Reflections on identity from our Multiracial & Multiethnic affinity group

May 31, 2023

Greetings from Neighborhood House’s Multiracial & Multiethnic affinity group! In honor of Loving Day on June 12, we wanted to share some our experiences as multiracial and multiethnic people.

A little about us: We are a diverse group of folks with many different identities. As multiracial/multiethnic individuals, we are united by our shared experiences of holding multiple identities at once. We’re the kind of people who check multiple boxes, and we disrupt the racial hierarchy merely by existing.

Thank you for taking the time to read our stories. We hope you enjoy them, and maybe learn something new!

Jazmine Chilo & Emily Tomita, the Multiracial/Multiethnic affinity group co-facilitators

All my life, I have said I’m half black and half white. We, humans, like having boxes, and I am one of the worst offenders. You are either this or that. We have “black-or-white thinking” and don’t welcome ambiguity or uniqueness. During a conversation with the Multiracial/Multiethnic affinity group, I understood that I’m not half of anything. I am all black, all white, and all gray. With every breath, I carry my black and white ancestors, their strengths, and blind spots. I started to understand that no one can define my experience as a biracial black woman. My journey is mine and will differ from the next biracial black woman. Once I gave myself that permission, I began giving others that freedom. Only we are the experts of our life’s journey, and we are invited into the similarities and differences of one another.

– Natalia Pierson, she/hers, Black/white

One of my colleagues recently said that she and I both have that quality where we could pass for a number of ethnicities. Definitely true of my experience. The challenge for me, when asked about my racial heritage, or if I was assume-assigned a race or ethnicity in the past was that I never really knew how to respond. I didn’t have a connection to what it was that outwardly made me look different from OR familiar to others. As an infant, I was adopted. As a young person, I didn’t know my heritage and never really had a frame of reference for what it might be. I knew no one from the Middle-East/Western Asia. I never knew how to fill out census/demographic questions. I didn’t find out more specifics on this until I was past 30 years of age, when I found out more about my adoption and had a DNA test completed. I have an Italian sounding name, and I have the type of naturally tanned skin that if I stand in the sun for five minutes longer than what the usual nine months in Seattle typically allow, I will look like I just spent the summer on the Mediterranean. So to some, in the past I’ve simply said, I’m Italian – but the DNA test would argue otherwise.

Growing up, I lived in a small, nearly entirely white town, in Central Oregon. On top of being a different skin tone than most everyone, including my family, my parents were also immigrants to the US. So, we had some cultural and language differences that I was also experiencing. One night, my mom, while crying sat me (age 5/6, dark skin, curly thick black hair) and my sister (age 7/8, white, blonde hair) down and told us that we were both adopted, what that meant, and how we came into our parents’ lives. I kid you not, smiling, I thought in a very positive sense, well “duh” and “so what”; whereas my sister was hit pretty hard by the news. I think even at that early age my sister and I’s experiences were quite different. I had already established that understanding that others saw me a bit differently, or at least I would have those visual differences pointed out to me on a more regular basis. Therefore, I had a sense of these differences. My sister, in her own experience probably never felt those differences. I’ve always had a well-intentioned curiosity about others, but now that I know more about myself I’m taking that same energy and pointing it inward. I’ve come to really enjoy the safe space this affinity group has provided for me to finally think more in depth about my own experiences and to hear of those from others as well.

Antoni Bellavia, he/him, White and Middle Eastern descent

As a multiracial person, people throughout my life have insisted on categorizing me on their terms. Like my high school math teacher, who told me I should choose “white” on a standardized testing form, because “you don’t want people to know you’re Japanese, in case they decide to round up all the Japanese people again”. Or the myriad of random strangers who felt entitled to tell me their opinion of my race, like a customer at a coffee shop I once worked at who exclaimed “Oh my god, are you Athabascan? My friend is Athabascan and you look just like her!”

A lifetime of these experiences reinforced the idea that I would forever be forced to explain myself to coworkers, teachers, family members, acquaintances, and random strangers about my racial and ethnic identity, and that I would end up disappointing people by explaining who I was. (As ridiculous as it sounds, I felt guilty telling that perfect stranger “I’m sorry, I’m not Athabascan”.) For a long time, I coped by making myself as palatable as possible, by either loudly expressing or quietly hiding my racial identity to escape unwanted questioning. It’s only after being in community with other multiracial people that I’ve learned it is not my responsibility to make others feel comfortable with my race, that I get to define my own racial identity, and that it’s ok if my racial identity evolves over time.

Emily Tomita, she/her, Japanese & white

My rich heritage is rooted in South Asian traditions. I discovered the complexities of racial identity when I met my now-wife, who is white.

Beyond race and culture, we connected through shared values, interests, and a willingness to try new experiences.

When our son was born, my wife and I aimed to instill in him a sense of pride in his multiracial heritage. We exposed him to both sides of our family traditions. He explored his own identity, and I encouraged him to embrace and share his rich traditions, just as I had done when I arrived in the US.

Now, as our son attends college, I see the profound impact our journey has had on his racial identity. He takes pride in his mixed heritage and appreciates the diverse cultures that have shaped him.

Reflecting on my own path, I realize how my racial identity has evolved. I am grateful for my multicultural family and the experiences that have shaped my identity. In an increasingly interconnected world, it is crucial to appreciate and celebrate our differences. These differences are what make us unique and powerful. By embracing our multicultural heritage, we contribute to building a more diverse and inclusive society.

– Farhad Hyder, He/Him, South Asian

I have always been fascinated by my family’s history and ancestry. Before family trips to Louisiana, my dad would regale me with tales from his childhood; stories of elders who spoke better Creole French than they did English, of cleaning graves during All Saints Day, and how to make popsicles out of Kool-Aid and a red solo cup. My mom’s father is from the Philippines; he introduced me to lumpia and pansit and chicken adobo; he told my mother about how he shined the shoes of American servicemen stationed on the islands, and admitted to me he couldn’t remember his birthday because he lied about his age to get into the U.S. Military in his quest for a life out of poverty. Inspired by these stories, in recent years I began to trace my genealogy in an attempt to learn more about the people who came before me.

It was easy to trace back my white ancestors – records show them as far back as the 1400s, and they hail from Switzerland, England, France. Their names and birth dates were preserved in baptismal church records. They didn’t live easy lives, but their names and families were usually not disrupted by colonialism or slavery. I can’t trace my Filipino ancestors beyond my grandfather’s parents – this is mostly due to the fact that this information was usually passed orally, not written down on paper. My Black ancestors have varied birth dates and names; I’ve seen versions of my last name written as: Shilo, Shiloh, Charlot, Charlo, Shilough. The first African woman recorded in my lineage to arrive in America is listed as “unnamed woman from Senegal”. She was, of course, enslaved.

If I was able to trace back my Filipino ancestors, I’m sure I would find where the Spanish colonization began to erase their indigenous names and force them to use Spanish and Catholic ones. My Black ancestors are also usually the only ones with footnotes: you’ll see labels like “mulatto” and “quadroon”. These labels were developed by a white supremacist society that divided cultures and ethnicities as if they were easy boxes to fit people into. I embrace my mixed heritage with pride in knowing that my people were colorful – not just in their skin tone, but in their cultures and their stories. To divide myself into pieces is to dilute the experiences and stories that my lineage tells. When people ask me my ethnicity, I explain the heritage of my parents in an attempt to be straightforward, but I know it is not and will never be as simple as that.

– Jazmine Chilo, she/her, Black/white/Filipina