For me, being mixed ethnicity has been a multiple-way street ― like a giant intersection. I am Black, White and Chinese; however, based on my skin color, most people classify me as Black. I look racially ambiguous, so people like to ask me what I am. When I tell them that I am Black and White, they think, “Oh, that’s kind of what I guessed.” But then when I finish and say that I am Chinese, it absolutely blows their minds. They respond “How?” or “No you are not!”
It is strange to think that people actually deny me of my own heritage like I am wrong, but when I tell them that my last name is Chinese (Ng), they accept it and say, “Oh so that’s where your last name comes from. I thought it was different.” Here’s something I found to be interesting, though. When I tell people that I am Black, White and Chinese, they understand that I am mixed; however, the only thing they care about is the Black and Chinese part. I think they selectively hear Black and Chinese because it seems the most interesting to them. I often get asked questions like, “What part of you is Chinese?” I have to explain my family history to just about everybody I meet. When I tell them that my family has been mixed since my great-grandparents on one side and my grandparents on my other side, they are absolutely shocked. Yes, I have a family of rebels.
This has become a daily routine for me ― let’s say weekly routine, because, yes, it has become that common for me to explain my heritage to people I meet. I don’t really mind it as much because I try to put myself in their shoes and understand how hard it is to grasp that my family has been mixed for so many generations back.
It was different for me as a kid though; people had a hard time understanding exactly what I was. Kids were a little harsh on me in terms of classification because I had to fit into whatever little box they wanted to put me in. Like I am now, I considered myself a tri-racial American, because that is what my parents raised me to believe, but kids did not understand that logic and classified me as Black. Every time I stood up for myself and tried explaining who I was, I would be denied and told that I am what I look like. As a result, I began to accept this distorted reality because it happened to me so frequently. For a long time now, up until recently, I considered myself only Black in front of people and held in my urge to expose my true heritage because I felt no one would care or try to understand me.
When I got into high school, I became more accepting of Black culture. I started watching the “The Boondocks,” began speaking Ebonics, got into more R&B, jazz and hip-hop. I was trying to explore the Black culture by what the majority population identified as Black culture. I joined the 100 Black Men, a college readiness program that prepares Black men academically for an education in college. This program consisted of a weekly gathering of young Black men who would receive lectures from successful Black men who ultimately served as our mentors. They would give us lectures on the struggle toward success, lessons on Black culture and have us do community service.
It was interesting for me to be surrounded by so many intellectual Black people; it was a twist in my life. It made me realize that you did not have to obey society’s definition of Black culture to experience Black culture. All you have to do is hang around Black people and you will get all the culture you need. I loved this program because it gave me that exposure I needed to feel a part of the Black community.
The feeling of being connected to the Black community was great. I had a group of people I could hang out with who looked like me, shared similar traits and mannerisms and be accepted by them as a Black man. However, I felt that it did not satisfy my craving to belong as much as I thought. I did not know why for a while, but then I realized that I held so much pride in my mixed heritage. I felt a piece of my puzzle was missing, “What about my White side; what about my Chinese side? Could I be accepted by them too?”
I always had a struggle accepting myself as part of these other cultures due to doubts clouding my mind. I thought, I don’t look White, so there was no way I would be accepted as one of them — and Asians, don’t even think about it — they would never give me a shot. It was depressing to think about, but I wouldn’t feel satisfied unless I really tried. I believed in the “One-drop rule,” but not just for Black people, for all races. However, not everybody agrees with me.
For me, White culture was and always has been a little hard to grasp, since I’ve lived in SoCal’s diverse environment. I could never put my finger on it; I couldn’t do anything to feel a part of the White community. Being a part of the Chinese community has always been difficult for me, too, because the idea of fitting in seemed so intimidating. I thought I would get laughed at for trying. I never did muster the courage to join a Chinese club or learn Chinese. The closest I got to Chinese culture was asking my classmate and my communications teacher about their traditions like Feng Shui and Chinese New Year.
In my second year in college, while I worked as an Residential Assistant (RA), I experienced a Chinese culture test I wasn’t ready for. One day I walked into the housing rec room (aka Village Square), where I saw one of my fellow RAs hanging with some foreign exchange students. The RA said, “Hey that’s my friend Jon! He is Chinese, too!” One of the Chinese students immediately got up and walked towards me. He stopped in front of me and looked me up and down like some new species of human he had never seen before. He looked me in the eye, straightened his back, and said something in Chinese that I do not comprehend ‘til this day. I simply said, “Sorry man, I don’t know Chinese.” He kind of smirked and said, “Oh, OK,” and brushed me off as he went to sit down.
I felt so embarrassed.
I felt I failed the test of inclusion into the Chinese culture I was looking for. I felt so ashamed of myself for not knowing something I felt I should have, even though it was not my fault. The fear of having my Chinese heritage being tested and rejected by someone who is Chinese came true ― and it hurt. I felt excluded and it has been hard for me to come back since, but I have learned not to give up. I try to learn about Chinese culture any little way I can.
Being a part of different communities other than the Black community has been difficult for me, and, sometimes, it still is difficult for me within the Black community. However, there is something I failed to notice until my junior year of college: a mixed community!
There are so many people who are mixed like myself, who struggle with belonging just like me, who have to be chameleons and adapt to situations. There are people out there who understand what I am talking about and believe the issue of the identity of mixed people is overlooked. My idea is, why not make a third option, where there is a community of mixed people and individuals can choose to be mixed with other mixed people and be proud of who they are?
Jonathan Ng is a fourth-year student at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB), majoring in communications with an emphasis in mass communications and public relations and a minor in film.