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Growing Up Mixed and Grappling With the Question 'What Are You?': Listeners Weigh In

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A portrait of a mixed-race man dominates the right side of the image. Faded in the background is an old-fashioned wedding photo of his parents. The image is labeled: "Mixed! Stories of Mixed Race Californians."
Kip Fulbeck is a photographer whose photo projects are a platform for mixed-race folks to answer the question "What Are You?" in their own voices.  (Illustration by Kelly Ma of KQED)

This post is part of a series of stories on The California Report Magazine about the experience of being mixed race.

This story originally published in November of 2021. The “Mixed!” series will include new interviews through March and April of 2023. 

Identity is always complicated, and for multiracial folks who straddle many identities, it can be isolating. It can also be invigorating and rich to belong to multiple communities and celebrate that complexity.

More From the California Report's 'Mixed' Series

The latest census shows we mixed-race people are a demographic to pay attention to: 2020 data reflects a 276% increase in people who identify as multiracial compared to 2010. Yet mixed-race folks are only beginning to find space for our stories.

This week,  The California Report Magazine’s host, Sasha Khokha and guest host Marisa Lagos delve into the mixed-race experience, grounded in their own backgrounds. They talk with trailblazing artist Kip Fulbeck, whose photo projects are a platform for mixed-race folks to answer the question “What Are You?” in their own voices.  We also listen in on a conversation between two listeners who share a similar background (Black/Filipina), but straddle different generations, which informs how they understand their identities.

To bring you, our audience, into this series, The California Report and KQED has been reaching out to listeners to ask, “What’s something only fellow mixed folks understand about growing up mixed?”

Here are some of those responses:

Dianna K. Bautista, Berkeley

A multiracial family stands together outside, with a copper-colored guardrail, trees and a forest in the background. The father is tall in a light blue hoodie, with an arm around the mother who is in a black jacket and smiling, with their daughter on the far left in a red hoodie and glasses, also smiling. They appear to be on a tourist trip.
Dianna K. Bautista, left, with her parents. (Courtesy of Dianna K. Bautista)

I’m Filipino on my mom’s side, and my dad is mixed like me. He is Filipino, African American, Native American, French and Spanish. My dad would tell me how it was like for my grandmother as a Black woman of color growing up in Arkansas. We would dive back [into our family history] and see how my Native American ancestors were sold in slavery.

If I just check one box, I feel like it doesn’t fully represent who I am. But when I check multiple boxes, I’m always questioning if I have enough of that heritage, enough of that ethnicity to check that box. And you’re in the middle of having a mini-identity crisis because you’re not sure which box to check.

I was reading about this mixed Iranian journalist who is saying how her mixed experience was like floating. It’s kind of cool because, yeah, ambiguous skin means that you’re accepted in different groups and different ethnicities and you get to experience that diversity. But there’s also negatives to that because you’re ambiguous. People are going to assign stereotypes based on what they think you are and you don’t have control over that.

Dylan Morimoto, San Francisco

A family of three stands well-dressed in front of a few trees, outside on the grass. On the left, the mother is Jewish in a violet jacket and short gray hair, to the right is the father who is Japanese, sporting a brush-like mustache and in a suit and trenchcoat, with a slight smile that may be characterized as a smirk, and their son is in the center, well dressed in a suit with a close cropped haircut of his black hair, himself smirking.
Dylan Morimoto, center, with his parents. (Courtesy of Dylan Morimoto)

My father is from Auburn, California, and he’s Japanese, and my mom was born in Germany. She’s Jewish. My father was incarcerated during World War II. My [dad’s whole] family was incarcerated or interned during World War II. And then my mom, you know, left Nazi Germany. You know, I don’t look Jewish. I don’t really think I look kind of Asian-ish.

Under the Trump administration, [it was] really upsetting, given my family’s history. It’s nice to see, for me personally, I was happy to see Kamala Harris get elected, and seeing her, you know an African American and Asian woman, was really, really cool. And a Jewish husband, and a mixed family. I am in the same situation. I have two stepkids, so it’s nice to see that diversity.

Sharon Ng, San Francisco

A multiracial family, all decked out in mulitcolored Hawaiian style shirts. They're standing on a street with a similarly multi-colored mural behind them. The Argentinian father is bald, standing in the back on the left, with a bit of a serious look, the mother on the right, also in the back, is of multiracial Chinese and Latina descent, smiling with long earrings and shoulder-length black hair. Their two daughters stand in front of them, each sporting smiles and shoulder-length dark hair.
Sharon Ng, right, with her husband and daughters. (Courtesy of Sharon Ng)

Our family is kind of China-Latina mashed up. I am Chinese Malaysian and grew up in Vancouver, Canada. My American husband’s family is Argentinian but he grew up in France. We met in New York. When people ask my daughter what her heritage is, she says, “I am half Chinese and half Brooklyn!”

While I am Chinese by blood, culturally I struggled as a child to understand my “Chineseness” because I did not grow up speaking Mandarin at home, nor did I have the benefit of an extended family of aunties and grandparents to provide context about how to be Chinese. With limited Chinese affirmation and sense of place, it was quite confusing because Vancouver was really white in the ’70s.

