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KQED Asked About Your Experiences Growing Up Mixed Race. Here's What You Told Us

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A collage of family photos showing mixed race families has a rainbow tint over it. At the top reads: "Mixed! Stories of Mixed Race Californians."
Listeners from around California sent in photos of themselves with their families to show off their particular brand of mixed-race identity. (Graphic by Kelly Ma/KQED)

For the past eight weeks, the California Report Magazine has featured the voices of a diverse array of mixed-race Californians. Musicians, teachers, activists, parents and teenagers described the joy of belonging to multiple ethnic groups and their ability to bridge divides because of their identities. But, they also shared feelings of loneliness and isolation, of not “being enough.” Now, we hear from members of KQED’s audience about their experiences, focusing on the question: “What’s something only fellow mixed folks understand about growing up mixed?”

Katie Andresen, San Francisco

I tend to start my story of being multiracial with my hair. Growing up, it was the thing that defined me. In contrast to my classmates, who possessed a mostly straight assortment of blonds, browns and black, my hair sprung from the base of my head outwards and had a mind of its own. It was difficult to manage and never really sat the same way (many tears were shed as my mother combed my hair), despite the exact same methodology of styling. Multiple friends told me that they could pick me out from across the playground by recognizing my halo of curls that stood out in the sea of straight hair. Still, as I would learn later, my hair was considered the “good” type of hair — not overly kinky or coily.

A woman smiles from a gray sofa. She has long, curly brown hair and a friendly face. She wears a gold necklace and a black, sleeveless dress. A happy, green house plant is positioned behind her and the light shines brightly on her face.
Katie Andresen is the host of the podcast Mixed Kid Chronicles. (Courtesy Israel Alemu)

It would take many years later to realize that my combination of curly hair and light skin was confounding to many. I learned how to navigate the question of “What are you?” as a lesson in geography. Most people in California hadn’t heard of the small island country my mom was from called Cabo Verde. My dad, a white Californian, had a less exciting origin story, but was still an important factor for people getting an answer to their initial question. Years later, I would realize that question wasn’t about me. It was a reflection of how race in the U.S. is constructed as a binary — you are this or that. There is no in between.

I was too white for the Black folks and too Black for the white folks. Or rather — it took too much explanation to both groups with whom I was supposed to be part of that I did, indeed, belong. It didn’t help that I routinely got mistaken as Latina. A series of conversations with both multiracial friends and strangers got me thinking; we all had similar salient experiences.

A family portrait of a father, mother and their two children: a son and a daughter, posing in front of a body of water. The photo looks old with a tan patina to it.
Katie Andresen (far right) with her parents and brother. (Courtesy Katie Andresen)

We all had answered the question “What are you?” a million times. We all had people approach us, speaking another language because they assumed we had a different racial affiliation. Outside of these one-on-one conversations, I didn’t see a place for a wider discussion of these topics. I also didn’t see a place to have an honest conversation about how structures of race and racism shaped these perceptions. I started Mixed Kid Chronicles to create that space for conversation.

Through this dialogue, I’ve learned that white people are generally very uncomfortable discussing race, while people of color can’t escape it. I’ve learned in discussing race, you have to be comfortable making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. I’ve learned that race is different depending on which country you’re in. I’ve learned my power in bridging gaps because of my dual heritage. I also know I’ll never experience racism like my darker-skinned family members and individuals. Most of all, I’ve learned that no one’s experience is quite the same, and despite points of salience, we should allow room for those points of divergence.

Ultimately, I enjoy unpacking the messy, complex world of race. It is a construct built by structures of power to enforce a certain world order. Questioning it, stretching it and testing it is the only way to find yourself in this world. I don’t want to be put in a box. I am multiracial. I am Black. I am a woman. I am from California. I am proud to be a product of the people and communities that have raised me.


Andrew Jabara, Tustin

I’m Chinese and Lebanese, born and raised in Orange County, California. I’m fond of saying that “my Chinese side is my American side” because we’ve been in California since the 1800s, making me a fifth-generation Chinese American (Mom, Grandpa and Great-Grandma were all born in California). My Lebanese side is my “immigrant” side — Baba moved from Beirut to California to finish med school and seek opportunity.

