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Feeling Like You Don't Always Belong in Your Race

What It's Like to Feel Stuck in Racial Limbo

Race classification is so confusing, the US Census has considered abandoning the words "race" and "origin" from the 2020 questionnaire altogether. Instead, it might ask people to check the "categories" that best describe them.

Racial checkboxes are puzzling (and often infuriating) because, for many people, racial identity is maddeningly complex; it can't be summarized with one little x. Even when you're monoracial, it's common to feel like you're caught in cultural limbo if you've formed close connections with people of different races. It's like you're straddling two worlds, stuck with one foot in the race and culture you were born into and one foot in the race and culture that surrounded you growing up.

Studies have shown that people who identify strongly with their race are happier and have higher self-esteem. But not everyone is so fortunate. And there is an upside to grappling with a so-called culture clash as a result of exposure to different races.

Dr. Jennifer Ann Ho told POPSUGAR it's comparable to being in New York City and not knowing how to navigate the subway system. Once you master that system, it's easy to transfer your knowledge to a different context, like the San Francisco subway system. In this example, we could view childhood friends from different races as the NYC subway system and work colleagues from different races as the San Francisco subway system. It's good to feel comfortable navigating a world other than your own.

"From an ethnic or racial point of view, if you've never interacted closely with a different racial or ethnic group, you're at a disadvantage," said Ho, who wrote the book Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture and is the associate director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at the University of North Carolina. "It behooves all of us to have racial literacy because we live in a multiracial world — especially if you're a person of color, because you're going to be confronted with those realities."

Ahead, read stories from four POPSUGAR editors who share similar experiences across different races. All are women of color in our 20s, children of immigrants, and, like many young Americans, trying to belong.

Marina Liao, Assistant Fashion Editor

My parents left their lives in China for more opportunity, moving to the United States in the late '80s. I was born in '92 and my sister in '94, and we grew up in a spacious apartment above my family's Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn. I went to elementary and middle school in my neighborhood, and my friends were a mix of white, black, and Latino. I only had two Asian friends growing up.

It wasn't until I started college at Stony Brook University and joined an Asian-interest sorority that I realized how "Americanized" I had become. I happened to walk by a tabling event where the sisters were recruiting new members, and I saw how friendly everyone was. A conversation led to a party that led to an interview, and soon I found myself calling 20 or so Asian women "sisters" a few months later.

It was bizarre to have so many Asian friends all of a sudden when I had previously had two. But at the same time, I felt comfortable with them because we all came from similar backgrounds. We all spoke Cantonese or Mandarin and all of our parents emigrated to the states from Asia. When I would say, "Ugh, I can't wait for Chinese New Year so I can get red envelopes and hot pot," everyone knew what that meant. This relatability was missing from my other friendships.
It was bizarre to have so many Asian friends all of a sudden when I had previously had two.
Still, I remember the times I was approached at house parties with the "Are you mixed?" line because of my skin color, eye shape, and hair. My hairstylist has even commented on how my hair color isn't typical for Asian women. I naturally have brown hair as opposed to the jet-black color many Asians have, and I don't have the monolid, almond-shaped eye. I actually sometimes wake up with too many creases in one eye, which is a different kind of struggle.

I've also been told that I am "whitewashed" or the "whitest Asian" that some people know. I understand that term has a negative connotation, and I should be more angry that people have said it about me, but I'm not. I can see why they would think that. When I've asked people what makes me more white than Chinese, the answer always comes back to my looks and how I talk. According to my younger sister, Diana, my tone is higher pitched, so when I say "like" or "Are you serious?" it brings out the "valley girl" in me. And as one of my sorority sisters said, "Like a white girl, you know the Starbucks menu really well."

Those aren't the only differences between more traditional Asians and me. Unlike most of my Chinese friends, I don't know the popular Korean band Big Bang, nor do I watch Korean dramas because I think the Mandarin voice-over is terrible. (Chinese people are really into K-dramas, something my mom can attest to.) I don't live in a community with mostly Asians; I live in Park Slope, with its predominantly white families. I'm also not a doctor or lawyer. Instead, I write for a living, which my parents still aren't totally convinced is an actual job. I realize all these examples are stereotypes, but sometimes they're true and reflective of how society operates. We like to categorize and label people. The label I'm often given is "white Asian girl" or, as my parents and their generational friends call it, ABC (American-born Chinese).
Marina, left, with her childhood friends.
Image Source: Marina Liao
For every reason someone tells me how I am more white than Asian, however, I can think of reasons how I am more Asian than white. Even though I am an American citizen by birth, I don't feel 100 percent American either. Because my parents didn't grow up in the states, there are some traditions they never passed on to my sister and me.

