Few of us escape our teenage years without an existential crisis or two (or three or four). The question, "Who am I?" pounds in the minds of young people everywhere like a drum beat. For some teens, however, the question they hear most often is, "What are you?" Said rudely or with gentle curiosity, the question packs a wallop every time a mixed-race person hears it.
"People often ask me the question 'So what are you anyway?' I say, 'I'm a human being. Why? What are you?" Derek Slamond, 15
Pearl Fuyo Gaskins gathers the voices of 45 mixed-race young people in What Are You? a book that will affirm and inspire teens and adults alike. Through interviews, poetry, profiles, and essays, readers are invited into the lives of these young people. They're smart. They're sassy. Some of them are mad. Some of them have suffered deeply from prejudice and misunderstanding over their multiracial heritages. Others have learned creative ways to cope with social intolerance. All of these young people speak generously and with heart about what it has been like to grow up mixed.
What becomes clear early on is that these writers (most in their late teens and early 20s) have spent a lot of time wrestling with implications of the question, "What are you?" Interestingly, their struggles have probably helped them come closer to answering that other existential question Who am I? than most single-race teenagers do. Their confidence and self-awareness ring out from the pages of this collection.
"Being biracial isn't bad because we're confused aboutourracial identity. It's bad because everyone else is confused. The problem isn't us it's everyone else." Chela Delgado, 14
Many of the contributors mention that even if they are distinctly biracial, it's not as if they are split in two with their left side one race and their right side the other. The experience of being mixed-race is much more like the mixing of ingredients into a new sort of whole. Mitzi Uehara Center, who is twenty-three, puts it like this:
"My body and mentality is not split down the middle where half is black and the other half is Japanese. I have taken aspects of both worlds to create my own worldview and identity. I am Blackanese."
That said, even within the microcosms of their own families, many of the contributors have had to struggle to achieve a peaceful melding of their heritages. It's rough when one parent criticizes the racial identity of another parent, when latent prejudice surfaces in the heat of an argument, or when family members don't share the same cultural values.
Other contributors celebrate the culture clashes. Jeff Yoshimi paints a hilarious and yummy picture of sushi night in his household where the "sushi" is rolled fat and thick like a burrito and is filled with American cheese, Spam, rice, mayonnaise, tuna, and other goodies. These Spam-sushi burritos, which he calls "Hapa grub," bring the family together in a boisterous atmosphere. Though everyone in his family rolls up different ingredients into the nori (seaweed) sheets, they all get stuffed and happy.
No, What Are You? isn't one of those well-meaning but dreary collections about an overlooked population of young people. Gaskins has done a marvelous job of pulling these voices together, bringing our awareness to different common themes, but thankfully she steps out of the way and gives these young people center stage. The sounds that emanate from that stage are varied, complex, proud, stirring. Imagine a circle of drummers, with each drummer pounding out a different rhythm. The different beats fill your senses, lift your heart, and remind you in a visceral way what it's like to be human. What Are You? will help you answer that very question for yourself. Cathy Young