A cute baby is seen sitting barefoot on a white, leather sofa. He wears black and gold, traditional Lebanese garb.
Andrew Jabara as a baby in traditional Lebanese garb in 1997. (Courtesy Andrew Jabara)

Beside my younger brother, I didn’t know anyone quite like me growing up. Sure, I knew other Chinese American kids, but their parents emigrated from China in the 1990s, not the 1890s. Arab American identity at the turn of the 21st century meant defending pride in my heritage against a barrage of slurs and threats. English was my first language; I never learned Cantonese, and I barely knew any Levantine Arabic. At home, we made a variety of American staple dishes, but also folded pot stickers and wontons, cooked coosa rice and tabbouleh, turned leftover Thanksgiving turkey bones into jook, or packed a pita and lebni sandwich for lunch. We celebrated Chinese New Year and played Lebanese egg games on Easter. From a young age, even if I didn’t have the words to express it, my background made me aware of the wealth of cultures beyond homogeneous suburbia, how they were interwoven within me, and how they could intersect in the world at large.

Sonia Dholakia, Atherton

I’m Indian on my dad’s side and white on my mom’s. I remember going to Benihana’s with my mom when I was in elementary school and starting a conversation with the woman sitting adjacent to us. She turned to my mom and asked, “And your husband is … ,” trailing off and waiting for her to complete the sentence. In that moment, I realized that being mixed was not the norm.

A smiling family of five sit on an outdoor planter with chubby, green bushes behind them. From left to right: A bald dad with glasses sits next to his daughter with long, brown hair and jeans. She, sits next to her brother who smiles holding a happy tan dog with floppy ears. He is seated next to his mother with blond hair and a gray, scoop-neck blouse.
Sonia Dholakia (center left) is a student at Menlo School in Atherton. (Courtesy Sonia Dholakia)

Since then, being mixed has become a crucial part of my identity. I’ve been able to celebrate two very different cultures, enjoying both Diwali and Christmas traditions, but I also faced rejection from both sides of my identity. I often feel too white for my Indian friends, but too Indian for my white friends. I used to feel like I didn’t belong anywhere, like I was living in the middle.

I knew there were other mixed kids at my school, but I didn’t have a place to share my experience and to learn from theirs. This upset me, and I created an affinity group for mixed students like myself. It has been so rewarding to have a place where I know I can be my true self and others can be theirs. At our first meeting, we all answered the question, “When did you first realize you were mixed?” Hearing everyone’s honest, vulnerable answers, I knew we had created that safe community I sought.

Chanda Stacker-Chung, Oakland

As a mixed kid, you can always feel the stares. Eyes would travel from me to my mom, to my dad, and then back down to me when I’d walk alongside my mom and dad. To this day, “What are you?” remains the most popular question I receive from strangers and acquaintances alike.

A family is pictured sitting inside a restaurant setting. A grandmother, two parental figures, and their young daughter all smile for the camera. The daughter wears a royal blue college graduation sash around her shoulders.
Chanda Stacker-Chung (far right) with her grandmother and parents celebrating her college graduation. (Courtesy Chanda Stacker-Chung)

When I was a child, I always answered by telling people that I was Black and Filipino. Somewhere down the line, I started answering that I was half Black and half Filipino. I never realized how my language in identifying myself (from saying I was Black and Filipino to saying I was half Black and half Filipino) was influenced by others around me. Perhaps it was an attempt to preemptively answer the clarifying questions that always seemed to follow: “Oh, so you’re half-and-half?”

At my father’s funeral in 2020, the hearse driver observed my blended family and was curious who he had the honor of driving to the service. “My dad,” I said. He followed up wanting to know more about my background. So I shared that I was half Black and half Filipino. He stopped me and said, “Now, wait a minute, you’re not half of anything.” I’ve been conscious of my language ever since.

