“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.
Possibly 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.
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.