The only holiday my parents celebrate is Chinese New Year. I've never celebrated Thanksgiving or Christmas. As a child, instead of opening up presents under a tree, I would tell my parents what I wanted, and they would buy it for me. My sister and I would trade gifts with friends, but that was about as Christmas as it got for us. And the year we convinced our parents that we needed a real, pine-smelling Christmas tree in our living room, we felt like we won a battle.

These holidays and traditions were the defining factor for me in how I was different from the rest of my American peers. I did feel left out sometimes and wished my parents cooked a traditional holiday meal, like the ones you see in movies, but that was never my reality growing up. Having a sibling who could relate to me made me feel less alone. Diana and I would often laugh about the "Asianness" of our parents because we understood they didn't grow up with American traditions.
For every reason someone tells me how I am more white than Asian, I can think of reasons how I am more Asian than white.

As I grew older, however, I understood that not feeling "Chinese enough" or "white enough" is not just about missed cultural nuances and holidays. It has to do with the environment you grow up in, the people you surround yourself with, and a host of other circumstances that shape a person. I realize how lucky I am to have a diverse group of friends to this day, including my Asian sorority sisters from college. It's taught me to be comfortable around all types of people and to respect everyone's culture or religion, even if it is not what I choose to believe in. When I hear some of my sorority sisters say they regret not going outside of the "Asian group" to meet more diverse people, I can proudly say, "Sorry, but I don't have that problem."

Because I appreciate both American and Chinese culture, I don't feel the need to choose just one. Though in the end, I still don't know how to quite respond or feel when someone calls me whitewashed. Do they want me to say thank you or be offended? Between being called really white and an ABC, I guess I'm just a really white American-born Chinese person in other people's eyes — and because of how that's shaped me, I'm OK with it.

Aimee Simeon, Assistant Social Editor

When Beyoncé's "Formation" song first came out, it gave me a renewed pride in my blackness. "I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils" was just one of many lyrics that made me walk with my chin high, embracing the big lips, brown skin, wide nose, and other beautiful, God-given traits that have long held a negative place in society.

But for my entire life, embracing the things that make me black hasn't always been considered "legitimate," simply because my skin is lighter than other black skin. And what I've learned over the course of my 23 years of this life is that I am not the only black girl, of any complexion, dealing with being "too black" or not "black enough."

I consider myself West Indian American. I was born to St. Lucian parents who were raised on the tiny island and migrated to this country in 1991 to fulfill their dreams of giving my sister and me a life they didn't have. I grew up in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, a small part of the larger borough that feels like a little Caribbean. Most of my friends are children of West Indian immigrants.
For my entire life, embracing the things that make me black hasn't always been considered "legitimate."
Even if you weren't from the islands, chances are you had a friend who was, and you couldn't help but melt into the colorful culture with West Indian restaurants on every corner, the sound of reggae music on the streets each Summer, and the distinct sharpness of accents coming from locals.

Growing up, my parents didn't talk to me about differences in skin color. As far as I was concerned, my sister, Maya (who is darker than I am), and I were just black. Nothing more, nothing less. Unfortunately, that didn't stop us from experiencing judgment when people — including our own family members — commented on the difference of our skin color or treated us differently because of it. I've even heard unintentionally hurtful comments about Maya's darker complexion from our grandmother, who points out that her chocolate skin and coarse hair stand out from my paler complexion and straightened strands.

While Maya grew up doubting her self-worth because of her skin color, I did, too. In my predominantly black elementary school, "white girl" became a nickname. When I played Barbie with my cousins, they took my black dolls away and replaced them with white ones that looked "more like me." And other students would insist that preferential treatment was given to me because "I was white" or that I was "stuck up" because of my lighter color.
Aimee, right, with her sister, Maya.
Image Source: Aimee Simeon
Those moments created an insecurity that I've held onto for most of my life so far. I believed that because my skin appeared lighter than others, I was a sellout to my own people. But as I've grown older, I've come to understand why my friends and family made those comments. The mindset that lighter skin is more desired by society, by men, and by other women is not because they mean to be hurtful, but because of harmful conditioning passed down by generations dating back to slavery.

