On being Black and Asian American in 2020
With nationwide protests against police brutality, rising incidents of anti-Asian racism and the selection of Sen. Kamala Harris as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, race relations within and between the Asian American and Black communities have quickly shifted into focus.
Conversations surrounding these groups, their subgroups and how they relate to one another have been messy and complicated. As the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction this summer, communities challenged the model minority myth, colonialism and colorism to explain how the histories of both Black and Asian communities have shaped how they interact today. Young Asian Americans encouraged one another to confront the anti-Blackness in their own families and communities. And Harris’ nomination and the subsequent attempts to categorize her raised a question that multiracial people across the U.S. have lived the answer to: What does it mean to be both?
NBC BLK and NBC Asian America talked to 12 people who identify as both Black and Asian American Pacific Islander about their identities, their communities and what 2020 has meant for them.
“The experiences of so-called Blasians aren’t “anomalies,” said Myra Washington, assistant vice president for faculty equity and diversity at the University of Utah. “All they are is a very specific example of a thing that we all do, which is navigate and negotiate our particular identities at a given moment in time.”
Dan Reed, 32, Black and Indo-Guyanese, on constantly fighting categorization
Home: Silver Spring, Maryland
Image: Dan Reed.
When Dan Reed was in fourth grade, the teacher passed out a fill-in-the-bubble test that gave students the option to indicate their race. Reed, who is Black and Indo-Guyanaese and grew up immersed in Caribbean culture, filled in the bubbles for both “Black” and “Asian.”
“I handed it over to my teacher, and when I got the paper back a couple days later, I noticed that she had erased the bubble for Asian,” said Reed, who uses both he/him and they/them pronouns. “And I don’t know if she realized how damaging that can be.”
Reed might not have known it in fourth grade, but he said people have tried to put his racial identity in a box for his whole life. Reed grew up with an Indo-Guyanese mother and her family, “so I was much more familiar with Indian Caribbean culture than I was with Black culture.”
Yet when interacting with people outside the community, even other Indian people, he was almost always racialized as Black. And that came with exclusion.
“As I got older, and I started to understand and appreciate more of my Indian heritage, I discovered that other Indian people who are from India weren’t always accepting of me,” he said. “Because I look Black, I have nappy hair.”
The older Reed got, the more he realized the implications of presenting as a Black man in the United States. This year has made him more aware of how people see him.
“I began to realize that not only did people see me as Black or African American, but I’m 6’1, people see me as a large Black man,” Reed said. “And I could tell as I got older, how people changed their body language or their movements around me.”
Though he has been immersed in Indo-Carribean culture since childhood, his Indian heritage tends to be lost on strangers.
“I’ve had these experiences with the police in the past that, if I get pulled over, no one’s going to care if I’m half Indian,” they said. “I don’t get to benefit from the model-minority myth.”
Laya DeLeon Hayes, 16, Black and Filipino, on being biracial in Hollywood
Home: Los Angeles
Laya DeLeon Hayes, a 16-year-old actress and the voice of Doc McStuffins on the Disney series of the same name said her parents never sat her down for “the talk” about being biracial. Growing up, she had the chance to explore both her mom’s Filipino culture and her dad’s Black culture through food, family and shared history.
“Getting the chance to experience and embrace two different cultures is super cool,” she said. “Growing up, it’s been kind of confusing trying to navigate where I fit. I think a lot of mixed people kind of go through that same thing with feeling like they have to identify with one race instead of all of the races that make up who they are.”
When the Black Lives Matter movement grew this summer, Hayes said her family encouraged her to engage with both Black and Filipino history. When researching the Philippines with her mom, Hayes learned for the first time about the idealization of white features and pale skin that is prevalent across Asia.
“It was incredibly sad for me to hear,” she said. “I’ve been Black my entire life, so it’s never something that I had to really think about. So I’ve always felt that’s who I was, and that there was nothing wrong with it, that everybody was just as accepting. I think this year I’ve learned that that’s not always the case.”
As an actress, she said this political moment has made her realize the internalized racism that exists in her industry. When she goes to auditions, she’s sometimes the only person of color in the room.
