What do they look like?

“What does she look like?”

The police officer meant my daughter’s race.  She looked up at me, exasperated by my lack of response to her question.  I hadn’t responded as I hadn’t been blindsided by this sort of casual racism in years.  I needed a minute to collect myself, to process what she had just asked me.

Let me back up.  Through an act of utter stupidity for which I bear all responsibility, someone had helped themselves to my purse in Las Vegas.  I’d set it down to watch the Dancing Fountains in front of The Bellagio Hotel.  Distracted after the show, I’d walked away from it, and had not realized I’d done so for 5+ minutes.  Naturally, when I went back, it was gone.  Inside the purse was my wallet (which had my Singaporean ID, the girl’s SG IDs, credit cards, and some cash) and Ravi’s and my passports.

IMG_6910Possibly my favorite thing in Vegas, but all in all, I’d prefer to have not been so mesmerized that I forgot my purse.

To make the process of passport and identification replacement smooth, I went down to the Las Vegas police station to file a report.  I had no expectation of ever seeing my wallet again, the credit cards were already canceled, and the passports reported missing with the appropriate authorities (and an appointment to get emergency passport replacement already made).  But I knew that dealing with red tape would go far smoother if I filed the report and could show it to the proper Passport Agency and Singaporean authorities.

The process of filing the report was routine, even boring, especially as I knew I was only doing so for paperwork purposes.  We reviewed the missing items.  As we were all “victims,” I had to provide each of our name, date of birth, height, hair color, eye color, weight, and race.  This was a fairly straightforward process for myself (white/caucasian), and Ravi (although I had to clarify I meant Indian as in India, and then explain that yes, Indians are Asian by US race classifications).  When it came to Elanor, I noted that she was biracial.

“That’s not a category,” the officer replied.

“Other?” I asked.  This was what we had marked Elanor on the 2010 US census, and our default when there is no option for biracial.  (In SG there is “Eurasian” which is accurate enough, but is not a category in the US).

Annoyed, the officer looked at me and asked “What does she look like?


Ellie, discovering the joy of a hotdog on a stick and adorably mussed

What does she look like?

  • Caucasians remark upon her gorgeous “natural tan.”
  • Indians praise her for being so “light.”
  • When she’s with me, people tend to assume she’s white.
  • When she’s with Ravi, people tend to assume she’s Indian.

She looks like Elanor

To say that Race is a problematic and complex issue in the US is an understatement.  I actually took an entire graduate level History class on the history of race in America.  The history of who got to be white and when and why is fascinating.

Respected Historian Eric Foner details in his essay

Although whiteness was not yet defined with any precision, most colonists thought they knew what it meant. Benjamin Franklin suggested in 1751 that since the number of “purely white people” in the world was “very small,” America ought to exclude “all Blacks and Tawneys,” among whom he included not only residents of Africa and Asia but also the “swarthy” peoples of Europe—“the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians, and Swedes.” Franklin’s inclusion of Swedes among non-whites strikes us today as an original touch.

This notion of North America as the natural home of white people was refected in the Naturalization Act of 1790, one of the first laws passed after the ratifcation of the U. S. Constitution. In “Common Sense,” Tom Paine (misidentifed in Painter’s book as a Virginian, one of many small mistakes), called the new nation an “asylum” for all mankind. But the 1790 law limited citizenship for foreigners to “white” persons. Painter buries mention of the Act in a footnote related to late-nineteenth-century immigration policy. But it was a striking example of how, from the outset, the defnition of American nationhood contained a powerful and exclusionary racial component. After the Civil War, those of African descent were added to the list of persons eligible for naturalization. As the Ozowa and Thind cases of the 1920s showed, the exclusion of Asians lasted much longer.

But let’s talk about today.  Many would like you to think we live in some sort of post-race utopia because we elected Barack Obama.  However, as Obama-who is indentified as the “first Black President” and not the first biracial president-so eloquently displays, the “one-drop rule” is very much still in effect.  This article describes research that supports this–that when a person who is biracial is perceived as having only one race-the race of the minority parent is assigned to them.

“She’s Asian”

I thought about how others might see her-the biracial child of a white woman and an Asian man.  I thought about how Obama identifies as a black man instead of a biracial man.  I thought about identifying them as white.

I wondered how Elanor, who strongly identifies as Indian, would feel if I identified her as white (were she old enough to have an opinion-at which point she could make that choice herself).  I was torn, but even though she’s too young to really understand race, ethnicity, or the implications of race, I want to honor what I hoped Elanor would want me to say.

“She’s Asian,” I said.

Why make it a big deal?

It’s only a stupid piece of paper.  It’s a pointless police report.  What does it really matter in the long run?  Why get worked up over it?

I care because when Ellie was a baby, I was approached on two different occasions and asked “where did you get her?” as if she was a new pair of shoes.

I care because I don’t like the idea of either half of their heritage being denied.

I care because they may be excluded from belonging in either half of their heritage.  There was a controversy over Jacinta Lal, the blonde haired woman who won a Ms India pageant in NZ not “looking Indian” and people calling for her to be stripped of her title.

