Race and racial identification have always been confusing concepts for me. What is my ethnicity? What do I look like? What do other people think I am? These questions baffled me throughout my childhood, growing up in a white, upper-class, suburban neighborhood. My elementary school told me who I am. My teacher told me to hold the Japanese flag to celebrate the International diversity of our class. Dustin Chow, who held the Chinese flag, was the only other Asian in the class. He pointed to me one day and told me that my eyes were slanted. But sometimes my eyes just did not look slanted. And neither did Dustin’s. I think that white people sometimes get confused and say that small, beautiful eyes are “slanted.”
My middle school told me who I should be. My P.E. teacher was amazed that I was half Japanese. He said, “Wow, you really don’t look Japanese at all. You look white.” He smiled. Perhaps he was hitting on me. But nevertheless, he was telling me that I looked white. And he meant it as a compliment. So, I tried becoming white. But I just did not fit in with all of the other white guys. I could not compare myself to them. And they always made sure that I knew that I was different. “Kohei, you have black hair, not brown hair.” I angrily spoke back, “No, look at my hair, it’s dark brown, not black.” “No, it’s black,” they said. In relation to their eyes and their hair, my eyes became slanted and my hair became black.
There were no Asians in my High School. Ravinder was half Asian, but because his other half was black, he said that he considered himself black. Black, White, Yellow…..I was actually not even concerned about my racial identity. I wanted to come OUT. I wanted to meet Queer people. But there were no Queer people in my High School. But perhaps there were other Queer people who just were in the closet like me. And perhaps there were other Bi-racial Asians who passed as white or black, like Ravinder and I did. After I came out to several of my friends, I then went on to finally decide that I wanted to be Asian. So on my SATs I checked off “Asian/ Pacific Islander.”
Art by: Desmond Kwok
Now I’m OUT, out to my parents, family, friends, and foes. I have joined many different Queer and Asian Pacific American (APA) organizations. I also have become an AIDS activist, and one thing that I do is pass out condoms to people of color. As I walk through the streets passing out condoms, I look for people of color. Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether one is of color or not. When I’m only supposed to pass them out to APAs, it becomes even more difficult. “Is he Filipino? Wait, he might be Latino.” “Is that girl APA, because she might be a mix between Russian and ethnic-Jewish.” “Is that hot guy over there Indian, or is he Middle-Eastern?” I mean I can forget about identifying the bi-racial APA/Black people. Though sometimes they are easy to tell because of their beautiful features, like Tiger Woods, Tyson Beckford, and my friend Christina.
When I accidentally assume someone’s ethnicity I feel embarrassed. But it happens a lot. I’ve been assumed Asian, White, European, Latino, native Hawaiian, and Nepaly!! I find it fascinating when someone assumes my racial identity. I often ask them why and what characteristics or features led them to make that assumption. Out-going me in my tight shirt and trendy eyebrow ring leads many people to think that I’m gay. And I am gay. But for many people, their only conception of gay people are whites: like in Will & Grace. Basically, people know very little about race, racial identity, ethnicity, geographic origin, religion, and color. These terms are often used interchangeably.
My racial identity is (yes, I’ve finally made up my mind!!) APA and White. I’m not Asian because I grew up in the United States and so prefer to be called Asian-Pacific American. I use the word “Pacific,” not because I’m a Pacific Islander, but because Pacific Islanders, East Asians, South East Asians, and South Asians have all been lumped together in the United States. APAs come from over 40 different nationalities and speak over 100 different languages, we are brown, yellow, black, white, and everything in-between. We have small eyes, large eyes, big noses, flat noses, curly hair, and straight hair. But for some reason, we are all labeled “Asian/ Pacific Islanders.”
Well, at least what our government can do is to stop treating us like foreigners. We have been here since the 1800’s and we are still not called Asian-Pacific AMERICANS. But the government plans to change this category for the next census. They plan to separate Pacific Islanders from Asian Americans. Perhaps in the future they will mix us around again. And between all of Hollywood’s images, racist threats and name-callings, and governmental classifications, I stand firmly as an Asian-Pacific American. Though I have nothing inherently common with South Asians, I still consider them my brothers and sisters. It’s sort of like taking the government’s hasty classification of us and using it to our advantage, to empower us as a unified people. Perhaps one day they will feel threatened by our collectivity and try to racially divide us. See how flimsy, fluid, and confusing race can be? Like my gender (male Gender-Queer), sexuality (Gay), and economic status (upper middle class), my race (bi-racial APA and White) is a socially constructed identity, that I can choose. We tend to view race, and identity as a whole, as something that is fixed and stable. Well honey, I’ve been Trans-racial and fluid my whole goddamn life! As the slogan goes, “Race is Fiction, Racism is Real.”
Kohei Ishihara is gay, gender-queer, male, biracial, and Nisei (second generation). He is a sophomore in college, concentrating in Ethnic Studies and Sexuality and Society. His hobbies are in constant flux, but right now consist of Deaf culture and politics, American Sign Language, Gender-Queer issues, API Drag, and Buddhism.