Our findings show two important interconnected themes: (1) Asian-White multiracials show increased attention to discrimination against AAPI communities and overall heightened awareness and sensitivity to racism; and (2) Asian-White multiracials indicate a closeness to Asian communities and/or distance from White communities. Together these two findings suggest that Asian-White multiracials are not moving toward Whiteness and do not identify primary group membership as White. Prior to discussing these findings, however, we do acknowledge how a cursory look at structural indicators, such as high education and income attainment, align with movement into Whiteness. In this manner, we acknowledge how our participants do match with previous scholarship that uses such variables to evaluate movement into Whiteness while arguing that a sole focus on such indicators overshadows important discussions on how awareness of racism disrupts the projection that Asian-Whites are becoming White.
4.1. At a Glance: Structural Indicators of Movement into Whiteness
The Asian-White participants do not embrace Whiteness, but they do fit certain structural indicators identified in previous literature as moving toward Whiteness and mirroring those of White communities. A total of 85% of participants (35) grew up in a suburban neighborhood, with 88% (36) reporting that they lived with both biological parents for all or most of their childhood. In terms of education, 67% (26) reported that both parents had a Bachelor’s degree or higher, and 73% (30) reported that at least one parent had a Bachelor’s degree or higher. In terms of their own education, the group was highly educated and/or were pursuing high levels of education. For example, 68% of the participants (28) had already completed a Bachelor’s degree or higher, yet 95% (39) reported that they expected to complete at least a Bachelor’s degree. Additionally, 76% (31) reported they expected to complete a Master’s degree or higher, with 44% (18) indicating that they planned to complete a Ph.D. or post-doctoral training. (See Table 1
Another significant factor that is often taken into account when evaluating racial boundary movement is skin tone. Skin tone also plays a significant role in how individuals negotiate their identity, as well as how others identify them. A total of 32% (13) described their skin tone as white, and 29% (12) reported their skin color as olive. A total of 22% (9) marked light brown as their skin color, and 15% (6) described it as yellow. None of the participants identified their skin tone as dark brown, and only one person reported that they identified their skin tone as medium brown. Thus, most of the participants placed themselves on the light end of the skin tone spectrum. Yet, how they felt others’ perceived their skin tone did not neatly fit with their own assessments, similar to the arguments made by Roth
). For example, when asked, 46% (19) reported that others identified their skin color as white, which was 14.5% more than identified themselves that way. A total of 24% (10) said they believe others identify them as having an olive skin tone, which was less than those who self-identified that way. The same proportion, 24% (10), said they believe others see them as light brown, which was one more than identified that way. No one said others identified them as medium brown or dark brown, and only 5% (2) said they believe others identify them as yellow.
The complexity of racial identity is highlighted. On the one hand, the participants report certain indicators of assimilation or closeness to Whiteness for Asian Americans and Asian-White multiracials, such as skin tone, education, and other markers of socioeconomic (Alba 2020
; Bonilla-Silva 2006
; Glen 2009
; Iceland and Nelson 2010
; Kwon and Kposowa 2017
), which at a quick glance, fit the structural factors associated with being “honorary Whites”. Yet, as Chong and Song
(2022, p. 2
) argue, this framing of Asian-Whites as close to Whiteness is based on a “white racial frame”, where Asian Americans are understood as a “compliant, upwardly mobile “model minority”, suitable for absorption into the White racial majority through interracial marriage” and desiring to be White. Furthermore, as we will see in the next section, how Asian-Whites understand their identity is also impacted by not only how others categorize them but also their experiences and awareness of racism.
4.2. Anti-Asian Hate and Racial Awareness
While the Asian-Whites in this study fit some of the structural trends that are often cited as indicators of moving into Whiteness, in this section, we discuss how their racial awareness was affected by the recent rise in anti-Asian hate. By racial awareness, we mean Asian-White multiracials’ feelings and thoughts about rates of racial discrimination, policies to address racism, and overall cognizance of racism. Our survey questions inquired into specific issues that reflect this racial awareness, and follow-up questions during the interviews revealed additional detail.