I care because one day they may consider buying the sort of skin whitening products I see on the shelf here all the time to fit the dominant white ideal of beauty.

I care because of every TSA agent who has given Ravi the “random” pat down because he’s brown with long hair and fits their idea of what a terrorist might look like.

I care because it’s not accidental that Ravi gives me the passports to hand over to passport control in the US–I’m the harmless norm (white) from which he deviates.

I care because I also had to explain that India is in Asia and Indian are Asian by the US race classification system because to most American Asian means a very narrow slice of Asia.

I care because of all the moments of casual racism like the one with the police officer, and I wish I could shield the girls from it, and know that I can’t.

This entry was posted in headdesk moments, Identity, Las Vegas, North America, Travel by Continent, Country. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to What do they look like?

  1. Guillaume says:

    You did right to write about it. First time I cam in Asia, I was shocked to see that my race was required on the form at immigration. I thought that race did not exist… I was suprised…

  2. Guillaume says:

    I am not saying there is no issue with racism in France. On the contrary they are. But you will never see in any form, application, resume etc. a question about race. There are words like origins, differences or minorities. The word race exists in french but is used for animals. I have always been taught that race for humans does not exist. And when I read your article, we could come to the same conclusion 😉

  3. Kirsten says:

    I’ve been doing readings on race/ethnicity in Singapore for my dissertation, and was just reading this piece about multiculturalism (and how it’s been appropriated as a form of government control). I think the “one-drop rule” also kind of applies to Singapore. It’s only fairly recent that the government has allowed “double-barrelled” races on identity cards for children of inter-racial marriages. (http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1030142/1/.html) Before that, the children are automatically assigned their father’s race, and choose between either the father or mother’s native language in schools.

  4. Dawn says:

    I suspect the issue is less of racism than of red tape. In order to have all the reports properly filed and all the statistics properly tallied, they need to put everyone in a neat little box. People who do not fit into one particular box break the system. And overhauling the system to fit modern society is a huge undertaking, and one the lowly policemen doing the paperwork have very little, if any, control over. I’m thinking the policeman was just trying to do his job “right” and was given no protocol to deal with a biracial individual, therefore was trying to find a way to fit her into one race or the other so he wouldn’t have to explain to his supervisor why a box wasn’t checked.

    • But it is racism. Perhaps not on the part of the officer (although, really, the phrasing leaves plenty to be desired–and “what do they look like?” felt offensive then and it still feel offensive a few weeks later), but certainly on the part of society at large. That the boxes don’t allow for racial mixing or create situations that force you to “pick” one side of your heritage/ethnicity at the expense of the other is inherently racist.

      • Dawn says:

        But here’s the thing – in order to identify racism, you have to first identify race. Without race, there can be no racism. What you’re asserting is that the identification of race *in itself* is racism. But that’s circular logic. The reason why they want to check boxes is to identify if there are particular races of people that are more at risk for certain things. This is a tool in combatting racism, which most certainly exists – but this wasn’t an example of it. Demographic studies – whether crime statistics, health facts, or marketing-related – rely on being able to categorize people. That means coming up with a small set of categories (because the bigger the set, the less useful are the statistics) and fitting people into them. Some people will not fit well. Even gender is something that not all people fit neatly into…”female” or “male.” Yet how many forms have you filled out where you had to check off a box saying “female” or “male”? What if you had a kid who was transgender or otherwise didn’t identify as “male” or “female” and you were asked about their gender? If you refused to check a box, and the policeman insisted that a box must be checked, and trying to be helpful, asked “what does the kid look like?” as in “if someone saw them on the street, what would they *assume* they were?” would you claim sexism? Or merely a policeman trying to do his job the best he could under an imperfect system? The reason we classify people according to race is because mixed-race people are just not all that common…as they become more common, I’m sure the system will be overhauled (and lots of forms now do allow for “biracial” or “mixed”). You also have to ask what would be most helpful for what we learn from the statistics – a separate category for mixed-race people, or lumping them with the more at-risk or less at-risk group they are part of? But until the system is modernized to reflect the changing face of the populace, crying “racism” doesn’t help the situation – and you shouldn’t be offended. Frustrated, perhaps, and interested in fixing the system to allow for cases like yours, but not angry at anyone or accusing anyone of being “racist.” Especially since the police, in particular, identify race with the specific goal of identifying racism-related risks. In that case, “what does she look like?” is the best possible way of trying to fit her into a box, because what she looks like is how strangers will assess her, and so if she *is* the victim of racism, it’ll be based upon what she looks like, not what she identifies as.

      • I hear what you’re saying, but I still feel fairly strongly that placed within context of a thousand small instances of casual racism that it’s indicative of larger issues that deserve a conversation.

      • Kirsten says:

        (ARGH I wrote a comment then accidentally closed the window. Here’s my new attempt to write…)

        Sorry to butt in here but just reading Dawn’s comment has reminded me of some of the things I’ve been looking at/discussing while working on my dissertation.

