Understanding multiracial identities

There’s an assumption that being one race is “normal.” Philosopher Hannah H. Kim explores the complexities of multiracial identity in America today.

Issue #29

Hi all —

We’re back from an early summer hiatus. I got a friendly, cuddly puppy — named Laddoo (yes, after the delicious Indian sweet; he’s round and sweet, too) — and that has been quite an adventure of limited sleep, constant training and spontaneous pet supply shopping. More on Laddoo (and his name) in a later newsletter, perhaps.

This week, we’re sharing our interview with Hannah H. Kim, a recent Stanford Ph.D. graduate, who wrote an op-ed in The Stanford Daily about multiracialism or the discussion of identifying as more than one race. Kim, who identifies as Korean American and was born in the U.S., began her journey understanding multiracial identities shortly after meeting her now-husband, who identifies as multiracial. “So what are you, anyway?” she recalls asking him in a cringy way in their early days.

And thus launched Kim’s journey into understanding the bias our society has for “monoracial normativity” (the assumption that being one race is “normal”) and the complexities of multiracial identity in America today.

Below is my interview with Kim that has been edited for length and clarity. And check out her op-ed in the Daily.

Thanks for joining the conversation,

Vignesh Ramachandran (@VigneshR)
Co-founder of Red, White and Brown Media

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Q&A with Hannah H. Kim on multiracialism

How did you meet your now-husband and how did the conversations about his multiracial identity begin?

We met the old-fashioned way at a party where we had mutual friends. I learned that he was fluent in Japanese and Chinese, but then he didn’t look Asian — he just kind of looked ambiguous to me. Later on, I find that he has a German-sounding last name. So I remember being really curious about his background.

At some point, I just asked him: “So what are you?” And he just stopped in his tracks and just stared at me in disbelief.

That was the beginning of my multiracial education of just learning what that’s about and the experiences around it. The more we spent time together, the more I learned about his experience of growing up multiracial, especially 20 or 30 years ago. It’s been really eye-opening for me to learn through him.

How does he identify?

He identifies as multiracial. The first time I’ve asked about him, he said: “I have a white father and a dark mother.” And he didn’t feel the need to elaborate further.

For many of us, these questions are all-too familiar. How often is he asked or you asked those similar questions: “So what are you anyway?” “What is he anyway?”

I field a lot of questions about my husband, when my friends are curious. This is especially the case with my Korean relatives, where Korea is a very homogenous place, and the idea of being multiracial is just kind of foreign to them. Like: Not only is he a Western person, but he’s multiracial. There’s been some cultural translations that I’ve had to do, which is hard, because it’s hard to find a vocab that doesn’t feel reductionistic or even mathematical — like fractions.

Tell us more about the discussion of “monoracial normativity.”

Monoracial normativity is this cultural assumption we have that the “normal” or “default” way to be is to have one race. So either you’re an Asian, or you’re Black, or you’re white, or these are just kind of the normal, default ways to be — such that when people don’t fit that box neatly they become like this other thing. I think this assumption comes out strongly when we start trying to describe multiracial people's heritage. So we talk about, “Oh, he’s like, half this and half that right? Or like, quarter this quarter that.” And so these mathematical systems of thinking about race implies that if you’re not monoracial, then you’re less than whole. You’re like somewhat inadequate, even if all the numbers add up to one, you’re partly this partly that. The biggest problem with monoracial normativity is that it tries to understand multiracial identity through the lens of monoracial categories. That gets in the way of multiracial people trying to really understand themselves on their own terms.

What do you think are some of the challenges of being multiracial in this world?

One immediate thing is there are extra sets of questions about identity that multiracial individuals have to answer for themselves and society at-large. If I don’t have my own box to tick in the race section … say you’re like a multiracial person with a white parent and Black parent. Am I Black? Am I white? Am I something else? That’s an extra question that monoracial individuals don’t tend to face because they’re what their parents are. This choice can be both a burden, but also an empowering thing.

My husband has two other siblings. So there are three of them with the same parents, but they identify three different ways. One identifies as multiracial, one identifies Latinx, and the last one identifies as Black, we think. That’s really telling. There is this identity choice and extra work that needs to go in.

Closely tied to this is the assumption people make about race. I’ve been told from my husband that this all depends on the context. If he’s in an Asian context, people will assume he’s part Asian, or whole Asian. If he’s in a Black context, people will think he’s Black. Having to constantly correct people, and the whole double consciousness thing of imagining how others are seeing them in the context they are in and trying to anticipate that — it’s a lot of mental work.

