by Henry Nguyen
Many biracial youths in American find difficulty belonging with others and with themselves. This issue is rooted deeply in society, and even further in ourselves. A different image of myself is reflected on my friends. They see Asian, but I see myself as the son of two races, Asian and Black, and that experience has opened my eyes. That image has made me more confused than ever. Like other biracial youth, I am puzzled and clueless as to who I should be, and who others want me to be.
The hallways in my school thundered and boomed with footsteps and a melting pot of voices. White noise melted into the background, as I focused on conversation. However, the stroll to our next class quickly fell to a halt when my friend asked a question. In this moment, I felt uncertainty, the white noise completely faded, and I tuned into the words that followed. I was struck by every syllable. “How does it feel being both a model minority and a nigger?”
I was taken back in shock. It was evident to me that this exchange was not going to be pleasant. He compared Asians to African Americans, clearly valuing the former over the latter. For most of my life, I’ve regarded myself as Asian. Not purely because it’s what I mostly identify with, but it’s how I believe I can best fit in. It’s how I believe I can be the most successful. Most mixed youth make similar decisions; however, it is nonetheless disheartening to devalue the other side of the coin. With all the stigmas and pain following being black, it’s understandable why we choose to pass as a different color. In his essay, “Passing, In Moments” Mat Johnson wrote, “Passing is, at its essence, abandonment of the group to better the individual.”
The decision to pass is for survival. But why must children choose who they want to be in order to be happy and successful? Often, I found this choice runs in families. Children are advised to be the dominant race. In the case of Mat Johnson, his black grandmother told him he should pass for white. “‘You got straight hair,”’ he quotes her as saying, ‘“you got pale skin. If people don’t know you’re colored, don’t tell them!’” This is a long running issue. Tasked with difficult decisions and experiences, it is only reasonable that children are vexed.
Back in my school, the vibrant orange and mellow blue walls burned into a seething, bright white. Though our passing period was five minutes, I fermented with anger for what felt like a millennia. Did he really just ask that? Where did this come from? Someone I had regarded as a great friend dropped this bombshell on me. However, in this instant, I felt distant from him. The detachment shattered my feelings, skewering the connection between my colors and my friends.
Alas, biracial youth are constantly lost within these notions. A Harvard study done by Roland G. Fryer, Jr., Lisa Kahn, Steven D. Levitt, and Jörg L. Spenkuch, documented these trends in mixed children. The standard deviation of children feeling accepted and loved had gradually decreased over white, black, and mixed children. The mixed children were the most likely to be depressed and be low on self-confidence.
My typically open and free hands balled up into tightly clenched fists. Although I had no intention of using them, I felt the immense pressure within my palms and fingers. With the boiling heat coursing through my tense muscles, sweat slithered in my fists. My first instinct was to retaliate, yet I couldn’t find the words. I couldn’t taste a sharp and witty response, instead it was a bitter, unfamiliar sour taste reverberating within my mouth. The odor I associated with this moment was putrid, as my nostrils flared in frustration. Eventually, I found the courage to snap back. In a fit of rage, I exclaimed, “How does it feel being an ignorant prick?”
In an act out of character, I followed this incursion with hostility and racial slurs of my own. This scenario was embarrassing and left an obvious crack in my pride. It was insulting, being degraded by my own friend of the same ethnicity and last name. We were both Vietnamese, both Nguyens. In this moment, it felt like I couldn’t embrace both my darker skin and my proud surname.
This is a problem faced by other children. One identity will have you fit in, while the other will make you rejected. In an article for The Atlantic called “Helping My Fair-Skinned Son Embrace his Blackness,” Myra Jones-Taylor writes, “He thought laying claim to a biracial identity was more likely to be accepted. But he soon learned that biracial seemed just as implausible as African American to his peers outside the neighborhood.”
Mixed-race children initially build their character in confusion, and eventually into a desire for acceptance. The concept of race should not be so important to children, and yet kids must make the decision on what they are if they want to hang out with the other kids. “Like other mixed-race children,” Jones-Taylor writes, “our son started his journey to figure out his racial identity early. From kindergarten through about third grade, he would say he was African American. Then, the summer before fourth grade, he switched to identifying as biracial.”
In some situations, children cannot make these choices based on the shade of their skin. Who am I? What made me different? I had to respond, and in turn the anger merely continued to boil. I felt it was necessary to defend both sides of my coin. My darker skin and cultures were agitated, and I allowed them to lash out. Ultimately, my actions did not answer anything. I accomplished nothing with my resentment. If anything, I concluded the squabble with less appreciation for my two colors. I felt even more conflicted and confused as to who I was, and how to identify myself.
Following this experience and my new feelings, there were many things I learned regarding youth of mixed identities. The life of mixed youth has always been an issue but has yet to be widely addressed. Racial inequality does not appear under the spotlight as much as it should. It is foul that society can devalue and tear down a child for drops of blackness in their blood. It is unjustifiable that biracial children must choose to embrace one side, as it is “better” for survival, happiness, and self-acceptance. My experience has advised me to challenge the bitterness towards my identity. Moving forwards, I have begun to embrace my true colors, instead of passing as just Asian. I am Vietnamese and Black, and I intend to let the world know.