Who Am I? Thoughts on being ambiguously ethnic

I remember it like it was yesterday.

I was sitting at the kitchen table with my mom.  It was completely lost on me that the picture window we sat near was overlooking the macadamia nut fields and Kahului Bay in the shadow of Haleakala. The white caps danced on the water as the day faded into evening.  Mom was helping me with my kindergarten homework.  The instructions were to ask a parent what nationality we were.

My mom first explained what a nationality was and then she said, "You are half Mexican, a quarter Irish and a quarter German." She went on, "I am German and Irish and your dad is 100% Mexican."

That seemed fair enough to me.  I repeated it a few times just to be sure I would remember and then ran outside to play in the fields, chasing geckos or building a fort in the shadow of a tree heavy with macadamia nuts.

Over the years my race was a topic of fascination for my peers who were mostly Asian or Pacific Islander.  Their brown, smooth skin was very different than my freckled *haole [white] skin.  I often wished with all my might that I would have black straight hair like my Japanese, Filipino or Chinese friends.  I loved the different shades of caramel or chocolate that my Hawaiian, Tongan or Samoan friends were blessed with.  Most people I knew were a mix of many different races.  Hawaii was truly a fascinating quilt of people from all over the world.  But in Hawaii the standard of beauty is based on shades of brown, and while I have hispanic blood, my skin most certainly has never been brown.

Although I was Mexican, I had little context for what that actually meant.  Mexican wasn't a thing that any of us in Maui really were familiar with.  My dad was very brown and spoke with a different kind of accent and I would every-so-often hear him speak Spanish if he took a call from a family member on the mainland.  He peppered Spanish into the vernacular of our home in a way that just made sense to us.  When calling out for one of us girls [I grew up with two other sisters] he'd get tongue-tied and he would say, "Jessica! Rebecca! Melissa! Tu Muchacha!" Spanish speaking was a bit foreign to our Hawaiian culture but being related to a brown people group made me feel half normal.

So, in an effort to blend in a little more with my beautifully, commonly brown friends I decided to label myself as Hapa Haole.  This basically means "half white".  If I had to be white, well at least it was only half.  The other half wasn't Fijian or Tahitian or anything wonderful like that, but Mexican would have to do.

Our home was very different in many ways than most of my peers.  We spoke a haole kind of English because of my mom's heritage. My dad made pasole with chiles from New Mexico and my mom could cook up a mean corned beef and cabbage.  That all seemed quite normal to me and it was no trouble at all to adapt to the way the rest of my world operated outside of my home.

In Hawaii, you see, you take your shoes off before entering anyone's home.  You hug and kiss everyone upon meeting them [even for the first time].  Everyone is ohana [family] so all adults are Auntie So-and-So or Uncle Dakine, out of deep respect for the grown ups.  Pork lau lau [pork and onions steamed in ti leaves] or Chicken Long Rice were typical packed-from-home lunches at the school lunch room and scraping ophihi [shell fish] off the rocks at the beach and just popping them into your mouth, no fuss, was commonplace.  Flashing a shaka [hangloose hand symbol] was an informal way of greeting strangers or answering the question, "Howzit braddah?".

Not until I was a teenager did I even realize that these things were foreign to my friends and loved ones on the mainland.  These things that felt perfectly normal to me made me "other than" to all my haole friends.  But for the most part, my mainland friends seemed to like that I was a little different so I didn't spend much time worrying about it.

As a child however, I was teased, mocked and bullied for being hapa haole.  Even though I tried to explain to these schoolyard d-bags that Mexican was brown too, they would not have it! Being born and raised in Hawaii, speaking fluent Pigeon or knowing every word to the Hawaiian National Anthem could not change the color of my skin or the fact that my parents gave my siblings and I very common haole names instead of the mile-long, lyrical Hawaiian names that I wished for.  I wasn't ethnic enough for many people, much to my shame.

Then I spent my junior year in Arizona where the public high school had a huge Mexican American population.  For the first time in my life I was surrounded by people who were "like me".  Except they were very foreign to me.  The Mexican community might as well  have been from another planet compared to the Asian American Pacific Islander [AAPI] ethnicity that felt so familiar to me.  I remember my very white friends learning I was Mexican and sneering, "It's okay, you're not REALLY Mexican...not like for-reals Mexicans.  You're not like them."

"Uhhhh...okay...what does that even mean?" I thought, but kept it to myself.  Apparently, now, I was too ethnic and it made people uncomfortable so they had to erase that part of me in order to accept me into their social circles.

Then I moved to Florida, which I assumed was considered "the South".  Oh no, not the South at all, I was informed.  Even though Florida is the southern-most state, we could not consciously identify as southerners.  And here in Florida, once again, I was a strange commodity.  "What kind of accent do you have?", people would ask me.  Accent?  I wasn't aware I had one.  Giving hugs and kisses to strangers was not only NEVER done, it was considered flirtatious!  Flirtatious?!  To greet a grown-up with respect?

Oh, and to confuse matters even more, it wasn't until I was 27 years old, that my dad told me that I wasn't Mexican at all! Duh-what?!  Not Mexican?  No, we are considered Hispanic and our family heritage is actually Isleta Pueblo.  So wait, I'm Mexican?  No?  Hispanic? No?  Native American? Apparently, my family on my dad's side is still trying to figure it  all out.

All of this to say, my journey toward understanding my own ethnicity has been very confusing.  I have never quite fit into any one category.  I relate in a familial way to my New Mexican ethnicity.  But I relate in a social way to the AAPI culture probably more than any other ethnicity.  I fit in to a certain degree in an all-white room because of the way I look.  But I much more identify with an ethnic minority group that is hard to explain.

So who am I?