On the flip side, there have also been times when I felt "too black" when I was around white people. I spent most of my childhood growing up with other black and Latino minorities in Brooklyn — but throughout my teenage years, my family's strong West Indian accent, the curry goat and roti I'd pack for lunch, and my choices in music felt taboo among my white peers.

Professing my love for Nas or instantly lighting up at the sound of "Turn Me On" by Kevin Lyttle made me feel like the weird or "ghetto" black girl. I stopped singing along to them around some of my white peers to avoid awkward stares and smiles. But around my black friends, those songs made me feel at home. I would also warn my white friends of my mother's accent before meeting her for the first time, because I immediately felt as if the way she speaks or her personality would be too intense for someone who hasn't spent a lot of time around Caribbean people.

Entering the professional world was another complexity. When I landed my first part-time job after high school at a retail store as a sales associate, my managers assumed that I was Latina and could help the Spanish-only-speaking clients. When I told them I'm black, they said I don't look like it.
Sharing my experiences has only revealed that I am not alone.
As time went on, I felt the effect of being the only black girl at work. When I poked fun at gritty Brooklyn dance crazes, like the Milly Rock, or recited old Katt Williams stand-up jokes, I was usually met with forced grins. Colleagues would share their experiences of attending the best residential universities, studying abroad, and joining their first sorority in college. And me? Well, I just attended a local community college and commuted home to Brooklyn every day because that was all my family could afford.

Although that had to do with economic factors too, I couldn't help but notice that those conversation starters were things my white peers had in common that I never experienced. I also felt like I had to work twice as hard as my peers for the same reward and wasn't able to show my fears, anger, or emotion because I'd be labeled as "weak" — or worse, the angry black girl.

I've discussed these experiences with my sister and many of my black friends. For many of us, they leave us feeling like walking contradictions. We're supposed to act one way because we're black, but then we're criticized for doing so. But as I've grown older, I've learned that there is no right or wrong way to be black, even when I'm picked apart for my hairstyle choices, complexion, the size of my lips, my curves, or the way I dress.

I've also realized that sharing my experiences has only revealed that I am not alone. While current political and news events show that Americans still have large strides to take toward becoming a more accepting, nurturing society, embracing who I truly am — and living my life unapologetically — is one step closer to healing those wounds.
Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Kyle Hartman

Lisette Mejia, News Editor

Only white people go on vacation. A Latina friend said that to me a couple of years ago when I told her about my upcoming trip to Hawaii. I understood her argument that taking trips is a luxury that comes with privilege and that minorities often go to the countries where their families are from when they get the chance to travel. But it also implied that we minorities are too ignorant to go anyplace new. That we would never travel to places like Hawaii or Europe. That only white people do that, and that I thought I was one of them.

It upset me. It also reminded me of that time I was in middle school wearing one of those Abercrombie & Fitch skirts — you know, that skirt from the 2000s — and my sister's friend, who is half Mexican and half white, told me I was dressing like a white girl. If the term "basic white girl" had been around back then, she probably would have thrown it at me.

At 29 years old, I still sometimes struggle with trying to understand where I fit in when it comes to race and economic status, and not just because of comments like hers. I'm Latina, but aside from immediate family, I grew up mostly around white people. I went to wealthy private Catholic schools but did so through scholarships and other financial help.
Lisette, center, with cousins in El Salvador.
Image Source: Lisette Mejia
My parents were born in the small Central American country of El Salvador (population 6 million) and immigrated to the US in the 1980s during the civil war. Aside from my family and a couple of neighborhood friends, I spent most of my time around white people (classmates, teammates, teachers) in the San Fernando Valley suburbs of Los Angeles. The number of Latinos or black people or Indians or Middle Easterners in my classes, first through 12th grade, was dismal.

It took money to go to these schools, so economic status played just as much of as a factor as race in what my friends looked like. My best friends had insane vacation homes in places like Santa Barbara and Malibu. They wore 7 For All Mankind jeans, drove Mercedes, owned horses, belonged to beach clubs. I liked their lives.