When you write about President Barack Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris — both of whom are multiracial — you write: “Depending on their racial backgrounds, multiracial individuals might also have access to dominant culture (with a white parent) or positive ‘model minority’ associations (with an Asian parent).” Can you talk more about that?

What led to the op-ed ultimately was a kind of curiosity and just a mismatch between what I was reading and what I thought I was observing. I thought a lot about the hardships of being multiracial — all these extra questions and assumptions. But then I also saw that some of the most successful minorities in politics, entertainment and academia have been historically multiracial. So the question there was: Are there advantages here to be multiracial? That’s not just colorism, because there’s been explanations of colorism in the Black community and how that plays a role in what kinds of Black people are successful or not. But beyond that, are there more going on, especially once we move away from the white-Black binary?

That’s what got me interested, especially spurred on by discussions about Kamala Harris’ heritage and reading that some people thought she wasn’t Indian enough, or thought she would represent more of that identity. Some people think she’s not Black either. With that kind of curiosity, I launched this kind of investigation into what are the possible advantages if there are any.

I am not sure about “advantage” being the best word, because I don’t want to imply that multiracial people have it easy. They experience prejudicial treatment just as much, and there are lots of reports of that.

But I think being multicultural, might be [an advantage] … That exposes you to more than one culture, sometimes the dominant or white one with a white parent, sometimes the model minority one or the Asian one. Even if it’s not those two specifically, in general, multiculturalism helps individuals be more adaptive, flexible and empathetic. I imagine these are all traits that help people in their careers, especially in politics. That’s kind of the safer conclusion with the advantage.

The more controversial one — I’ve been experiencing pushback against this — is the idea that multiracial individuals are spared from the crudest stereotyping because they are an “other.” And so, I mean, my thought process was something like not quite Black, not quite Asian, not quite American Indian. So I wondered whether prejudices just don’t stick to them as well as it does to monoracial minorities. And again, this is controversial, because multiracial people experience prejudice a ton and they have this extra identity struggle.

With prominent multiracial political leaders in the spotlight — like Obama and Harris — do you believe that has moved any sort of conversation forward in the country or understanding about multiracialism in the country or not?

I think it’s moved the conversation forward in good and bad ways. There's more awareness of multiracial identity now, thanks to these major figures. So for instance, I was really delighted that during an interview, Harris refused to answer “how do you identify yourself” or “what are you” questions. She simply said, “I am who I am, and I’m good with it. You might need to figure it out, but I’m fine with it.” That’s so neat, right? She’s denying being forced into this narrow, monoracial box. And I think it's really cool that younger multiracial individuals can see that as a viable option.

In your op-ed you write, “To overlook Obama and Harris’s multiracial backgrounds, and the difference these backgrounds played in their political careers, is to forego the opportunity to ask potentially eye-opening questions about race and racism in America.” What are those questions that you think we should be asking and those conversations we should be having?

Racism just thrives on quick, careless group categorization. We see someone, we just immediately slot them into this group, and with the group comes all sorts of negative stereotypes. That's how racism kicks into gear.

But if there's some way to opt out of that group membership, because for instance, one is multiracial, then maybe one is spared of the worst, crudest type of prejudice. And that was what I meant by how racism works. And I think there's actually philosophical discussions around of how this bias works. Like what are slur terms doing? How is it that words can have this kind of power? How can you reappropriate slur words? Multiracial identities might have some ripple effects in the way we philosophically think about these topics, not only politically and socially.

You started your journey about understanding all this through conversations, but any readings you recommend as well?

  • “Identity Development in Multiracial Families” in Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Beverly Daniel Tatum) 

  • The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders as the New Frontier (Maria P. P. Root)

  • Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People” (Maria P. P. Root)

  • “How Mixed Race is Not Constructed: U.S. Identities and Perspectives” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Race (Naomi Zack).

Any final thoughts?

We ought to think about what this concept of race is doing, and then what we want it to do, if it is a social construct that we come up with. There are books that argue that, historically, race just played this role of being an excuse to oppress groups of people where oppression comes first. And then race comes after to justify that oppression. So that’s like a bad use of race.

But I imagine now, there are also good uses — whether conceptions of individual identity or cultural celebrations that might center around race. The question is: What do we want the concept of race to be doing for us moving forward? Whatever answer we come up with for that question, we have to make sure it’s one that doesn’t leave multiracial individuals behind.

Our story is silenced because other minorities have their heroes, histories, cultural accomplishments, but there are vanishingly few correlates for multiracial identities.

Hannah H. Kim is a Ph.D. graduate from Stanford University’s philosophy department and also an assistant editor for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In the fall, Kim will be an assistant professor at Macalester College.

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