I am finding that this story of being ethnically confused helps me relate to a lot of people who have either been "too ethnic" or "not ethnic enough" their whole lives.  For the most part, my gender and ethnicity has been a detriment to me socially and professionally.  But recently, in professional circles, as I have struggled to connect the minority conversation with the predominately white people with power [pastors, NGO leadership etc] my ethnicity has once again become a topic of discussion but for the first time, in a positive way.  Three years ago, much to my surprise, two white men sat across a table from me in a busy restaurant and said, "Rebecca, you're a hispanic woman.  What do you think?"

What?!  My minority opinion might actually be able to compete with the people in power?  I had never once felt that kind of pride.  My whole life I was too haole or too hispanic.  My whole life I have envied others who could easily fit in and yet I have always found myself sticking out for one reason or another.

I am not Hawaiian but my body was born to the island of Maui and raised by the waves of Ho'okipa and it will never leave my bones.

I am not Asian but I miss seeing the blue and pink carp flags being flown above the homes around the island for Children's Day.

I am not, much to my surprise, Mexican but one side of my entire family comes from generations of New Mexicans.

As I sit comfortably in my mid-thirties, I am finding that my distain for my ethnicity that has brought me shame and pain is slowly melting away and there is a beautiful truth that has been hidden in the confusion. As I scoop off the gunk of what other people want me to be, I am finding a deep pride in the  fact that I am a little different.  This affords me a privilege I would be unqualified for otherwise: to find small ways of relating to others who have also been categorized and stereotyped and marginalized just for being who they are.

For the most part, if you are a white American, it is completely lost on you to think about the color of your skin as you walk into the supermarket.  You have never felt eyeballs staring as you walk by in a neighborhood that is not your own.  No one locks their car doors if you pass in front of them at the crosswalk.  No one expects you to be smarter because of your ethnicity.  No one worries you might be a terrorist because of the way you look or how you dress.  These are special discriminations that are reserved for racial, ethnic, religious and gendered minorities in our culture.  These are the special humiliations and degradations that we participate in or put up with or uncomfortably laugh at while sipping chardonnay at a dinner party.

And while my ethnicity is ambiguous and has been a matter of confusion to me my whole life, because of the unique circumstances of my story, I have felt a small part of the sting of sticking out because you are not like the dominate culture. I will never have to live with the personal wounds of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and mass incarceration that has stained our country.  I will never have to worry that my very security as a citizen of my country could be in jeopardy because of where I was born.

But in a very small way, I can say, "Ouch.  I don't like that.  It hurts to be stuffed into your white privileged reality."  And because I am hapa haole I can also speak with a level of comfort to my white friends who may never have been faced with the choice to pay attention.  This juxtaposition is uncomfortable and true all at once.

In some ways, I am hanging out in a no-mans-land of ethnic and racial identity and I like that about myself.  I like the lens that it gives me for the world.  I am humbled by the privilege that I am afforded and also seek to be diligent to right wrongs that I represent.  All bound up in one identity, I am a kaleidoscope of history, culture and tradition.  The journey to understanding all of this, in some ways, has just begun.  I am still getting used the the fact that I am, in fact, a hispanic woman.  This truth has always felt a little awkward but it is nonetheless true.

I recently had a very engaging and informative conversation with some family members around this very topic.  Racism is alive and well in our culture.  Don Lemon has said that "the new racism is not knowing you are racist".  No matter how much we want to view ourselves in a positive light, the fact of the matter is that if you are white or even perceived to be white, you benefit from a system that is set up in your favor.

That means me.  I benefit from racism.  I get to reap the harvest of opportunities afforded to me by a system that oppresses others.


I don't like that and I don't want it to be true.  But it is true and running from that reality won't change it. And precisely because of the fact I have tasted the bitterness of discrimination, I am determined to acknowledge my privilege and then do all I can to share it with others and work against systems that prevent others from having equal access. It is difficult to take inventory in this way, but I believe that as we are willing to self-examine our privilege we will be more compelled to address the system in more equitable ways.

This ambiguously ethnic island girl is willing try.

*In recent months I have had several conversations that have given me more information about the original term haole [pronounced how-lee].  While it has been a colloquial term that most locals of Hawaii understand to mean "white person", I was always told that the actual meaning was "new comer".  This word was used as a general label for the white missionaries that showed up on the shores of Hawaii in the 1770's with ships filled with books, animals, guns and gonorrhea.  However, recently I have learned another translation for the term haole.  It can literally be translated into "without the breath of God".  Apparently, the Hawaiians were horrified by these white aliens that colonized their people and raped their land.  So they gave them this negative label as a way to describe the very nature of these evil people.

I am still processing this new information and what it means for how I use the term.  I consider myself hapa haole and I use the term loosely to describe white people in general.  However, due to the very negative origin of the word, I am pausing to take inventory of whether or not I still want to use it in such a flippant way.  I am deeply convicted with the notion that our words matter.  The way we speak is a direct connection to our belief systems.  It is important for me to acknowledge that I am in this process as I was writing this particular blog post.


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July 5, 2014 at 2:29 PM ×

As a white woman, I have not experienced consistent prejudice, but I have walked through neighborhoods where I was singled out and looked at with suspicion. Also, living in Maui, I had several occasions of being discriminated against, ignored, and not offered a job because of my skin color. It seems that I am automatically guilty for atrocities and terrorism belonging to the Caucasian ethnicity, just as people with darker skin seem to be associated with terrorism today. Of course, in light of what most people go through, it's miniscule. But it definitely doesn't feel good to be treated differently because of the color of your skin. It helped me understand the injustice of judgment over such a minor and superficial detail and angry that this happens to anyone.

Selamat the pondering of a pixie dapat PERTAMAX...! Silahkan antri di pom terdekat heheheh...
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