Tuesday Nitpicking: Mixed Race People and the Language of Fractions

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

The other day I was having a drink with a friend, when he began describing a woman he was interested in. “She’s half Japanese,” he said. “Half Japanese?” I said, “She doesn’t have another half?”

At this point my friends have gotten used to my annoying linguistic nitpicking, the subtle (and allegedly annoying) ways that I make clear my thoughts on certain words. When friends tell me someone is lame, I say, “What? They only have one leg?” Or when my students tell me their textbook is gay, I say, “Oh really? What’s its stance on same sex marriage?” Or when a dude tells me another dude is a pussy, I say, “But I thought you liked those?…”

Most of the time people easily grasp the point I’m trying to make and either stop using certain words around me, or defriend me on Facebook. But when I object to the description of mixed race folks as halves, quarters and eighths, people get too confused to be irritated.

Which makes sense to me. Because even though I’ve been mixed race for almost three decades, it only occurred to me recently that perhaps I don’t really like being called a half of anything.

Apart from the fact that hey, I’m a whole person, referring to my different ethnic heritages as fractions leads to some sort of existential apartheid. When I refer to myself (or others) as half this and half that, what I am implying (whatever my intentions) is that half my body, self and experience is Chinese, and half of my body, self and experience is White.

I’m implying that the halves of my body are separately Chinese and White, that if you cut me in half you could clearly see which parts were white, and which were POC. That’s clearly untrue, even if my right hand is way better with chopsticks than my left.

It’s not like I can hold my different ethnicities separate from each other. I’m not half and half, something on this side and something else on the other…I’m both. At the same time. There are no parts of my experience that are solely white, or solely Chinese. I don’t have one compartment for Chineseness in my brain and another compartment for Whiteness, living side by side and sometimes visiting but ultimately existing separately. Every single part of me is a 100% white/Chinese mash-up, all the time. There ain’t no separating these things from each other.

I’m sure you can find me 3459876 mixed race people who don’t care if they are referred to as sixteenths or 13%s. I’m sure there are mixed race people who are gonna read this and think: Whatevs. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. And that’s ok, I’m all for people describing themselves in whatever terms they like. But I’m saying that this mixed race person doesn’t like that terminology, because of what it implies about how we think of race in general.

Which is this: potentially we like to refer to people in halves, becuase even as the entire world is an inextricable, bloody mash-up of hundreds of different ethnic groups, we still like to imagine racial groups as separate, impenetrable, sanitised entities. Even while they are simultaneously existing in one human.

Many of the issues that plague the mixed race identity have to do with feelings of inadequacy and inauthenticity. Maybe some of that has to do with the fact that people are always telling us (and we often tell ourselves) that we are half of things. I mean, that has to have some kind of impact somewhere.

So in the interests of the boiling pot, or just simply the sanity of this one mixed race person, if you know someone who is mixed race, say (for eg) “Carmen is Chinese and Dutch,” not “Carmen is half Chinese and half Dutch.”  Because the first means exactly the same thing as the second, it’s just that the first is being much more realistic.