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  • Defining Ourselves: Multiracial Identity for Modern-Day Asian Americans

    I remember the first time I was told to “pick one.” I was standing at the counter in my high school’s attendance office, nervously tapping my pen against the laminated plastic. Before me was a neatly printed list of around fifty of my classmates’ names. Some had already filled in the line after their names, scrawling words like “Asian,” “white,” or “black.” I didn’t know what to write after mine.

    “Do I really have to?” I asked the office lady, a pleading look on my face. Four months earlier, I had been told that I could claim “multiracial” on school documents. That morning, I was informed that our school’s software could no longer accommodate such a difficult classification. I would have to pick one of the more conventional definitions. The question was—which one?

    It was an agonizing decision, one that got me thinking about “what” I truly am. I am Japanese and white—and have often been self-conscious of being both simultaneously. In most of my college classes, I am the only student of color. Conversely, in my high school Japanese class, I was one of the only students who couldn’t make the correct “r” sounds in my “arimasu.” (What a hakujin, nee?) Sometimes, I feel like I am the ultimate minority: while I “am” Asian and white, I can feel out of place in both environments.

    2010 Census

    The questionnaire on the 2010 Census that asked respondents to report their race. The 2000 census was the first U.S. census to allow respondents to choose more than one option. Image from U.S. Census Bureau

    Many multiracial Americans are under the age of twenty. USA Today

    It’s not the same for all people who identify as mixed race. Some feel out of place in one community and not the other; some never feel out of place. Mixed-race identity—like all identity—is complicated, steeped in personal experience and culture, societal pressures, and historical context. It’s also an identity relevant for more Americans every year. According to the 2010 census, roughly 1 in 34 Americans (2.9 percent) identifies as multiracial. That number is expected to rise in the coming decades, especially because the rate of interracial marriage in the United States has doubled since 1980, from 6.7 percent of all marriages to 15 percent. It’s clear that this trend is leading to more interracial children: 50 percent of the Americans who identified multiracial in 2010 were under the age of 18.

    Many factors contribute to the growth of Americans who identify as multiracial. Advocacy groups have worked to create a mixed-race community through multiracial clubs and support groups. They also, through lobbying, are largely responsible for the option to check more than one race on the census. A major factor is the country’s changing racial and ethnic demographic, largely due to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act. This act switched immigration policies from a national origins-based quota system to one that prioritized family reunification and employable skills, drastically increasing immigration to the United States, particularly from Asian countries like India, China, and the Philippines. In the 2000 census, 69 percent of all Asians in the United States were foreign-born, illustrating the effect that Hart-Celler has had on the U.S. population composition. More diversity ultimately leads to more interracial marriages—and more multiracial children.

    The Cunningham family visiting Brandywine Falls, B.C., in 2014.
    The Cunningham family visiting Brandywine Falls, B.C., in 2014.
    Photo courtesy of Karen Cunningham

    I thought researching this subject and speaking with many multiracial people would help me understand what it means to be multiracial. Instead, I continually find new questions and interpretations behind every page and past every question. Each experience, each person, is entirely their own. To respect these personal experiences, I decided to use “multiracial” and “mixed race” for my terms, but respected and retained the terminology that my interviewees made during conversation.

    These interviews represent the stories of six multiracial Americans. Each story is important not because it is representative of a trend, but because of the validity of their personal experiences. That is what I think the true value is of understanding multicultural identity. Multiracial Americans are what all Americans are: people who are trying to define their identities in an increasingly diverse, increasingly curious, and increasingly changing world. In order to understand who we are and move forward, we need to take stock of our lives and have the courage to define ourselves.

    How do you describe yourself?

    Kelley Asamoto (age 24, Edmonds, Washington): Oh, that’s easy. I always say I am half Mexican, half Japanese. And that really catches people off guard, because they’re like, “Half Mexican? You don’t even look Mexican!” That’s the response I get all the time.

    Ray Parker visiting his grandfather, Masamitchi Okada, and grandmother, Kuniko Okada, in Hyogoken, Japan, July 2012.
    Ray Parker visiting his grandfather, Masamitchi Okada, and grandmother, Kuniko Okada, in Hyogoken, Japan, July 2012.
    Photo courtesy of Ray Parker

    Ray Parker (age 21, Troy, New York): When people ask me what I am, I usually go, “Oh, well, you know, I’m half Japanese. My mom is Japanese; my dad is white—Welsh.” People get me mixed up with a lot of different cultures: “Are you Pacific Islander?” “Are you Hawaiian?” “Are you Mexican?” I get Mexican quite a bit. Sometimes I get Brazilian or Puerto Rican. And my mom even says sometimes, “Are you sure you’re our son? You don’t really look Japanese. You look Mexican.” But I’m pretty fine with it.

    Christine Munteanu (age 28, Chicago, Illinois): My father is Romanian and my mother is Japanese. Lately, though, I use the term “Asian American,” or an “Asian American woman.” For me, those are the two most salient identities. Also, because I work at the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), usually being Japanese American comes to the forefront, as opposed to Asian American. I think at this point I’ve moved past being mixed, or being multiracial; I’ve explored that a lot, so I’ve gotten to a point where it’s more of an afterthought now. I’m more comfortable being like, “Yes, I’m 100 percent Asian American. I identify as a person of color.”

