Ethnic Ambiguity in an Age of Demographic Determinism

Adriana J.M.
6 min readFeb 27, 2023

Image from “If racial identity can be fluid, who changes their race?” by Alexander Agadjanian on Aeon and his research found here on racial fluidity over time.

Agadjanian’s research was really interesting and affirming to read. Knowing other ethnically/racially ambiguous people also change their demographic categories over time gave a sense of relief to my own journey with the check box. The thing I like about Agadjanian’s research is they go between the lines of being just a statistic. They capture time and the progression of a single data point. Something closer to the truth.

I’ve marked "Other" or "Two or More Races" in my most recent years; and when given the multi-box chance, marked "Native American," "Asian," and "White." My father is from Brazil, with German, Italian, Portuguese, and Indigenous lineage. Brazil has always been an edge case with these boxes. How can you put the rich melting pot of Lebanese and Japanese diasporas, African slavery, Portuguese colonization, etc. into a single box with Spanish colonies with their own rich histories of diasporas and indigenous peoples?

My mother is from Korea. When these boxes force me to exclude my other half, by limiting the amount of options, just because the two halves that make me who I am don't fall under the same umbrella, I throw my hands up and check "Prefer Not to Answer;" with a huge middle finger to the systematic oppression those boxes serve. I will never see the long term value of putting people in boxes, especially when these boxes continue to create more problems than solutions.

This is notable: despite rapidly increasing intermarriage and children with mixed-race parents, many gradually shed multiracial labels over time. One consequence of this is that the US population may be more multiracial – and internally racially complicated – than we currently appreciate.

I had an Iranian friend once tell me they feel conflicted each time they have to check a demographics box. Checking "White" or "Caucasian" doesn’t feel right, since they don't identify with European descent white people. Yet, those are the only options they feel they can choose, as someone who is a descendant of Caucasia. Filling out a form should not trigger or inflame an identity crisis.

Every time the news is turned on, there’s crisis after crisis and half of those headlines involve racial identity. But how can people pick a team? And what happens when those teams are designated by the systems of oppression the war is supposedly against? What’s the real problem, here?

EDIT (03/10/2022):

Coming to terms with my ambiguity and embracing my differences has been a journey in self-esteem and confidence. Navigating beauty standards, social standards, politically correct language, and not internalizing the negative affects of feeling like an “other” can take its toll.

KQED Radio and The California Report has an on going segment called Mixed! Stories of Mixed Race Californians. The recent segment “What are you?” really hit home for me.

It’s kind of cool because, yeah, ambiguous skin means that you’re accepted in different groups and different ethnicities and you get to experience that diversity. But there’s also negatives to that because you’re ambiguous. People are going to assign stereotypes based on what they think you are and you don’t have control over that. — Dianna K. Bautista, Berkeley

That last sentence is so true and incredibly revealing about the person on the other side. I’ve felt discrimination and forced acceptance, based on what other people thought of my ethnic constitution.

When I was in college, I was a biophysics major for a couple years. A professor I was assisting with research suggested a summer program to apply to for minorities in STEM. Being female and part Brazilian was considered a minority for this program, but since I was also half Asian I was not accepted into the program — I was so out of the box I couldn’t even be considered a minority. At the time I don’t recall feeling much about it but to this day I remember that experience — I’m still processing what that meant for me since I ended up graduating with a different major.

When I completed a recent tech boot camp, my “career coach” pushed Hispanic/Latino/a/e/x diversity job boards and events to me. I finally told them I didn’t want to be a diversity hire and I was not impressed with the fact they never asked me what my ethnicity was; only assumed. I hadn’t said anything right away because I was trying to accommodate their ignorance. Their assumptions. Their carelessness. At my expense. I was afraid I might be the one to come off as rude for holding them accountable. That particular individual reacted defensively to my feedback, something I had experienced before. In hindsight, I hated that for myself. I hated that I had abandoned myself, put myself second, for someone I thought had an upper hand in my career opportunities. Someone who reminded me of others from my past who also weren’t able to see past the boxes of which they confined me. Without asking questions, first. Without caring enough to be curious. Without possibly changing their preconceived notions. Never again.

Back in 2022, I visited my Italian-American cousin, in Florida. She was my father’s niece from his first marriage to an Italian woman he grew up with in Brazil; his ex-wife’s sister married another Italian when they all came to the US. Many layers in my family tree. We decided to take a day trip to Universal Studios Islands of Adventure and ride some roller coasters. (Post-hurricane is a great time to go to the parks; great weather, no lines.) While we were taking a break to have some coffee, a person who worked in the cafe kept walking past our table, watching me. I had noticed that same person lingering around while we were ordering at the counter, staring at me. I called this out to my cousin who had also noticed. I expressed my frustration with frequently experiencing people who would gawk at me in public to the point of discomfort. She said it was because I was beautiful (eureka, lol) and because they can’t figure out what I am. I’m an anomaly, especially in those Northern Florida parts. Having tattoos probably doesn’t help.

It’s like those boxes have infiltrated the minds of people so deeply that they can’t control themselves when they see someone who defies the foundational metrics of the US Census and Equal Employment Opportunity laws. We’re wild creatures. Something different. Like the kinds that get put on display in museums and side shows. Of course they feel entitled to stare…maybe I should start charging.

When I worked in the front of house of a posh dispensary in San Francisco, I would feel self conscious after so many encounters with the public and their staring eyes. Was I being overly sensitive (possibly stoned) or was what I perceived true? I will never forget one customer who came in and showered me in so much adoration. Not the fake kind. The real kind that makes your hearts feel connected. When I told him I felt uncomfortable being in such a public eye, he said don’t be because, “people get to look at you.” People get to look at you. Those words still ring true in my head when I feel the gaze of people who don’t know what to make of me.

A friend recently told me I was a force. At the time it felt weird to hear that compliment — again with the self consciousness. I immediately thought of a destructive force, in the sense of something that is unsettling and I was some kind of monster. They reassured me it was a compliment. The more I thought about it, being destructive isn’t terrible. A force disrupts. A force pushes boundaries. A force demands movement. Destruction of experience, experience as the subject and object. I have no control over the thoughts that form for the people who stare or the people who don’t ask questions, but this is a force of which they get to look at. Hopefully, that force pushes them to question what they thought they knew and plants a seed of change, critical thought, the opening of a mind. Change that comes from destruction. Change that doesn’t involve those annoying boxes… I hope.