Posted on March 11, 2021

‘What Are You?’ How Multiracial Americans Respond and How It’s Changing

Celeste Katz Marston, NBC News, February 28, 2021

Growing up in a predominantly white suburb of Washington, D.C., photojournalist Daniella Zalcman didn’t get to go to school with a single other Vietnamese person — nor anyone, like herself, who was of mixed Vietnamese heritage. Instead, she got “ridiculous questions” about whether she was a “war baby.”

Fast forward to college, when Zalcman, now 34, walked into her Vietnamese language class and saw the other students in the room: Five women, all of them of part-Vietnamese background. “It was such a funny relief to immediately find this group of people who understood all my jokes, all of these different things that were part of who I was,” she told NBC Asian America.

As someone of part-Asian ancestry, she said, it wasn’t until then that she could really share the experience of “what it means to have to navigate your own identity as an American, all of these different cultures that are a part of who you are and matter to you and are important to you, but [are] often at odds with each other.”

Cultural awareness and prevalence of part-Asian people is rising with their numbers in the United States. As of about five years ago, Asians and multiracial people had become the fastest-growing demographic groups in the country.

It’s a phenomenal shift since the time of Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court ruling that struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriages.

In reviewing 2018 data from the U.S. Census, the Pew Research Center found that about 6.2 million adults in America reported being of two or more races. Of those, 20 percent were white and Asian American, while two percent were black and Asian American.

From 1980 to 2015, the share of multiracial and multiethnic babies born in the U.S. tripled — although still only 14 percent of the total number of births, according to Pew. While the majority of multiethnic babies had either one white and one Hispanic parent or two multiracial parents, Pew found 14 percent had one white and one Asian parent, three percent had one Hispanic and one Asian parent, and one percent had one black parent and one Asian parent.

Some of the more recent focus on people of mixed-Asian American Pacific Islander heritage has been thanks to Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother and father emigrated to the U.S. from India and Jamaica, respectively, and who has openly discussed how both parts of her identity have shaped her as a person and a public official.

As Asians have gained prominence in American society, so have those of mixed-Asian heritage in other areas of public life. Tennis phenomenon Naomi Osaka is of Japanese and black heritage. Millions hang on every word of model and author Chrissy Teigen, who is of Thai and European descent. DC blockbuster “Aquaman” has grossed more than $1 billion with a cast led by Jason Momoa, who’s part Native Hawaiian and part white. Musical success stories range from Bruno Mars (part Filipino) to Ne-Yo (part Chinese) to Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (part Korean). {snip}

It wasn’t always that way — or at least it wasn’t so openly discussed.

When photographer Kip Fulbeck embarked on what would become the 2006 landmark project “Part Asian, 100% Hapa,” showcasing portraits of multiracial Asian people accompanied by their own answers to an all-too-familiar question — “What are you?” — he was filling a gap he’d felt in his own childhood of growing up part-Chinese.


To his surprise, the photo sessions — pulled together before the mainstreaming of Facebook — drew droves of people who wanted to participate. Many were people who wanted to give their own response to the question of what they were, who wanted to be not just part something, but part of something.

Mixed-race people have described a rainbow of experiences. Some say being of mixed cultures has made life richer and more inclusive; others talk of struggling for acceptance by one side or another of their roots, of feeling internal or external pressure to embrace — or reject — part of who they are, or getting used to checking the box for “other” on forms.

Actively spending time in a place with a larger hapa population “really blows your mind in two ways,” said Fulbeck, who remembers being targeted while growing up in a white neighborhood. On the one hand, “It’s like, ‘Oh my G-d, [I’ve] found my tribe,’ but I’ve also seen people like, ‘Oh, I’m no longer special. I’m no longer memorable…’ Some people react in [a] weird kind of cultural footing in how to deal with that. I’ve seen that before.’


Pew studies have found that Hawaii by far leads all other states in the percentage of residents who identify as being of two or more races. Nearly 25 percent of people in Hawaii identified as multiracial. Most of them, more than 20 percent, actually identified as being of three backgrounds — a combination of white, Asian and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.