“I think there’s definitely more that must be done in this industry,” she said. “And as I continue to build my career and my platform, even on social media, I want to create more space and more black stories and Filipino stories to make sure that we are all represented on television.”
Mariko Fujimoto Rooks, 21, Black and Japanese, on the double-edged sword of being multiracial in academics
Home: New Haven, Connecticut
For Mariko Fujimoto Rooks, being good at school was sometimes a double-edged sword. Growing up, Rooks went to liberal middle and high schools where “everyone pretended that racism didn’t exist.”
Her academic performance in high school placed her in higher-level classes and eventually got her into Yale, but, often, she was the only Black person in the room.
Rooks, who is Yonsei, or fourth-generation Japanese American, found that students and faculty were quick to pick and choose which aspect of her identity to categorize her by. And the Black students who were unapologetic about their identities were demonized, too.
“Whenever I was successful, it was never on my own merit. It was sort of always like, ‘Oh, but like, Asian kids are smart,’” she said. “But whenever I was actively challenging something, or making a case, or advocating on behalf of other students and communities, that was when I was treated like a Black person.”
As a college senior, Rooks now has more access to both Black and Asian communities, but said that operating in Asian spaces has also made her more aware of anti-Blackness.
The anti-Asian racism spurred by the pandemic means operating at the intersection of both identities sometimes leads to “double discrimination,” Rooks said.
Shanell Dozier, 20, Black and Indo-Fijian, on feeling neither Indian enough nor Black enough
Image: Shanell Dozier.
One of the most distinct memories Shanell Dozier has of high school is when a white boy approached her in the cafeteria and accused her of lying about her identity.
“He was just like, ‘You’re not Indian,’” Dozier said. “And I was just really stunned … and then he starts screaming at me telling me I’m not Indian and that I’m lying about who I am and where I come from.”
The incident compounded the feeling of isolation she experienced as a child trying to navigate her Black and Indo-Fijian identity. Her mom, a Fijian of Indian descent, raised her around her South Asian family and tried to educate her about their collective history. Still, finding a place in those circles wasn’t always easy.
“With my Indian side, I sometimes feel like I’m not Indian enough,” she said. “They’re a lot lighter than me in my family. And I don’t speak Hindi as well as they do.”
Skin and hair shaped how Dozier saw herself growing up. She was often teased for the texture of her hair, being told it was “fake” when she wore it straight. The colorism prevalent in South Asian culture and media made her question if she fit in with her lighter-skinned peers.
She said she grew up seeing skin bleaching agents on TV, “and it would actually make me want to do that because I felt like I was too dark or that my color wasn’t good enough.”
She’s thankful she never ended up trying those products, but that otherizing influence still follows her.
“I kind of feel a little lost,” she said.
Alani Fuji, 23, Black and Japanese, on the importance of coalition building
Home: Montgomery County, Maryland
Growing up, Alani Fuji says that her experience as a multiracial child set her apart from her peers. Her mother passed away when she was young, and she and her twin sister were raised by their father, who immigrated from Japan. In school, she mostly hung out with other Asian American students, partly because of their similar upbringing by Asian parents, but also because she was often racialized as just Asian.
“How I look doesn’t reflect my Blackness. Most people look at me and think that I am just Filipino or Pacific Islander,” Fuji said, noting that her sister is more often perceived as Black.
It’s something she’s been especially aware of as racial justice protests swept the country, galvanized largely by Black activists and communities outraged over racism and police violence.
“All of these traumas that Black folks are dealing with, those are issues that affect me and my family,” she said. “People think that because of how I look, I’m not as sad and enraged and frustrated as I am.”
Fuji said it’s necessary to push against the idea that “if Asian Americans side with whiteness we’re going to be safe.” It’s also important for non-Black communities to organize in support of Black lives and one another, she said.
“It would be really amazing if people had an understanding of how our liberations really are tied,” she said.
Charles Nathan, 20, Black, Japanese, and Mestizo Mexican, on microaggressions faced in Asian circles
Home: Central Valley, California
People have tried and failed to categorize Charles Nathan since she was a kid. As a person of Black, Japanese and Mexican descent, boxes were never really her thing.