Leo Bersamina, North Bay

I grew up with a German/French mother and a Mexican/Filipino dad in the ’60s and ’70s. After my father left when I was 4 years old, my mom raised us kids on her own until the age of 8. Even growing up in liberal San Francisco, we would get a lot of looks as a family with my mom being white with five brown kids. This continued when my white stepdad married my mother, but as I got older, it mattered less to me. Eventually, a few other mixed-race families moved into our community, which made me feel more connected and confident.

A man with a bright, yellow, long-sleeved shirt smiles in front of a multicolored, funky-patterned mural. He stands with his hands on his hips.
Artist Leo Bersamina in front of his mural on the side of the Adobe Founders Tower in downtown San José. (Courtesy Leo Bersamina)

While it continues to be a confusing issue for me to choose an identity, I try to work through it in my art practice by celebrating all of my ancestral influences through the ideas I process visually.

I recently created a large mural in San José for Adobe Inc. that relates to the idea of being mixed. This project was a great way for me to convey what I have been feeling my whole life: that being mixed has been a rich experience.

One aggravating aspect of being mixed is that most of the government forms are too limiting. While some have gotten a little better in regard to me choosing an identity, it is still a pretty difficult issue for me, as the questions about identity are mostly heavy-handed with not enough nuance. I often find myself having to choose “other” as an answer, which doesn’t feel right.

As a college professor, being mixed has helped me make connections with many of my students, connections that may not have been available to me if I had not been of a mixed race. It has allowed me to have multidimensional perspectives that I can share with many students, creating a rich learning environment in my classes. Overall, it has been a blessing for me to have a mixed background. I feel comfortable with many types of people, and can relate to many types of perspectives. A bonus is that I often find myself at home whenever I travel to Latin America, Asia, Polynesia and Europe.

Maya Sisneros, Oakland

I’m of Chinese and Mexican descent. I believe the mixed-race category is often romanticized and rendered unique, even though mixed-race people have been around since the early days of colonialism. It’s a complicated identity that, in pop discourse, we’ve often conflated with a fantasy of racial progress and multicultural harmony.

Two sisters wear large, straw sun hats and smile for the camera.
Maya Sisneros (left) with her sister. (Courtesy Maya Sisneros)

One thing we don’t talk about enough that complicates the mixed-race umbrella is white privilege. Mixed-race people with a white parent get a significant amount of privilege because of their whiteness. Even if they don’t look white, they still benefit from other aspects of white privilege. People who are mixed minorities don’t have that same access to white privilege, and tend to have a very different lived experience.

What many mixed-race people do share are questions of belonging, and not being “x” enough. But are these shared experiences of “not belonging” or “belonging to both” substantial enough to characterize a unified identity? Maybe instead of an identity, it’s a shared orientation, a unique position to make more choices around your relationship to your racial and ethnic identity. I’m always interested in reforming the question “Who are you?” to asking instead, “What choices are you making around your identity?”

I’d love to see KQED complicate the narrative around mixed-race people as unique, by exploring the limits of today’s pop discourse around mixed people or by exploring the history of how the mixed-race identity became popularized and how this affects the distribution of race-based resources.

Alexa Senter, Contra Costa County

One thing that sticks out from growing up mixed is that look from random elders. I grew up with a lot of narratives about my family’s identities. On my mom’s side, I heard about her maternal grandmother’s hidden Native American roots and my grandpa’s strict German uncles who didn’t approve of children playing when they could be working. On my dad’s side, the narrative was always “somos españoles” because one distant grandfather arrived in California with the first wave of colonizers and missionaries.

While my grandma, who quietly claimed “Indian” heritage, looked much different than the rest of our family, I came to believe that she likely appropriated Native identity to establish some kind of belonging and ownership in the American West after migrating to Washington from Tennessee during WWI.

