Janice Lin/MiC.

Once while I was getting my hair done, between shampooing and small talk, the hairdresser asked me: “What are you?” When I told her I was mixed, she cooed about how she could totally tell from my eyes, or it could have been from my nose. She guessed Korean and Japanese before landing on Chinese. Usually I’m spoiled, and guessers get it on the first try; China is the face of Asia in America. She went on for a while — enough time to foil half my head — about how lucky I was because “did I know that children from mixed backgrounds are genetically superior to regular kids?” She told me to go home and thank my parents, and that while she wanted to have kids, she “really, really wanted mixed kids.” At this point, she had stopped foiling my hair in favor of staring at my reflection in the mirror. She told me she hoped, in her words, to meet “like someone from Nigeria or something so that her kids could be just like me.” She meant to flatter me and make me feel special, but she spoke to me like she was going to pluck a hair off my head or swab the inside of my cheek at any second.

I’m well acquainted with this sort of fascination with my background. I used to hook up with this guy — he was white —  who brought up my mixed-ness as often as he could without raising eugenicist suspicion. He was unabashed about admitting that he had a type, and that type was Wasian (mixed white and Asian) girls. He rarely showed me romantic affection, but constantly talked about how cute our kids would be, which would have been endearing if his emphasis was not placed so heavily on the fact that our children would be mixed. I would push back each time, saying that our hypothetical quarter-Chinese children would probably just look white. To this, he would have the same revelation he had had the last time we had this exact conversation: “yeah, I guess you don’t look Chinese enough.” I pictured him flipping through a catalog of multiracial Asian women, diligently searching for the perfect stock to breed with: enough Asian features to pass some characteristics down, but enough white features to ensure his comfort and to fit into his “type.” 

The media perpetuates this fixation on the intersection of foreign and familiar. There’s an account on Instagram with the handle @beautifulmixedkids with 266,000 followers dedicated to posting random pictures of multiracial children and their ethnicities. Other similar accounts include @mixedbabies and @mixedbabiesworld, also with thousands of followers. I think that most people’s first thought when they hear biracial or multiracial is whiteness combined with another race. At least, I think that this combination is the most fetishized. To support this opinion, if I Google “mixed children,” one of the first related searches that appears is “mixed race babies with blue eyes.” This is the true allure of the multiracial baby: exoticism while maintaining proximity to whiteness. 

This balance is used to absolve society of fault and create the illusion of a diversified, inclusive world. Henry Golding, a biracial Malaysian and English actor, was cast in “Crazy Rich Asians” to play Nick, a canonically Singaporean man. In the “Sun is Also A Star,” Charles Melton, a mixed-race English and Korean actor, plays a canonically Korean-American. Amandla Stenberg is half white, but played a canonically dark-skinned Black character in “The Hate U Give.” The media is able to use multiracial people to absolve itself of the guilt of whitewashing and under-representation, while still reinforcing colorist ideals — an illusion of diversity to remain palatable to white audiences. This is not to say that these actors or actresses are at fault or are not “enough” of their identity. The lack of actual multiracial representation in media is another problem in itself, but using multiracial people for their proximity to whiteness in order to avoid true representation is central to perpetuating colorism.

The most common response I hear after telling someone that I’m half Chinese and half Irish is some variation of a wide-eyed, “that’s so cool.” I accept this response first as a compliment before I think about how weird it would be if I told someone that it’s so cool that they’re white. Hidden inside of this sort of awe-filled admiration is the perception that multiracial people are the bridge to equality. In 1993, Time Magazine published an issue titled “The New Face of America,” with the caption, “take a good look at this woman. She was created by a computer from a mix of several races.” This view of a future society of blurred racial lines is rooted in the fetishization of mixed race people as heralds of a new racial utopia, ignoring that the existence of multiracial people does not ensure the deconstruction of white supremacy. The simple fact that my parents are of different races and chose to have children together does not exist in a realm without white supremacy or the power dynamics that come with it.

Multiracial people are not commodities or tools to create the illusion of diversity, nor are they the coming of a post-racial society. As with the fetishization of any idea, creating a monolithic idea of multiracial people is incredibly damaging, not only to the larger goal of dismantling white supremacy, but also to individuals’ abilities to navigate their own identities. I have spent so much of my life allowing the voices of others to dictate what my mixed identity said about me and my role in society. I’ve spent hours in the mirror, counting features that fall on one side or the other, staring at photos of my mother, trying to find pieces of myself and convincing myself that I am an imposter in any group. I have deconstructed myself so many times in my mind that the gaze of the hairdresser no longer feels clinical. It merely feels familiar. 

I don’t expect myself to magically erase the importance of outside perceptions from my understanding of myself. It’s natural to want labels, and it’s natural to care about and internalize how you are perceived. All I can ask of myself is to work on refusing the lens that fetishizes my background and understand the parts of me that reflect my identity for what it truly is. I hope to work toward this goal until I can wholeheartedly understand that I am not a scientific feat or a specimen for breeding, and that instead, I am just another person.

MiC Columnist Claire Gallagher can be reached at gclaire@umich.edu