    Max Cukurs (age 17, Meridian, Idaho): I would say that I was mixed. But I would probably emphasize that I was Asian, because I take pride in being Asian. My Asian side has more prominence in entertainment and in the singers and celebrities that I like.

    Emily Cukurs (age 20, Meridian, Idaho): I’d say Filipino, Korean, then Latvian, because I know more about my Filipino heritage than any of the other ones, and I know my Korean grandma. I identify myself as Asian because I know my Asian family.

    Serii Hattori (age 20, Renton, Washington): People often ask, “What are you?” Asking me “What am I?” makes it sound like I am from another planet or another species. But I would say that I am Serii. I love to laugh and make other people laugh, I don’t have much of a filter when I talk about things, I have a passion for my family and makeup, and I am a huge video game nerd. Oh, and did I mention that I am half Japanese and half black?

    What is your family story?

    Emily: I know how our [Latvian] grandpa got here. He was escaping. Russia had a communist government, and it crept into Latvia, and my grandpa didn’t want anything to do with it. So he took him, his sister, his mother, and a fishing boat, and they escaped to Sweden, and then they got to the U.S. The president divd out about it, and he wanted to invite our grandfather to dine with him. Our grandfather got to eat dinner, and there was a newspaper article about it. I think it was geared toward convincing America how welcoming the government was to immigrants.

    I know my grandma on the Filipino side had a harder time getting over here. They could immigrate because of our mom’s aunts, Grandma Esther and Grandma Emma. Our Grandma Esther was a professor at a university, and our Grandma Emma was a chemist, and so our grandma had to go talk to the representative for the U.S. at the Philippines. What the government wanted to do was first send the kids there, and then the mom. But our grandma was like, “No, my husband just died, and I do not want to have to separate my kids from me.” They were able to do that, and that’s how they got here.

    Serii with her mother’s side of the family, 2012.
    Serii with her mother’s side of the family, 2012.
    Photo courtesy of Serii Hattori

    Serii: My grandparents on my Japanese side were both born in the United States but were raised in Japan. My grandfather, Gigi, was born in Toppenish, Washington, and my grandmother, Grandma Betty, was born in Douglas, Alaska. Gigi was raised in Okayama, Japan, and Grandma Betty was raised in Kobe, Japan. They met after moving back to Seattle, Washington, where my father and uncle were born.

    My grandparents on my black side were also both born in the U.S. My grandfather, Papa, was born in Monroe, Louisiana, and my grandmother, Nana, was born in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. They both moved to Seattle, Washington, where my mother and uncle were born. My mom and dad met in high school and started dating their junior year. My grandfather, Gigi, did not approve of my mother because she was black, and it wasn’t until my brother was a year and a half (eleven years later) that my grandfather finally accepted my mother. I couldn’t imagine my grandfather being like that because by the time I was born everyone was happy, and there were no quarrels.

    Christine: My dad’s side of the family is from Romania. This is when Romania was communist, so he grew up very poor, and his family moved to the U.S. His father first went to France, and then came to the U.S., and then applied for family reunification. So my dad, when he was around eleven or so, moved from Romania to Detroit, Michigan.

    My mom grew up in Japan, and she ended up meeting my dad when he was going to college in Michigan. She studied abroad there, and my mom was—well, still is—obsessed with the band Queen, and she thought my dad looked like the guitarist from Queen, Brian May—which he did. I’ve seen pictures. So they met, and they fell in love, and then she went back to Japan, and they kept in touch, and they decided to get married. My dad went to Japan and met my mom’s whole family, and they got married. They had the ceremony in Japan, and then moved to the U.S. They settled in New Jersey, and that’s where my sister and I grew up, too.

    What cultural traditions does your family maintain?

    Ray: We do have different traditions, and they might not be set in stone, but usually we do go back and forth between the Japanese and Welsh traditions. So every Boys’ Day or Girls’ Day, or whatever it may be, we pull out the little dolls from Japan and set them up. It’s one of those things that we do in Japan, so my mom tries to carry that on. But to tell you the truth, we don’t have many heavily set traditions. We’re not very heavily rooted. Being multiracial definitely does skew the balance, but it’s a good balance, you know? We tend to make our own ways, so it’s different, but interesting.

    Christine: On the Romanian side, no traditions at all. My dad was very bitter about Romania and communism in Eastern Europe, so I think he distanced himself. I never learned how to speak Romanian or anything.

    Five-year-old Christine posing in front of her mother’s doll display for Hinamatsuri.
    Five-year-old Christine posing in front of her mother’s doll display for Hinamatsuri.
    Photo courtesy of Christine Munteanu

    And then on my mom’s side, I grew up—not with “tradition” necessarily, but a lot of the culture. I grew up eating Japanese food, taking my shoes off in the house, eating rice, or drinking tea for my meals. We did have a Japanese expat community. I went to Japanese school on Sunday, and then within the New Jersey area there were a lot of families who lived in the U.S. temporarily, because the dads worked for Japanese companies and were, for ten years or something, located in the U.S. So there was that community. When we would have Easter, we would invite all of the Japanese kids in the region and would do a massive Easter egg hunt in our backyard. But I remember when I was little, it all felt very separate, like my Japanese friends and Japanese school and Japanese community life was very different from my American friends from school and my neighborhood friends.