A family of three is pictured inside a clothing store with T-shirts hanging in the background. To the left, a father wears a black bicycle helmet with tropical shirt. In the center, an older daughter wears an army green hat with blue tank top as she smiles. To her right, her mother wears a black tank top and smiles hugging her daughter.
Alexa Senter with her parents, Art and Carol. (Courtesy Alexa Senter)

Since my family is small and most of my elders have passed, I have always gotten so excited when strangers (usually older women) share a sly smile and speak to me in Spanish. And, while that excitement is usually quickly replaced by panic about my mediocre language skills, the joy of being seen helps balance out the “What are you?” and “Why do you talk like a white girl?” questions that I generally got from my peers. My first job here in the Bay Area had me doing a lot of promotional events in the South Bay. On multiple occasions, older South Asian aunties would approach me with incredible warmth and sometimes even ask me about my Indian heritage. I’d respond with happiness from just feeling included and say something along the lines of, “Oh, I am kind of a mutt but I am not South Asian, as far as I know.”

Since losing both my parents, I have spent a lot of my 30s digging deeper into the family archives and even exploring genetic testing to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. Family trees and genetic testing confirmed that my dad’s Spanish identity was, in reality, mostly Indigenous Mexican heritage. I also now know that those aunties I met in San José were on to something that none of my family realized. That grandma who claimed to be Indian? It turns out she was indeed Indian … just not the American kind. The aunties always know.

Ariane Li, San Francisco

Being mixed gives you the benefit of being able to engage with multiple cultures as part of your heritage. I’m Karen on my mom’s side (ethnic group from Myanmar) and Chinese/white on my dad’s side. I get to celebrate all the Western holidays like Christmas, Easter, etc., as well as Eastern holidays like Lunar New Year. I feel particularly lucky because all sides of my family like each other and enjoy celebrating with each other.

A family of eight stand smiling outside of a house. There are two males and six females pictured.
Ariane Li (far right) and her cousins at Thanksgiving. (Courtesy Ariane Li)

Nobody can tell you what you are or are not. If and when you do get bullied or put down by other people for being mixed, it’s not just white people who do this, other people of color will absolutely put you down for being mixed, probably because it makes them feel better and more secure about their own identities. But people will judge you for engaging in a culture you’re part of if you don’t look (Asian, Latino, Black, etc.) enough to belong. Mixed people tend to get caught in the crossfire of calling out cultural appropriation, especially if they’re white passing. I think most mixed people have learned to give others the benefit of the doubt before calling out cultural appropriation because that other person wearing a kimono or using cultural slang might also be mixed.

You also learn to recognize other mixed people really quickly. Talking about growing up mixed is an easy way for mixed people to relate to each other, especially when they know the other person isn’t going to judge them for it. I’ve been able to turn my mixed-ness into a fun guessing game when meeting new people because they always want to know what you are, but, being part of a minority ethnic group from a semi-obscure country in Southeast Asia, most people don’t know to guess “Karen.” I think if some people grow up with more connection to one culture early in life, they’ll try to reconnect with other parts of their identity when they’re older. For me, personally, I grew up surrounded mostly by the white side of my family. Now that I’m an adult, I try to connect more with the Chinese/Southeast Asian side by incorporating things from those cultures into my creative projects.

Maria T. Allocco, Oakland

I never saw myself reflected in the world: this is something mixed-race people know. To never read a children’s book written for someone like you. To never see yourself in any school material. To never watch a film with actors who look like you. I never saw myself reflected in the collective reality. As a mixed-race Korean and Italian writer, I learned to trust and represent my own experience.

Two grandparents stand with their young granddaughter amid green trees and a pond of water. A ceramic statue of a saint is also in the background. The photo is old and has a classic patina to it.
Maria Allocco with her grandparents. (Courtesy Maria Allocco)

The first time I felt what I imagine monoracial people may feel in the presence of other monoracial people like themselves was in a room full of only other mixed-race people at Oakland’s East Bay Meditation Center. In 2012, Michele Benzamin-Miki facilitated an all mixed-race meditation workshop.

My body received a mutual understanding. We shared a foundation of experiences and affirmed them for one another. Afterwards, I co-founded a mixed-race meditation group at the EBMC with four other mixed-race people. My wish was for others to also experience conscious community.

The love mixed-race people have for our parents and extended families inspires and often requires multiple understandings. We carry them with us throughout our lives.

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