Chronicles of a Racial Imposter

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Shae Lake Portrait by Sonja Lippmann for Chronicles of a Racial Imposter by Shae Lake

“What are you?” I don’t remember the first time I was asked that question. Every time, there’s a familiar anticipation that builds up in my gut, waiting for the racially insensitive comment that often follows. Sometimes I’m lucky; sometimes, the stranger is simply curious about my ethnic background. But sometimes I get an “I wish my race was exotic like yours,” or an “I need to marry someone Asian, so I can have mixed babies,” or an “Are you sure?” As if my mixed-ness was something I could forget like an old grocery list. But I never forget; I always remember.

To be clear, I am half Ashkenazi Jewish, half Taiwanese. When I was young, my family taught me to embrace our different traditions, and I developed a strong sense of pride for both of my ethnic identities. I’d love making dumplings with my Ah-ma for the Lunar New Year just as much as I loved feasting on the honey-dipped apples for Rosh Hashanah with my cousins. Even as a small child, I knew that both cultures, despite their differences, were an essential part of my identity. But, when I was old enough, the divides that separated me from each community became impossible to ignore.

For example, at a family reunion, I was embarrassed by the odd, judgmental comments from a Jewish relative when I told him I enjoyed eating dried seaweed as a snack. When I received weird looks during a visit to Taiwan, I realized that despite my ethnic background, I would always be seen as a foreigner. In the end, I am eternally trapped, drifting between being considered “too Taiwanese” or “too Jewish.”

What I, along with many other mixed-race individuals, experience is a phenomenon called Racial Imposter Syndrome. Racial Imposter Syndrome—coined by NPR in their podcast Code Switch—is when a person of mixed-race origin or whose physical features don’t align with those associated with their ethnicity feels disconnected from their ethnic community and their racial identity as a whole.

This disconnect is often a result of the exclusion multiracial people feel from within their communities. According to Sarah E. Gaither, a researcher from Duke University, multiracial people face higher levels of social exclusion than any other racial or ethnic group.

Most racial and ethnic communities have the commonly held belief that physical appearances determine how much a person can claim their culture. After all, if a person doesn’t appear like part of their community, they don’t experience the same kind of oppression. What place do they have in claiming their minority status?

There is some truth to this argument; after all, minorities who are white-passing or have different physical features don’t experience the same level of discrimination as the rest of the community. However, just because I don’t endure the same kind of prejudice as someone who is just Taiwanese or just Jewish, that doesn’t mean that I am immune to discrimination. On top of being considered “exotic” to the average, ignorant white American, I have faced exclusion and rejection from my own communities.

In addition, I am not fighting for the right to claim “minority status.” This is more than an issue of oppression. Because I don’t look Taiwanese, does that mean I should forget my ancestors, who endured both Japanese and Chinese rule? Because I don’t look Jewish, does that mean I should forget my great-grandparents, who fled the pogroms in Russia? No, of course not. I want to claim both my Jewish and Taiwanese heritage without feeling like I don’t belong.

So, how can ethnic communities respond? Of course, they could discount my perspective as the whining of an over-emotional teenager, but they would be ignoring a very important truth. Multiracial individuals have been the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in the past 10 years, according to the Population Reference Bureau. If ethnic communities continue to ignore individuals who are multiracial, they will soon realize they have no community at all.

Personally, I can’t imagine the communities I know and love becoming extinct, but if they refuse to acknowledge the identities of mixed-race individuals, that fate will be inevitable. So, please, for the sake of our collective future, open your eyes. Multiracial people are not “racial imposters.” We are your friends, your family, and, as time passes and the world becomes more integrated, your legacy.

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Shae is from Manhattan Beach, California, and a member of the class of 2022 at Vistamar School. Some of their interests include listening to music, dancing, reading, and writing. Their dream is to become either a writer or a journalist one day.
Accompanying photo: “Courtesy of Shae Lake” by Shae Lake