I’ve seen the impact of living in an assumption-based world. Being in an inter-racial relationship, growing up as the daughter of an immigrant and as a Clinical Psychologist through the lens of my clients’ experiences.
In my 2012 research on biracial identity development of individuals of Asian and White descent, my participants unanimously had experiences throughout their lives of people coming up to them and asking, “What are you?”
Of course the honest answer is, “I’m a human being.”
But this isn’t what people were getting at with this question. It amazes me how much chaos and identity confusion are reflected in this simple question: “What are you?” In a seemingly innocent attempt to ask about another person’s racial background, the wording pigeon-holes a person’s entire identity based on their race. As though once we place someone into a racial category we can safely make assumptions about who they are.
Implicit within the question “what are you?” is the subtext: once I know your race I’ll know everything there is to know about you.
My interest in researching identity is rooted in my personal experiences around culture and ethnic identity. My mom immigrated to the United States from Greece as a young adult. She later married my father, who is from a Midwestern White family living in the U.S. for generations. I grew up in a predominantly White small town in California, while spending my summers in Greece with my grandmother and extended family.
Before I ever had any language or awareness around culture, I found as a child that I often felt uncomfortable or out of place when visiting my White friends’ homes. The way their families did things seemed so different from what I was used to. I would wonder if there was something weird about me – or maybe there was something weird about everyone else.
As I entered middle school, I unintentionally began to gravitate towards friendship circles of first- and second-generation immigrants. Most of my local peers who either immigrated as children or whose parents immigrated were of Eastern Asian descent. I found myself far more comfortable with how their families operated, as my Greek cultural values of collectivism and respect for elders seemed to share some consistency with how my friends’ families operated.
In college, I developed more language and understanding of different cultures and experiences. I met my husband who immigrated from mainland China as a young child. We connected on the experience of feeling like we don’t fully “fit in” in either the U.S. or in our mother countries. We each had taken a little bit from different cultures and had taken on a mishmash of experiences and values in a way that helped us connect well with each other.
Being in an interracial relationship inspired me to research the experience of being more than one race. My research in this little niche of Asian-White biracial identity began a snowballing interest in more and more aspects of identity. I thought, if we live in a world where we think we know everything there is to know about a person just by their race, what else might we be doing to unhelpfully categorize others?
Turns out there was more to learn about this than I had ever bargained for. Every day I find myself having to challenge my own assumptions of how I view others as I unintentionally pigeon-hole my colleagues, friends, and loved ones more than I can keep track of. What a hard pill to swallow knowing that I am an active contributor to the problem.
Moreover, as a Clinical Psychologist I’ve seen the impact of living in an assumption-based world through the lens of my clients’ experiences. I began to learn over time how a lifetime of labels based on gender, race, faith, sexuality, and more can completely disarm us from an ability to know who we are underneath all those labels the world has handed to us. I find that most of my work in private practice involves helping my clients unlearn the assumptions the world has taught them to believe about themselves so that they’re free to access their true selves and to live from that space.
We are all trying to access and live out of our true selves, while we are all constantly making assumptions about those around us. I believe the minor shifts we make in our day-to-day actions can be just as important as big changes in legislation or other major actions.
I hope we can all make a small shift together by replacing the question, “What are you?” with questions like, “What’s your story?”
“What are you about?” and “Tell me about yourself.”
As we get to know each other for who we are instead of making assumptions based on labels, I believe we will make small movements towards unity.