Not until I went to college at UCLA did I have close Latino friends. I joined a Latina club on campus, which eventually became a sorority, partially because I felt like that part of my life was missing, but also because they were welcoming and smart and fun and committed to social justice campaigns.
What struck me was how we had much in common, yet I would often feel out of place.
What struck me was how we had much in common — laughing over jokes about Latino families, enjoying foods like arroz con leche — yet I would often feel out of place. I had no idea who this Vicente Fernandez guy was, I never had a quinceañera because my family took me on a trip instead, I (ignorantly) didn't understand what was so bad about dressing up in a sombrero with a mustache and maracas for Halloween, and I didn't speak Spanish with my family.

I felt most awkward around the friends who didn't like white people. They didn't trust them; they thought they were all opponents in the fight for racial equality. I would say things like, "But my best friends are white and they're great," but then felt like the people who say they're not racist because they have one black friend. I don't agree with how these friends feel about white people, but it's based on realities like white privilege.

I have rarely felt discriminated against because of my race. I know I am fortunate. I know I am an exception. Sure, I've heard callous comments like how Salvadoreans are all short, fat, and dark. Or how Latinas should all be spicy or how we have way too many kids. But the closest I've come to feeling like maybe my race was a factor in how I was treated was when my high school counselor told me I could never get into the six colleges I applied to. Despite my high GPA and extracurricular activities, she said they were "reach schools" and that I had better apply to some backup schools stat. I got into every single one.
I try not to let my culture slip away, even if it's as silly as going out to eat pupusas.
As I get older and grapple with who I am, where I come from, and other questions that sound like they're straight out of a children's book, I realize I can only shape my right now. I try to follow my parents' advice to always speak up for myself — when you're a minority and a woman in this country at this moment in time, you hold onto those words tight within you. I try not to let my culture slip away, even if it's as silly as going out to eat pupusas.

I also try to surround myself with friends of all backgrounds. Obviously that's not something you can force, but it's the most important lesson I've learned about race — how beautiful it is to have a diverse core to teach you about how other people live, to make you to see life from a new perspective. I've been lucky enough throughout college and grad school and work to meet people who take me beyond my white and Latina circles.

This year, I'm getting married to a Persian guy I met at UCLA. My bridesmaids will be Salvadorean and white and black and Chinese and Mexican and Persian — and I wouldn't want it any other way.
Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Kyle Hartman

Sabrina Dhillon, Former Video Audience Development Manager

"Those are my people" is a phrase I often say when I see other Indian people. I've always claimed my Indian heritage loud and proud, but often people respond with, "Wait, what kind of Indian are you?" or "Really? I would never have thought that!" People sometimes think I'm Persian or Latina.

I've gotten this reaction my entire life. It's not just because of how I look physically. People never fully understood how I didn't fit the Indian child stereotype. My parents didn't own a 7-Eleven and they weren't taxi drivers or computer engineers or doctors. I received my bachelor's degree in world literature with a minor in TV, film, and media — not law, science, or engineering.

My family came to the US via Canada. My father was born in New Delhi and moved to Canada shortly after earning his college degree. My mother, who is Indian, was born and raised in Kenya (where there used to be and still is a large Indian community) and got her nursing degree in England. The two met while living in Canada. From Canada, they moved to the Bay Area in California. They were not escaping hardship, nor did they come to the US penniless.
A series of events from when I was growing up made me think I was an outsider in my own culture.
I suppose this makes my story a little less exciting, but it's also a reason I sometimes don't feel Indian enough by typical standards. That, and a series of events from when I was growing up that made me think I was an outsider in my own culture.

I was exposed to Indian culture, of course. When I was a kid, I loved watching the Indian programs that would come on TV on Saturday mornings. I was captivated by the song and dances and would often try to re-create them myself. In addition to what I heard in some TV programs and Indian films, my parents often spoke in Punjabi, especially when my grandparents would visit. I got the chance to visit India a few times while growing up and instantly fell in love with the country when getting mehndi (henna) done on the streets, buying bangles from the market, and dressing up for weddings that lasted a week. It was impossible not to love the culture that's so bright, colorful, and lively.

My father's first language was Hindi, and his Punjabi was not on par with the typical Punjabi heard within the regions of Punjab. My mother also didn't have a typical dialect, being born and raised in a city in Kenya. These dialectal differences have always set us apart from other Punjabi families and have also often made us the butt of many jokes. When my parents and I have gone to India, rarely does my extended family let me or my mother speak in the marketplaces. While we speak the language fluently, these dialects are the sole indicator that we are definitely "not from around these parts."
Sabrina with her parents.
Image Source: Sabrina Dhillon
My parents sent me to Punjabi school once when I was a kid. I lasted a day. I didn't fit in — I wore shorts and a tank top, so on top of making fun of my dialect, they also made fun of me because my parents let me dress like a gori, or "white girl."

