Opinion: Is half-white good enough for America now

When I call my dad, we speak English. We don’t know how to speak anything else. When I say I’m going to visit family, I book a domestic flight. When you see me on the street, will you realize any of this? My dad thinks you will, and he is so thankful for it.

On my most recent phone call with my parents, we were lamenting the fatal attacks on six Asian women in Atlanta, our hometown. Both of my parents expressed grief and outrage over what seems a xenophobic hate crime, but in a sudden tone shift, my dad expressed his gratitude for my mother’s whiteness. He said, “I’m glad Mom is white to help you ...” and trailed off, realizing the gravity of his statement.

Amy Hattori
Amy Hattori

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

My father’s self-awareness and acceptance of his own Asian appearance as a vulnerability was frightening. Equally distressing is knowing he had been worrying about me and my sister. While I am thankful he has shed the stress of fearing for our lives, I am disappointed at the cause. His respite does not stem from his trust in anti-racism education, but because of his recognition of our whiteness.

I am half-Japanese and identify as an Asian when “check all that apply” is not an option. Other people, from friends to complete strangers, have labeled me as everything from ethnically ambiguous, to recognizably Asian, to white-passing. My physical appearance holds a special place in the media today as I may appear exotic or enviable for my “wasian” (white-Asian) genes.

To my dad, however, I appear safe. I appear inconspicuous. If I walk quickly enough past a racist, they won’t be able to place my ethnicity in time to start throwing rocks and punches. I did not inherit the gentle eyes that join in the corners like those of my grandparents. My hair is a few shades lighter than my dad’s stark black. My skin is tan, but only in the summer, when everyone else is getting darker too.

While the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community urges me to embrace my Asian heritage, my dad’s choked-up sentiment lingers in the back of my mind. In being proud of my Japanese genes, I rebel against the notion that I am a fully assimilated American.

There is a reason America is called the great melting pot. Cultural and linguistic differences are rejected for their foreign feel, slowly melting immigrants and their descendants into the greater white American culture.

When my great-grandparents immigrated to America, they were Japanese. The following generations were Japanese Americans. As a child, I would ask my mom where her family was from and she would simply answer “America.” She believes her family’s arrival can be traced to early British colonialism, so her ethnic identity is informed by hundreds of years of being white in America.

After four generations of living in this country, when will the rest of my family be considered American? Do I meet the requirements? Am I white enough?

I am uncomfortably reminded of the days before and after the Japanese internment during World War II. Japanese Americans, my grandparents included, buried their Japanese flags, strictly spoke English, and tried to convince strangers they were Chinese.

As AAPI hate crimes rise, my father rejoices that my flag was buried when he married my mother. In a time when Asian Americans yearn for protection, my safety is afforded me by my white mother – a form of defense that cannot be taught to the oppressed or provided by even the most earnest ally.

Amy Hattori is from Marietta and is a student at Washington University in St. Louis.