[My husband] Ian’s story is similar. He didn’t grow up speaking Spanish, because the U.S. was all about assimilation back then. We feel that learning Spanish will help anchor our kids in part of their roots, which we don’t feel we really had (we know our parents tried their very best). Together we are creating new traditions of what is beautiful and delicious: turkey stuffed with sticky rice, with empanadas and chimichurri on the side.


That said, we dream that our girls have a sense of belonging and experience affirmation of their multifaceted identities and cultural ways of being a “hyphenated” American. We feel really blessed to live in San Francisco, where we have lots of other friends who are raising mixed-race families. It really normalizes things for them.

Adrien Colón, Oakland

A photo with an older, vintage camera look, inside a room with a Christmas tree on the left, white ceiling and wood paneling behind a family of three. The mother is White with brown straight hair, holding her son who is in what look like white and red trim pajamas with a Pac Man logo. The father on the right is Puerto Rican, sporting a bit of a serious face, with a dark brown beard and what the child in the middle, now grown up, described as an Afro. The father is in a striped beige polo, and the boy, who is looking down, has his arm around his neck
Adrien Colón as a toddler, with his parents. (Courtesy of Adrien Colón)

So my mom is white and my dad is Puerto Rican. And I think growing up as a kid, I never really questioned it. And it’s not until I got a little older that I heard this story about my dad not being allowed in my great-grandparents’ home. They were very much against my mom marrying my dad and they wouldn’t allow him in their home because of the way that he looked, because of the color of his skin, the Afro that he wore.

I continue to piece together my family tree, and seeing these people who come from all of these different places, and knowing that … if something had happened to any one of them, that I wouldn’t be here, which is a wild thought.

Stephen Zendejas, Tracy

A family of five stand, well-dressed, against an ornate door. They're all smiling. From left to right: a woman in a black and white patterned top with her arms behind her back, an older woman (the mom) in a dark blue blouse with a black undershirt and white necklace, a taller man (the dad) in a light blue dress shirt and navy blue patterned tie (his hair has specks of gray), a shorter woman in a simple black dress and a necklace with a pendant, a young man in a suit and tie similar to the older man's.
Stephen Zendejas, right, with his parents and siblings. (Courtesy of Stephen Zendajas)

My dad is a third-generation Mexican American and my mom is an immigrant from the Philippines who is half Chinese. I would describe growing up as mixed race [as] kind of confusing and complex.

I think the concept of racial identity is sometimes still foreign and confusing to me because it’s more social than it is scientific. But it’s also not something that we can just completely ignore either.

David Risher, San Francisco

A bald man smiling, squinting a bit in the sun. He is multiracial, Black and white, standing in a paisley-patterned blue and white shirt against a background of trees that is slightly out of focus.
David Risher. (Courtesy fo David Risher)

[There are ] so many stories from my childhood in the ’70s. I can’t count the number of times someone cocked his or her head at me, paused, and asked, “I’ve got a question for you. What are you?” It was so uncomfortable. My answer at the time: “My mother is white, my father is Black. So I’m both.” Today, I just say I’m biracial.

Here’s a story that sticks with me, from my time attending summer camp as a kid. One day, just before parents’ weekend, I overheard a fellow camper say, “I don’t know about you, but I’d be ashamed if I were you about having a Black dad and a white mom.” In fact, I wasn’t the least ashamed. But hearing that made me wonder, “Should I be?”

And [there’s] another story from my undergraduate years at Princeton. One evening, my well-meaning Black dorm-mate brought me into her room and said, “David, at some point you’re going to have to choose. If you don’t, others will for you, and they’ll make their decision based on who your girlfriend is.” I was shocked, but I got it. People are detectives, looking for clues.

Today, after years working at Microsoft and then as an executive at Amazon, I run a Bay Area nonprofit called Worldreader. We use technology and local books from all around the world to help children discover the joy of reading. We’ve helped 19 million children so far, and we’re just getting started. One thing that sets us apart: No matter where we operate — in Africa, India, South America, or the U.S. — we lead with books from local publishers, full of stories of doctors, astronauts, scientists and writers who look like our readers. I bet you see the connection: If you can’t see it, you can’t be it!

Ruben Villareal Halprin, San Francisco

A father who "Black Cuban" sports close cropped hair and a mustache and a gray T-shirt, profiled from the side and looking at the camera. On his back is a smiling baby with lighter skin in a baby backpack, wearing a blue T-shirt.
Ruben Villareal Halprin as a baby, with his father. (Courtesy of Ruben Villareal Halprin)

My mom, a Jewish girl from Boston, met my father, a Black Cuban, while at medical school in Cuba in the late ’80s. They got married a couple of years later and I showed up shortly after that. I was the “white boy.” I was “Ruben the Cuban.” I was “blanquito.” It just depends on where I was.

I wonder sometimes if I looked a little more like my mom or a little more like my dad, how different my life would be. Mind you, that’s not if my life would be different, but just how different. I love being mixed. I love dancing between the lines of the binaries that this society has built up … . In a way, I represent the breaking of cultural and institutional barriers that exist or existed. But breaking down barriers may just be a poetic way of saying you’re being slammed into a wall. And that’s certainly what it sometimes felt like growing up mixed.

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