“We bring our whole selves to the classroom,” my education professor always reminds me.
As if I could forget. To prepare for student teaching, I observe a different classroom every term. And every term, I am reminded by my students that I do not shed my identities when I walk into an elementary school. In the past month alone, I had two “what are you?” conversations with students.
Interactions like these used to freak me the heck out. Conversations about race are so rare, it feels essential to get them right. Yet race is also such a fraught topic — for America and for me.
I am biracial; my mom is from Hong Kong and my dad is white. I do not move through the world as a white person. Yet I also don’t speak Chinese, and I didn’t grow up eating oxtail soup or steamed buns. I often feel about as Chinese as a box of cheap takeout.
My mixed background coupled with the model minority myth mean I often feel I’m not a real Person of Color. It is true that I do not experience the same oppression as black and brown folks, but that does not erase the fact that my experience is not a white one. I know this, but it doesn’t feel true. I live in limbo, an uneasy imposter in both white spaces and ones meant for POC.
So when kids asked me “what are you?” I never had a very good answer. How could I explain race and racism in kid-speak when I was grappling with it myself? I usually just snapped “that’s not a nice question.”
Then I spent the rest of the day upset about the encounter. I felt guilty for not having a better response, angry nobody taught me how to answer well, resentful that my white peers and coworkers would never have to field such a question. Bringing my whole self to the classroom felt like a burden.
My turning point came this fall. I was working one-on-one with a third grader at my practicum. We were snuggled in bean bag chairs while he read me a book about samurai. He was struggling with a word when he turned away from the text and looked up at me.
“Where are you from?” He asked.
“The Chicago suburbs,” I responded.
“But,” he said, clearly confused, “where were you born?”
“Well,” I said, “I was born in California, but my mom was born in China. You know, not everybody who looks like me is Japanese. And not everybody who looks Chinese was born in China. Sometimes it was their parent, or their great-great-great-grandma.”
“Okay,” he said, and we read more about samurai.
I’m realizing that I will have “what are you?” talks for the rest of my life. Sometimes that prospect is exhausting, but this week it feels like a privilege. I am tired of thinking of my racial identity as a burden. Yes, It would be easier if I was white and could avoid the questions, but I would lose so much practice grappling with the tricky topic of race. I know it is inevitable that I will get my answer wrong, but as an aspiring biracial teacher, I feel lucky knowing I’ll have so many more chances to get it right.