him — the boundaries were marvelously unclear. But he also simply identified as a Black man, a musician. Just like Apollonia Kotero was a Mexican-American singer and actress, often cast in his shadow. We could see what we wanted to see in them, but it wasn’t up to us to define who they were.

Jessica Machado is the identities editor at Vox. She is working on a memoir about growing up in Hawaii titled Local.

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