“Nobody, on record, has been able to properly identify all of who I was the first try,” she said.
Nathan grew up in central California and was constantly immersed in all three cultures. But interactions with strangers would often lead to an unwelcome “guessing game” that would often end in Nathan being categorized as Black alone.
Casual racism, not just from strangers, is also familiar to Nathan. Though she has a good relationship with each of her parents’ extended families, she said that her Blackness is sometimes used to alienate her.
Nathan said relating to people in her Asian circles often presents challenges.
“There’s both a simultaneous connect and disconnect,” she said. “I feel very proud of the fact I’m Japanese and with Japanese family, but sometimes what they say can make me feel off about my Asian and Black identity.”
In school, more overt racism came from Asian friends, who Nathan said would stereotype and mock her for her darker complexion, Black features and multiracial parents. All the while, those same friends would appropriate Black culture.
As 2020 hit Asian communities with pandemic-fueled discrimination and Black Lives Matter spearheaded anti-racism protests across the country, Nathan said it’s an exhausting place to be in as a multiracial person.
“To see people on these two sides of my identity face violent and cruel discrimination for who they are even more than I already have, or even experienced myself, has been draining,” she said.
Myra Washington, 39, Korean and Black, on studying Black-Asian identity
Home: Salt Lake City
When it comes to multiracial people in America “we tend to think about people who are Black-white or white-Asian,” said Myra Washington.
Washington, who is Black and Korean, has long been interested in understanding how multiracial people, particularly Black Asians, are perceived by society. That interest led her to study Black-Asian identity in graduate school and ultimately to write a book, “Blasian Invasion: Racial Mixing in the Celebrity Industrial Complex.”
“I was trying to figure out how celebrities like [Tiger Woods] were embracing or rejecting descriptions of their identities publicly,” said Washington, a professor and assistant vice president for faculty equity and diversity at the University of Utah.
The project showed her that a lack of nuance existed around discussions of race and identity, but that these struggles aren’t unique to multiracial people.
“We all have multiple identities that we are always negotiating,” she said, adding that this is the case “whether we identify monoracially, or as biracial or multiracial.”
What’s important, she said, is that multiracial people shouldn’t be pressured to embrace just one part of their identity.
“In my own life, I make sure to highlight that I study Asian American Studies so that people can be reminded that Black folks can also be Asian,” Washington said. “And in other spaces, I’ll highlight that I study Black studies to highlight that Asians can be Black. That’s maybe my own personal mission, to remind people that I am this all the time.”
Jenn Noble, Black and Sri Lankan Tamil, on the importance of letting multiracial people define themselves
Home: Los Angeles
As a psychologist whose practice includes working with multiracial kids and their parents, Jenn Noble has a lot to say about how America misunderstands — and in some ways mythologizes — the experiences of multiracial people.
“There’s this idea that just by virtue of being mixed, people are lost and alone,” she said. She added that the problems multiracial people deal with often come from the pressure to fit their identity in a box.
Noble, who is Sri Lankan Tamil and Black, said that this pressure can be particularly difficult for multiracial teens who aren’t given space to explore their identity — something she said she was encouraged by her own family to do.
Because of the small size of the Sri Lankan population in the U.S., some people see Noble’s skin tone and curly hair and assume she is only Black. It’s happened to her since elementary school, she said.
Noble said that increased exposure and visibility of multiracial people can help raise awareness. But she cautioned against the idea that the mere existence of multiracial people means that racism is no longer an issue.
“A lot of people believe that when they have mixed-race kids, the birth of their child is correcting so many racist things in this country and that’s just not true,” she said. “Racism can still continue to exist even in that own person’s family.”
Cenisa Gavin, 27, Black, Korean and Alaskan Native, on embracing her identity through performance
Home: New York City
Growing up with her mom’s multiracial Korean and Alaskan Native family, Cenisa Gavin never felt out of place. Still, she said that in the larger Alaskan community, she witnessed colorism and anti-Black bias.
Even though she often visited her Black relatives, she felt like she was missing a grounding in Black culture, which led her to attend Spelman College, a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta.
