What Are You? A Question of Mixed Race, Gender, And Asexuality

This post was written for the March 2016 Carnival of Aces, which is themed around Gender Norms and Asexuality. I was inspired to go a bit off prompt for this post, but it’s all connected to identity outside of the “norms”. 

I remember the first time I learned I was Hapa. In high school, another Hapa kid who I’d known since middle school came up to me and asked if I wanted to join the Hapa club.

I asked, “What’s that?”

He said, “You’re Hapa.”

I’d never heard the word before. But once I did it made a lot of sense. (For those who are unfamiliar with this term it refers to any person who is part Asian. I personally identify with this label because I am half Korean-half Caucasian). Sometimes it takes hearing a word and a definition to realize that it resonates with you too.

For me, trying to understand my racial identity would end up sparking the journey of questioning other parts of my identity as well.

The first time I ever heard about the concept of spectrums was in college at a Mixed-Race club on campus. I don’t even remember exactly if the word spectrums was used, but the word fluidity was.

There was a guest speaker talking about the 100 dollar question that many mixed race people are familiar with- “What are you?”

If you are not mixed race, let me fill you in on these three words. Mixed race people get this question constantly. For many, it’s a dreaded question. For some, it’s a chance to be flippant with their response. For most, it’s a question they’ve heard at least once in their lives.

The speaker went on to explain that the reason people ask this question so often is because race is the first thing you see about a person. And if you don’t understand it, or you don’t know how to fit it into the boxes in your head, this question pops out of your mouth in order to resolve the uncertainty.

The other first thing you see about a person is their gender. So if you don’t follow gender norms  in your gender expression, you stick out. He also talked a bit about how sexuality and gender are fluid. It was my first exposure to the word fluid. I wouldn’t fully understand what that word meant at the time, or even how it applied to me until at least 5 years later.

It’s interesting that this conversation had such a strong imprint on my memory. As someone who identifies as non-binary and mixed race, I can now see parallels between the What are you? question and the way transgender and non-binary people are questioned invasively about their gender. There are also parallels between the way asexuals are questioned invasively about their sex lives. It’s as if cisgendered, heterosexual, and allosexual people, and people in general feel entitled to have their “curiosity” relieved. As if they deserve to know things.

I get it. I do. Sometimes I also have the urge to ask the What are you? question to someone who I suspect might be mixed. But knowing how hurtful and annoying it can be, I do my best to hold onto my curiosity. If the person brings it up on their own, or we get close enough, then I may ask. But I do my best to avoid asking this question the first time I meet someone.

One answer to all those questions is, “It’s none of your business.” My rebuttal is, “Why do you have to know so badly in the first place?”

I think it all goes back to what that guest speaker explained about  how people desperately want to resolve the confusion they have when people don’t fit into the boxes inside their head.

I think the common thread in all these narratives is that these groups are seen as “other.” They are seen as existing outside of the boxes of what are thought to be “normal”. As a mixed race person I defy people’s understanding of the world. People might have a notion of what it looks like to be Asian and what it looks like to be white. But they get confused when I don’t fit into their predetermined boxes of the world. And they really, really, really want to know. Hence why I get that question so often.

I think gender norms are another set of boxes many people see the world in. Check this box for F and this box for M. What do you do when you don’t fit in either? When you start defying gender norms by the clothes you wear, the hair style you have, or who you date or don’t date, people start asking questions.

Questions like: Why do you have a boy’s hair cut? Why don’t you want to get married? Why don’t you have a boyfriend yet? Why don’t you want to have sex? Why don’t you want to have kids?

Why can’t people just exist without needing to explain why they aren’t following the “rules?”

Gender norms can be  hurtful to people who exist outside the heterosexual  and gender binary because it makes it so challenging to understand why they don’t fit inside of them. Gender norms enforce cisnormativity and heteronormativity.

Growing up, I had internalized these norms so much that even without people asking me invasive questions, I would end up asking myself those same questions. I would ask myself constantly why I never fit in.

Growing up, I thought as a girl I was supposed to like guys, want to date them, want to have sex with them, and eventually marry them.  I thought I was supposed to wear makeup, dresses, and have long hair. And I never understood why I never wanted any of those things. I never understood that the reason I didn’t want those things was because I didn’t identify as a girl at all, I didn’t identify as straight, and I certainly didn’t identify as sexual.

I’m learning it’s ok it took me so long to figure things out. And it’s ok I’m still figuring things out.

The other thing I’ve learned about being mixed race is that there is no such thing as one mixed race story. There are infinite combinations of being multiracial. There are multiple ways we look, or what color hair we end up with, or what part of us we identify with “most,” or how we come to terms with the different aspects of ourselves. There is no one way to “look” Hapa or mixed race because skin color is fluid and there are infinite possible combinations of skin tones.

I can see that the same is probably true for asexual and gender queer people. There is no one experience of asexuality.  There are commonalities, sure, but it’s a spectrum. Just like skin tone, except it’s invisible to anyone else except yourself. There is no one experience of being gender queer either.

Pretending there is or trying to police or gate keep these identities would be heading down a slippery slope of creating new “norms.” Saying there is a certain way to be asexual or a certain way to be gender queer could be analogous to saying there is a certain way to be a boy or a girl- which is what caused the whole questioning of identity in the first place.

It’s taken me ages to fully understand and be proud of my mixed race identity. After many years of identity crisis, I can finally fully embrace both sides of myself. I can see that a similar journey will have to take place for my sexuality and my gender.

I recognize that my story is unique and may not look like others. My experience is similar, but not exactly the same as anyone else’s. And that is totally ok. Every one who identifies as asexual has a different experience. Every one who identifies as gender queer has a different experience. And it is ok to validate every other individual experience as real and true.

And most importantly it is ok to not want to answer any invasive questions about that experience, whatever it may look like.