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"White-Passing" & Multicultural Identities

By Hannah Kil

“Yellow Peril,” The Chinese Exclusion Act, Executive Order 9066. The idea that Asians are “unclean”, “disease-ridden”, and “corrupt”  is an age old ideology held by the U.S. 

Referred to as the “Chinese Virus” by President Trump, COVID-19 has become the current vessel to aim hate and violence towards the Asian American community. From physical violence to racially-charged hate speech, Asians Americans have been made to embody the fear, anger, and disgust associated with the virus itself. 

In a country where Asian Americans are being oppressed by a white-majority society, where do mixed race individuals fit? 

What is ‘White-Passing’ Privilege?

As a half-Korean, half-Caucasian individual, I recognize the safety and security in my own ‘white-passing’ privilege. In essence, ‘white-passing’ privilege is the idea that the more white you appear, the more privilege you possess in society. 

The idea is that if you are able to appear white-looking, you are able to reap the benefits of white privilege, regardless of your true ethnicity. ‘White-passing’ privilege is all about being able to move through life with the perception that you are white. 

Let’s answer this question: Who is impacted by ‘white-passing’ privilege? ‘White-passing’ privilege impacts people of color or mixed individuals who ‘pass’ as white, based on their fair skin color. Even though the concept of ‘white-passing’ privilege allows the individual to escape everyday discrimination and prejudices, a lot of the time their own identities are torn. By living in a society in which you are perceived as ‘white’ and not acknowledged as anything else, that can impact the way you perceive and understand yourself. 

Navigating Multiracial Identities as ‘White-Passing’

When I was a kid, I grew up eating buttered noodles, corn beef hash, and lasagna. I also ate kimbap, tteok-bokki, and bulgogi. As simple as food may seem, it was the thing that held me close and reminded me of my multiracial identity. When I was younger, I saw the duality of being half-Korean, half-Caucasian as an equal and normal part of the way I lived my life. 

As I grew older, I felt like more and more of my identity was being washed away and lost as I was perceived to be more ‘white’ in the eyes of people around me. I acknowledge that being perceived as ‘white’ allowed me to have the privilege of not having to experience discrimination or prejudice, yet it disconnected me to the entirety of myself. 

Oftentimes on forms that say, “Please check one ethnicity,” I’d always pick Asian. Every time I meet someone new, they  always ask “So, what are you?” And I’d reply, “I’m half-Korean.” As my ‘white-passing’ privilege began to eliminate my Korean roots, I tried harder and harder in my life to make it clear that I am more.    

“How come you don’t speak Korean,” is a frequent question that I am always asked when I bring up my background. “I just wasn’t taught,” I would say, as I see the interest disappear from their eyes. For much of my life, I felt I was caught up between how people saw me and how I wanted them to see me. I wanted to be accepted, but also acknowledged for my multicultural identity, which I hold a great sense of pride for. 

As an adult, navigating my own identity is an idea that is ever-changing. The most important idea I’ve learned along the way is to accept and love yourself wholeheartedly. I accept the duality of my life, no matter how complicated it may be. 

Navigating Multiracial Identities as ‘Asian-Passing’

I have known many mixed people like myself. From those encounters, I was taught that no one’s experience is the same. I believe that is the beauty of multiracial identities.

Growing up, my family was very close with another family, the Parks. Both of our families paralleled one another from the same multicultural background to the closeness in our ages to even the fact that both of our mothers were named “Jennifer.” However, as we grew up side by side, one difference was clear: we looked different. 

My childhood friend, Noah Park, stated that, “I definitely have been treated as more Asian than White from the people around me.” He went on to add that, “People tend to recognize that I'm mixed but in all honesty, Asian mixed tends to cause people to just think Asian. When most people describe me, Asian is the ethnicity that they use.” 

Even though both of our families were extremely similar in many ways, the amount of privilege that we held as multiracial individuals were far different. I could pass as ‘white’ and he could pass as fully Asian. That in itself allowed both of our personal experiences as mixed people to become very different. 

In regards to privilege, Noah stated that, “I feel like I didn't really experience too much privilege when it comes to my ethnicity. Since I was always treated as Asian, I had mostly identified as Asian, especially when I was younger. Now that I'm older, it doesn't feel like much would have changed, if anything at all, if I had not been mixed!” 

One common idea when it comes to individuals who are of mixed race is that you’re either one or the other. The concept of duality is something we as human beings are still struggling to comprehend fully. Internally, by recognizing your mixed identity and viewing yourself as whole, you can further find peace in your existence. 

Noah emphasized that, “I feel as though being a multicultural individual has impacted me pretty positively, as I have been able to thoroughly learn about and experience both cultures extensively.” He also feels that, “Overall, I think that being mixed has exposed me to a different way of life and I'm proud to be both Asian and White.”  

*Noah Park is a senior at the University of Minnesota where he is pursuing his B.S in Computer Science. Follow him on Instagram (@noahjpark).


  • Hannah,

    Thank you so much for putting your experience out here. I have struggled my entire 30 years with my white-passing body that grew up exposed heavily to my korean culture. My mother left when I was a toddler, so I was raised by my brown dad and only had one grandmother (his mother) — she was korean. I grew up eating the food, singing the songs, hearing the language, and immersed in spirit-filled traditional korean items. My soul was always very korean while my dominant features (very fair skin, light blonde hair) were Scottish. A korean author visited my school in 6th grade. She asked anyone who was korean to stand up at the end (it was an extremely culturally diverse classroom) , and when I did, my teacher yelled at me to sit down and apologized to the speaker with a bright, red face. My 10-yo self did not sit down. I am proud and a little envious of her conviction today. I would go on to be ridiculed for my “old- bag grandma” mono-lid eyes leading me eventually to carve lines into my eyelids anywhere from 1-10 times a day. At the time, I had no knowledge that I was participating in trying desperately to erase the eyes of my korean ancestors. I hated those eyes that looked back at me as I ran my sharp, piercing-earring tip over my tender closed eyelids.
    Your story leaves me feeling understood and seen in my life as a whole, to include recent reclamation (spurred by the birth of my daughter and preceding death of my grandmother after which my father and I visited all of our remaining blood relatives in Daegu) of MY cultural identity. The duality you speak of rings true for me, and thank you for leaving me feeling less alone in this world.

    p.s. you don’t need to publicly post this; I wanted to express this and didn’t know how else to contact you

  • Very good piece, I don’t think that I have ever considered how societies looked at multiracial identities from different perspectives..

    Anwar Deterville

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