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Do My Communities Want Me?

Navigating a Mixed Race Identity

“What are you?”

“Colombian and Chinese.”

“Really?”

It’s another day of meeting someone and gritting my teeth in preparation of facing more and increasingly intrusive questions about my family and identity, before the inevitable test to somehow prove my identity as real. I don’t go on the defensive like I used to. I’ve grown proud of being mixed race throughout the years, but still always feel slightly nervous before I reveal my identity.

Despite my progress over the years, I’ve always struggled to push through the more vicious comments thrown my way, and unfortunately they’re not always from white people.

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I’m Latina and Asian — mixed race from birth. When I first moved back to the United States after living abroad for a few years soon after I was born, I moved to a white suburb. This was my first experience with race in the United States. I would come home near tears because my hair was different, my skin was brown, my double eyelids didn’t look quite right — anything that separated me visually from the rest of my class. I would go out of my way to hide my racial identity, and try to pass as white for as long as I could, whether that meant wearing foundation that was a shade or two lighter, trying to tape the corners of my eyelids, or straightening my hair.

When that would always eventually fail, I would do everything to deny being mixed race, whether that meant saying I was only Asian or only Latina. Both students and teachers have asked me if my parents were really mine, or if I was (as I remember quite clearly) “picked off the streets” and adopted. After I moved to Boston, I realized that being mixed race was a very different experience in a major city. Asians always thought I was Latina, and Latinxs always thought I looked Asian (but brushed it off quickly once I spoke). Everybody else went either way.

Growing up and not being wanted by a group that didn’t look like me, speak like me, or come from cultures like mine hurt, but I became numb to that pain. The pain that always cuts the most deep, and most often, however, is rejection or questioning from my own communities.

I remember my first experience with a group of Asian girls at school. When they asked me what I was, I told them the truth — that I was Colombian and Chinese — and they asked me question after question to prove my identity. That was the one thing that white people never asked me to do. Unfortunately, not only did people in my own ethnic communities ask me to prove myself that day in school, but they have also done so multiple times here at Harvard.

Somehow, I wasn’t born Chinese enough — as if that is actually a thing. This hurt because I began to experience and witness anti-blackness and anti-brownness from a community I was birthed into. I was told over and over by older women in the community  “You would be so much prettier if you were a little lighter.” The community shunned Afro-Asians. The community didn’t want my Colombian roots, while they continuously accepted mixed race White and Asian people into various Asian communities with open arms without a validation process. Even coming out of high school my senior year, people made numerous statements about how I used affirmative action to “cheat” my way into Harvard by checking off Latinx on my application. Though these words were rarely said to my face, they stung just as much. Though I am very much as Asian as I am Latina, somehow being Latina invalidated my Asian identity when it came to applying to college.

Growing up, the Latinx community became my only home — a home that I have cherished before and during Harvard and will continue to cherish after Harvard. I’ve felt loved and accepted in the Latinx community more often than not. Normally, my identity is not put on trial in the Latinx community. Even then, introducing my Chinese mother to my Latinx friends has always been a little awkward and always has them looking a few extra times between us to see where her features might be present in my own. At times, it’s been challenging to have my mother interact with my Colombian family. Whether it’s because of language or culture, I used to wish that it could somehow be easier.

Being mixed race is confusing and challenging. In my case, it led to a lot of self-hate in my younger years, particularly due to Latinx and Asian culture, beauty standards, and languages being so different — not to mention the racial barriers minorities face daily in the United States. But the pain that’s cut the deepest has always been judgment for never being ethnically “enough” for my own communities.

Kim Arango ’20, a former Crimson sports comp director, is a Visual and Environmental Studies concentrator in Eliot House.

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