Ethnicity

“Mom, I’m going to be white for college, okay?”

My oldest has begun the process of applying for college, which has prompted a lot of discussion about ethnicity.  When I was applying for college, being Korean was an asset.  25 years later, Asians going to college in the United States are a dime a dozen, and in some cases, actually a hindrance to getting accepted into a college of choice.

So, suddenly I find my daughter wanting to distance herself from a part of her life which I’ve worked hard to keep alive.  While I understand the reasons for it, I struggle with what might be lost.

Recently, I was sorting some old files and came across a piece I had written for a parenting magazine twelve years ago.  Surprisingly, I was reminded that my children’s ethnicity is something I’ve been struggling with for a long time now.

website ethnicity

Not Japanese 

My oldest came into the kitchen today and announced, “Mommy, I’m pretending that I’m Japanese.” She had a huge smile on her face, and her excitement was palpable.

“But, honey,” I said, “you are Japanese.” Confusion spread over her face.

Ever so slowly she shook her head. “Noooo, Mommy,” she said, “I’m not Japanese. I’m Korean.”

“Well,” I replied, “yes, you are Korean, but you are also Japanese, German, English, and just a tiny bit of French.” The wheels began to turn in her five year old brain as puzzlement, confusion, and finally, decision swept across her face.

“Well,” she announced, “it’s more fun to pretend that I’m Japanese.”  And with that, she flounced out of the kitchen.

For a moment, I simply laughed.  Then, uncertainty swooped in.

As the oldest daughter of a biracial Asian/American couple, my ethnic background had been a great source of consternation for me as a child. Growing up during and in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, I was painfully aware that I wasn’t accepted by either the Asian community or American culture. It was years before I could joyfully embrace both aspects of who I am. Now, I find that my oldest daughter is not only unaware of her ethnic identities, but really doesn’t seem to care.

Has race actually become a non-issue?

Of course, the answer is, “No!”, but the fact remains that our children are growing up in a world where multiethnicity is more and more taken for granted. Just among my friends, our children know an African-American/white couple, a Peruvian/Armenian couple, a Chinese/white couple, an Italian/Cyprian couple, and two Chilean/white couples.  Census figures corroborate that inter-racial marriages are on the rise, and interracial adoption is increasingly common.

While I would never want the racial bias I experienced to be a part of my children’s lives, I worry that the Japanese bed-time stories I’ve read to my children or the Korean songs we’ve sung or the ethnic food I’ve made with them may be relegated to far-off memories when they become adults.

My friends in bi-racial marriages echo my struggles.  “It’s hard to teach the language to my children since my husband doesn’t speak it.” “My children would rather have hamburgers than the food I serve.” “They’ve already forgotten the songs I taught them as little children.”

As the races “melt” together, ethnicity may become less of a shaping force for our children’s identities.

Accordingly to Sociology Professor, Jan Dizard, though, this should not be a cause for concern.  “Race hasn’t been erased. There are simply two emergent issues: the one you capture, the classic example of the melting pot, and the one your daughter innocently captures:  ‘Why can’t I be what I choose to be?’  The conceit of America is that we have forged a culture that enables people to reinvent themselves. Your daughter can be Japanese when it suits her, white when it suits her, and even ambiguous when that suits her.”

The change in census reporting seems to indicate that the United States is in agreement with Professor Dizard.  No longer do we simply check off only one option for race.  Now, we are allowed to check off “any and all that apply”.

So what does that mean for our children’s ethnic identity?

“Well,” says Professor Dizard, “the compelling question, ‘Who are you?”, still remains, and it would be grand if each of us were free to claim whatever self-identification came to mind when that question was asked. We may never get to that, but the fact that your daughter can ‘play’ with the answer to the question suggests that we’ve made some progress. This means parents who come from different cultural traditions can negotiate what pieces of each of their cultural heritages they want to pass on, and if there’s comfort to be found, it can be found in the ways earlier immigrant populations encountered the same sorts of pressures. It just took much longer for Italians, Jews, etc. to begin to see one another as equals.”

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