        I get the point about categorising people for study, so as to be able to identify possible issues or discriminatory practices. But the flip side is that this information (i.e. race-based statistics) may not often come with the right context or questions being asked. And when we just see these stats at face value, it could lead, if not to outright racism, to racialism – which some people have argued to be even more insidious. Instead of wondering why some things are this way, we begin to assign certain characteristics to particular ethnicities, thinking that this is “natural” to their group.

        Singapore goes into racial categories ALL the time. When students get their exam results for PSLE or O Levels, the results are also published according to racial categories: the Malay kids did this, the Chinese kids did this, the Indian kids did this, etc. etc. Sometimes you can see that the Malay children don’t, on average, do as well as the Chinese children. But how many people ask why, or demand an examination of structural prejudices that may disadvantage Malay kids (a lot of this has to do with socio-economic circumstances)? Instead, we get people assuming, “Oh, this is because Malays are lazier, they don’t work as hard as the Chinese, the Malay parents don’t push their kids as hard, etc.” And when a Malay boy does well enough to become a President’s Scholar we go into raptures at how wonderful it is that a Malay kid can do so well – implication being that he’s done this well DESPITE his Malay-ness.

        As my Malay friends have pointed out, it had very little to do with his being Malay, and everything to do with the fact that he was still a student in one of the most elite schools in Singapore. Not very representative of the Malay community at all, but VERY representative of a rich upper middle class elite upbringing that has very little to do with race.

        Same goes with crime – when the Straits Times publishes that almost 50% of drug offenders are Malay, people kind of just take that at face value without questioning why. And when these race-based statistics are published, the focus then shifts to the community groups. When we see that 50% of drug offenders are Malay, people then turn to the Malay self-help groups and go, “What are you going to do about your community?” When at the end of the day, the onus shouldn’t be on THEM to “sort their own racial brethen out”, but on us as a country to address, because the racial thing is a red herring – it’s the socio-economic situation, the prejudice and discrimination and misconceptions built into the system, that can contribute towards making things just that much harder for a certain segment of the population than others.

        So while it can often be useful to have categories to study, from what I’ve seen in Singapore the whole race-based stuff hasn’t necessarily helped.

      • Thank you for making those really excellent points, Kirsten

  5. Thanks for writing this post. I definitely can commiserate with you on so many levels and have often felt frustrated at people’s comments, the forms I am asked to check or the extra identification I am asked to hand over.

    I am half Filipina, half caucasian, born in the Philippines but have been an American citizen from birth. Since I look more Filipina, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten the question or comments in the states: What are you? Where are you from? Wow, you speak good English! We will need you to show us your green card (I have none! I was born an American, silly goose!).

    My daughter is 1/4 Filipina, 3/4 caucasian, born in the states, and looks as pink & white as can be. 🙂 We now live in Singapore, which is incredibly diverse. But I was once asked what my relation was to my daughter. ha, ha. Another day, a Singaporean looked me up and down, then looked at my daughter and said, “Your daughter looks like she took a bath in milk.”

    My son should have a hoot of a time once he is born. He will be a 1/4 Filipino, 3/4 caucasian, an American citizen, but born in Singapore. Let the fun begin!

    Anyways, I think it’s GREAT that you are reflecting on your experience with the cop in Las Vegas! It’s important to discuss these issues. It’s also important, as parents to biracial children, to be aware that these issues exist so that we can guide our kids on how to gracefully handle the comments, questions, and forms they may face during their lifetime.


    • I would imagine being Filipina makes it a lot harder in SG with the added racism toward Filipinas. (although int he wake of the delhi rape case, I’ve heard lots of Indian based racism…of course it’s all done with a comment of “we don’t mean YOUR family Indians, we mean Indians from India” as if my inlaws and Ravi’s cousins aren’t from India–although they’re also talking about class and race..just ugh).

  6. piracetam says:

    I’m biracial- black and white. I have always dated outside of my races but never thought I would marry someone within it. My future hubby is white- the only issues that arise are the disagreements we have because he doesn’t understand what it means to be a minority. I am super proud of my race (I identify myself with being black) and I know this sounds bad, but I’m a little sad that our child together will be mostly white and look mostly white because it’s like they will be losing a part of my heritage. I have a little boy who is black, white, and mexican (he calls himself “the barack obama that’s 3 things!”) and I put down hispanic on his school records, but it’s going to bother me a little when I just have to check off “caucasian” or “other” for any of my future children.

    • I’m really glad to hear from you and get your perspective. My reluctance to pick a race for my daughters is that they may not identify as such. A close friend is half Pakistani and half white, but identifies as white because she has little no contact with the Pakistani side of her family and has no cultural ties to that part of her cultural heritage. Elanor strongly identifies with the Indian side of her heritage and I’m not particularly surprised by this as I’m not overly close to my extended family and she spends the majority of her time with the Indian side of the family. Further, here in Singapore, she has much more contact with Indian culture than she would’ve in Boston. But I don’t know how Rhi will feel.

      Your son sounds adorable!

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