    Serii: My family doesn’t really have any specific tradition that we do. We did, however, have a tradition of going to Gigi’s [my Japanese grandfather’s] house on New Year’s Day. He would always buy a huge platter of sushi and make this mochi/kamaboko soup. I’m sure it has a name, but I don’t know what it is.

    Kelley: For Easter, all of my non-Mexican friends dye hard-boiled eggs and hide them around, but growing up I always was taught by my mom that you hollow out the eggs, and you fill the eggshell with confetti or money. Once it’s Easter, you go around and hide them and crack them on people’s heads. That whole event is a big family gathering.

    On our Japanese side, we have our famous New Year’s dinner with all of our lucky foods. It’s been really fun to see over the years how it’s evolved. We’ve incorporated food from not just the Japanese culture; we have Mexican, Filipino—kind of a melting pot of everything. I don’t really separate it out, like “Oh, this is Japanese, this is Mexican.” I just kind of group it as, “This is spending time with my family, taking part in what I’ve grown up with.” Being able to take part in all of these cultural events for both sides of my family has solidified our family bonds and our families together, which I think is really important.

    Traditional new year’s food at the Asamoto/Tashima <em>oshogatsu</em>.
    Traditional new year’s food at the Asamoto/Tashima oshogatsu.
    Photo courtesy of Kelley Asamoto

    What challenges have you experienced being multiracial?

    Serii: Growing up, the most difficult thing I dealt with was feeling like I had to prove to others who I was. My mother is black, and my father is Japanese. Both my brother and I look more Asian than we do black, so no one would believe that our mother was—well, our mother. I was constantly questioning, “Why don’t people believe me? Why is it so hard for people to see that I am what I say I am?”

    It took me a very long time to realize that even though I know that I am black, from an outside perspective I don’t look like I am. It was that realization that made me better understand people’s reactions to what my ethnicity is and to not be so angry. I know who I am, and there is no need for me to persuade anyone. Yet, it still makes me wonder why knowing what “I am” is so important to people. I think people like to categorize and label others to make them feel better, and when it comes to being multiracial, I don’t like feeling like I have to be put into a category. I identify with whatever and whomever I feel embodies who I am. I identify with both my Japanese and black side. I identify with all human beings. I identify with me.

    Kelley posing with her mother’s side of the family in Grandview, Washington, 2011.
    Kelley posing with her mother’s side of the family in Grandview, Washington, 2011.
    Photo courtesy of Kelley Asamoto

    Kelley: One thing that comes up a lot is people asking, “Who do you identify with more?” like you’re expected to pick a side. And I don’t want to pick a side. My personal pet peeve is those data questionnaires that ask you what race you are. Their categories are like, “Hispanic, but not anything else,” but that doesn’t apply to me because I’m Asian and Hispanic. That always bothered me. Just because I have two or three or four sides of me doesn’t mean that I have to identify with one side more than another.

    My daughter, Nora, is half white, a quarter Asian, and a quarter Mexican, but just because she’s half white doesn’t mean that she’s going to favor that side. Just because she’s a quarter Mexican doesn’t make her any less Mexican than a person who’s full Mexican. She can experience the same things, and that side of her can be just as important as her other sides.

    What do you think is the coolest thing about being multiracial?

    Max cooking while visiting his family in California.
    Max cooking while visiting his family in California.
    Photo courtesy of Max Cukurs

    Max: Being mixed, I have more of a mindset to be with anyone, and to just be diverse and talk to everyone, not just certain people. And I think being multiracial makes me more able to be excited about my culture. There’s so many new things to learn about, and we can explore and compare one tradition with another tradition, and think about how it relates to you.

    Christine: The most rewarding part has actually been being able to run workshops that talk about this stuff, feeling like I get to hear other peoples’ stories. They are a constant reminder that a lot of people go through this, and there are a lot of stories and a lot of experiences that people are dying to share.

    Serii: Being multiracial has allowed me to be more open-minded with trying new things—whether it may be foods, cultures, music, arts, etc.—and not judge people off of appearances. I take pleasure and interest in finding out about as many different cultures as I can and experiencing what each culture has to offer. It makes me happy to see two people who come from different backgrounds and races come together to create a family. It’s beautiful to see them going past the racial barriers and stereotypes, to make a family that represents unity and love.

    Ray: There are a lot of rewarding things, like being able to see a different culture from a different perspective. You get a lot of different experiences. I really like it, and I think it definitely has had an impact on what I’ve become today. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    Read the full interviews with Kelley Asamoto, Ray Parker, Christine Munteanu, Max and Emily Cukurs, and Serii Hattori.

    Katie Cunningham is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage who identifies as multiracial. Her favorite part of the year is eating pork and sauerkraut, flautas, and mochi on New Year’s Day.

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