First and foremost, over 92% (37) of the respondents feel that anti-Asian hate has increased “a lot” or “near a lot” since the pandemic, while less than 1% of respondents felt it had not increased. In this question alone, we see how anti-Asian rhetoric during the pandemic heightened Asian-White multiracials’ awareness of discrimination against Asian Americans. For example, Carrie, who prefers a multiracial identity, described how she felt afraid for her Asian American family members:
“It felt so nasty, and I felt really afraid. And for me, like, I’m just really worried about my grandparents mostly because they’re old and they’re frail. Already being worried about the pandemic …and then, who is going to mistreat my grandmother? …I was just really worried all the time and angry that someone would put her in a compromising situation”.
Carrie describes how the daily racist rhetoric and increase in physical attacks on Asian Americans led to great concern for her family, particularly her grandmother. Similarly, Jude, Thai-White, described how he felt anti-Asian hate has increased, mentioning an incident with his cousins who are also multiracial Thai. They were confronted by a group of young White men on the upper west side of New York, who yelled, “the Asians are here” while making Ninja noises and coughing. In the in-depth interviews, overall, we particularly saw the attention to multiracials’ concern for their Asian family members. Fears around racially motivated attacks on family were connected to palpable connections to Asian communities. Recurring news stories on attacks on Asian women, followed by the attack at the spa in Atlanta, Georgia, made these fears all too real (Chen 2022
). It is also important to highlight here that there was no clear correlation between those who felt anti-Asian hate had increased and those who felt Whites saw them as Asian. Among those respondents who felt anti-Asian hate had increased since the Coronavirus pandemic began, 29% (12) indicated that they felt White people perceived them as Asian, 24% (10) responded that they felt Whites perceived them as biracial, 22% (9) stated that they were perceived as White by other Whites, 14.5% (6) said they felt Whites perceived them as Latinx and only one felt that they were perceived as Pacific Islander by White people. In other words, the perception of the increase in anti-Asian hate does not
only belong to those who are perceived as Asian and, therefore, it is not simply a matter of phenotype.
We also saw Asian-White multiracials’ heightened awareness of racial discrimination translated into Asian-White multiracials having conversations about racism. Approximately 27% (11) said they had 1–3 conversations with family/friends about anti-Asian discrimination in the last six months, 29% (12) had 4–6 conversations, 17% (7) had 7–9 conversations, and 27% (11) had more than 10 conversations. This means the vast majority of respondents actively chose to have conversations about racism, and 44% reported that they had, on average, more than one conversation a month about Asian discrimination, a strong indication that they feel these conversations are important and pressing. We find the importance of these conversations is affirmed in how respondents feel about President Biden signing into law the “COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act” in May of 2021. This act was created in response to the increase in the violence against AAPI communities and provides greater resources and outreach on hate crimes related to COVID-19 (Sprunt 2021
). In our survey, respondents were asked if they felt this act was necessary, to which 46% (19) said it was “very necessary” and 14.5% (6) said “sort of necessary”. Notably, only one person said it was not
necessary, while 29% (12) reported they did not know enough about the bill to say one way or the other. Two people said they did not think the bill was necessary because they do not support law enforcement, in general, as a solution to violence. Thus, about 60% of respondents believe that the federal government should take direct action to address discrimination specific to AAPI communities and, at least, implicitly agree that AAPI communities are targeted for hate crimes. (See Table 2
A second set of questions inquired into participants’ personal participation in fighting against racism, such as attending informational lectures or going to marches. This type of active participation was lower than support for the federal government’s action but was still present. While our data on this topic are limited, it is interesting to note that some participants reported they chose to attend a march or rally during the pandemic: 70% (29) reported they had not attended a march or rally on racial discrimination before 2020, but 22% (9) attended an event on Asian discrimination and 36.5%(15) attended a BLM march/rally since 2020. While we cannot know for sure, there seems to be a correlation between the rise in anti-Asian hate and these Asian-White multiracials’ active support for BLM. For example, Leah, Japanese-White, who participated in an interview, explicitly addressed the connection:
“I do think that it’s linked. I think before I would feel very sad for these communities [Black and Brown] but I’m not a part of these communities so I could just live my life normally. But I think with the pandemic and a lot of the Asian discrimination, having this be brought to light. I think that, I, for the first time, in my life, experiencing fear because of who I was. And not just like, ‘oh, it hurts my feelings when you say that’ but actually I experienced fear. So I think that, it made me understand a little bit more… I can relate a little bit more [to Black and Brown communities.] I definitely think attending protests and stuff has given me more confidence to speak up or call people out”.