They also sent me to private school, so I never had more than 25 kids in a classroom until I reached high school. And while my school was diverse, I never had more than a couple Indian kids in my classes. Who you had class with usually dictated who you spent time with at recess, and unfortunately for me, that rarely included any of the Indian students. It did, however, include one white, one half Latina, and one Persian girl. I'm now 27 years old and I'm happy to say even now, 17 years later, I still consider those three girls some of my closest friends.

Once we went into high school, our group expanded, but there was still no one who identified as Indian as proudly as I did. I did, however, have friends who denied their Indian culture and claimed to be Russian, Italian, or any other cool ethnicity to mask their embarrassment of being "just Indian." It was an embarrassment I never fully understood.

I tried to join the Indian club at my high school but found myself, yet again, not fully fitting in. I spoke the language, I took part in the cultural events, I watched the movies, I celebrated the holidays. But I was never totally accepted into the Indian-American groups. Some judged me by my style, calling me a wannabe preppy girl. At the time, I lived and breathed in Hollister and Abercrombie. I even worked at Hollister during high school. When I was feeling "edgy," I would pair my ripped jeans with a Warped Tour shirt, likely with the neck cut off to make it off the shoulder. The choice to wear ripped shorts and off-the-shoulder shirts didn’t fit with the conservative apparel most Indian girls my age around me usually wore. I remember attending a family friend's party wearing a tube top and shorts and being stared at, and someone said, "Your parents let you wear that?". Rather than the California vibe I thought I was exuding, maybe they assumed I was trying to be someone they thought I wasn't.
I appreciated how my friends always welcomed my culture. They would come over for dinner and drool over my mom's Indian cooking.
Others never understood how I could be allowed to go to Winter Ball or football games or why I would even want to. I remember one year being voted most social, to the dismay of my parents ("Really? Your best attribute is that you talk a lot?"). Being social in high school reigned more important to me than being the best in class. Looking back, that probably wasn't the best choice, but then again, I was a teenager. Rather than join academic clubs or be on student council, I spent my days with my friends, went to every dance, and had sleepovers. But not having Indian friends made me sad, because when I looked at my cousins in Canada, most of their closest friends were Indian. I wanted to be able to invite friends over for Indian parties or talk about how cute Shah Rukh Khan was in the latest film.

Despite this, I did appreciate how my closest friends always welcomed my culture. They would come over for dinner and drool over my mom's Indian cooking. They sat for hours listening to my dad's tales of India and Indian politics. To this day, I hear, "I can't wait for you to get married so we can finally attend an Indian wedding!"

There were times, however, that I did feel that my culture separated me from my friends. I always had to host sleepovers because my parents were not comfortable with me staying at friends' houses whose parents they didn't know well. There was a time I was grounded and snuck out to a dance under the pretense of "working on a school project." I was quickly caught and remember my friends saying, "Doesn't your mom understand it's homecoming?"

But for the most part, my parents were very understanding. They loved my friends and let me "do me" as much they could. Junior year, I wanted a job, and my dad didn't fully understand why; he thought that the time could be better spent working on schoolwork, but I wanted to be able to work at the movies with my best friend. My mom later told him this would be a good way to learn responsibility and that most kids my age had jobs. To him, he thought he had worked so hard so that I didn't have to, but he soon agreed with my mom and me.

I appreciate when people of different races celebrate our traditions. Some people call this cultural appropriation, which I understand is a sensitive topic, but I wasn't offended, for example, by Missy Elliott's inclusion of a Hindi verse in "Get Ur Freak On" or Gwen Stefani's obsession with bindis circa 1990s or Beyoncé's donning a sari and henna in Coldplay's "Hymn For the Weekend" video. On the contrary, I found it amazing and loved that people were embracing some of the coolest parts of being Indian. I get excited when I attend Indian weddings and see non-Indians dressed head to toe in our garb, taking a nosedive into our colorful culture.

So much of this probably has to do with the fact that I was born in the Bay Area in California, one of the most diverse places in the country. I am, not to quote Drake or anything, blessed for it. I'm eternally grateful for the way I was brought up, with a rich culture but diverse friends and the lessons I've learned along the way.
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