“Spelman brought a lot of things to my attention that I didn’t know or learn growing up,” said Gavin, now a teacher in New York City. “Being at the school really taught me how to be a Black woman and navigate the world.”
During her senior year, Gavin joined the cast of Blasian Narratives, a student-directed show about multiracial identity. Gavin also traveled to perform at other colleges across the country, and participated in a docuseries about the program.
“Before I might have gone along with people who said I was only Black or only Asian, but I was really pushed to think about who I was and how my experiences contribute to who I am,” she said.
Sonia Smith-Kang, 47, Black and Mexican, on raising four Asian and Black children
Home: Southern California
Image: Sonia and her family.
Sonia Smith-Kang, the vice president of Multicultural Americans of Southern California, said the work of raising kids who are Black and Asian should come rife with education and conversation. Smith-Kang’s husband is Korean, and they have four kids, ages 12 to 28.
“I felt the most important thing for me in raising multiracial children is to really understand the richness of their cultural history, their background, what their ancestors have done to get them to this place,” she said.
In her house, this looks like art, music, food and books that are representative of their cultures. Smith-Kang also encourages conversations, especially when it comes to current events like anti-Asian rhetoric or nationwide BLM protests. She emphasized the importance of conversations around anti-Blackness in Asian communities and the pushback against colorism.
“My youngest son, he’s darker hued,” she said. “And that’s one of the first comments that people will make, ‘Wow, you’re so dark’.”
The best way to prepare kids for these uncomfortable situations is to practice, she says.
“Role play with the kids on conversations that may be difficult,” she said. “We talked about colorism, and maybe if there’s any racial slurs that are might be thrown at them. You really just want to create this proactive environment. Because you’re trying to help your kids problem solve.”
Mikako Murphy, 20, Japanese and Black, on invasive questions
Why do you look like that? Why does your mom look like that? Are you adopted?
Mikako Murphy is tired of hearing these questions.
“When I go outside now, a cashier will ask my mother, ‘Is that your daughter?’ and I’m like this conversation isn’t necessary,” she said. “I don’t understand why other people think it is in their right to ask another person such personal questions.”
Since she was a child Murphy has spent time with both sides of her family, in Boston and Japan. But she’s always been aware of how she stands out in some rooms. Her desire to connect with others like her led Murphy to start an affinity club for multiracial students while attending a predominantly white private school.
But it wasn’t until her sophomore year at Barnard College that she began interacting with other Black-Asian people, an experience Murphy, now a junior, said she always “needed and wanted in my life.”
In the past two years Murphy has connected more with people who share her identity, but in the chaos of 2020 has brought new challenges in how she thinks about her identity. In addition to the stress of the pandemic, Murphy said that the emotion brought on by summer protests against police violence and racism were particularly tough for her. Still, she said that she feels a responsibility to continue to help build connections among Black, Asian, and multiracial communities.
“I guess as cliché as it sounds, the beauty of my identity is that I can be in all three of those communities, and connect with people on a deeper level,” she said.
Yasmin McLamb, 19, Black and Chinese, on forming her identity in white spaces
Home: New York City
Yasmin McLamb was immersed in the culture of her Chinese relatives from a young age in New York City. But she also quickly grew aware of how her darker skin made some in her tightknit immigrant community see her differently.
“When people see me, they often think that I am Black,” she said, adding that she didn’t want people to label her growing up, but that “you can’t really change being perceived in certain ways.”
When McLamb began attending a predominantly white middle and high school, competition among students was intense, and she quickly realized that microaggressions against people of color were common.
“I recognized in school that I’m probably not perceived as an Asian student here,” she said, “even though I was deeply immersed in the culture.”
McLamb started working with other Black students to find support and community, and studied Black history and culture. But her school environment still made it hard.
“I felt an identity split start happening at age 11 when my environment switched to being in a white space,” she said. “When I wasn’t in that space, I could identify as everything and feel comfortable.”
Now in college, McLamb is involved in activism and has participated on panel discussions on her Black Asian identity.
“I learned that you can’t dilute yourself to fit in,” she said.