Leah explains how the emphasis on her own identity and racial experiences brought on by the pandemic helped her feel more of a connection to the experiences of Black and Brown communities. Participants may also have been likely to attend a BLM because of the relative frequency of them during the pandemic, but we argue it is still revealing of their racial consciousness that these Asian-White respondents chose to participate in an event specific to Black communities. We examine the implications of this solidarity with Black communities more in the Discussion section.
One of the closing questions of the survey asks whether overall awareness and knowledge about racism has increased since the pandemic, to which the majority, at 60% (25), said yes. Interview data confirmed how the pandemic shaped feelings and thoughts on racism. Cassie, who has a Taiwanese father and White mother and prefers a biracial identity, expressed that recent social movements have made her more aware and pushed her to want to know more: “I’m still learning about stuff. I’m far from being, from knowing it all. I’m trying to become more informed. During the pandemic, and with the rise in all these movements, it has made me more knowledgeable”. Similar sentiments were expressed by Henry, who has a Filipino mother and White father and identifies as Asian-White. Henry noticed a shift in his political stance, which moved “more left” since the rise in anti-Asian hate during the pandemic; he notes: “on the political spectrum I was definitely more right…my algorithm was from the right and now I am center left”. The fact that Henry shifted his entire political ideology reflects how significantly racism during the pandemic affected some multiracials’ views. Indeed, that over half of the participants feel their racial consciousness has shifted in some way indicates how much recent anti-Asian hate has had an impact. In the following section, we look at how this awareness of racial discrimination is connected to perceived closeness with White and Asian communities and participants’ preferred racial identity.
4.3. Racial Group Closeness and Preferred Racial Identity
We found that not only did our participants show an increased awareness of racism, but they also indicated a lack of closeness to Whites. When participants were asked what racial group they feel the strongest connection to, most did not indicate White: 63% (26) answered multiracial/mixed, while another 30% (12) said Asian/specific Asian ethnicity/nationality. Only 7% (3) claimed the strongest membership in White communities. When asked specifically to gauge how close they felt to Asian Americans, 54% (22) said they felt very close to Asian Americans, and 34% (14) felt somewhat close to Asian Americans, with only one person reporting that they felt not at all close. In contrast, when asked how close they feel to Whites, 39% reported they felt not at all close to Whites, and 39% (16) reported that they were somewhat close to Whites, while only 22% (8) reported they felt very close to Whites. Even among participants reporting feeling close to Whites, there was also a growing closeness to Asian communities, often one that was purposefully cultivated. For example, during an interview, Jude, whose mother is Thai-White and whose father is White grew up in a predominantly White neighborhood and attended a private school with mostly White students, reported feeling comfortable in White communities and is often perceived as White within these communities. Yet, he describes being drawn to Thai communities growing up, and, more recently, to Asian communities more generally:
“A senior friend told me to join (Pan-Asian student group) and I took on a leadership role kind of quickly…. and there I found my home…. and I don’t know if I hadn’t noticed it before but now I started to hear a bunch of stuff like this White girl who was close to my roommate was talking about a school trip to Taiwan and I heard her say ‘I would never go to a place like that’”.
Given that Jude had grown up in a White social world, his embrace of and closeness to the Asian American community was a journey he chose, moving from closeness to his Thai family and community in Thailand to joining the Pan-Asian student group in college to moving to China upon graduating from college in 2021. Yet, it also corresponded timewise with negative experiences he had with fellow White students’ views of Asian countries and with the rise of anti-Asian hate across the country. Similarly, when interviewees were asked how racial discrimination impacted their identity, Carrie, Biracial White-Asian, described her thoughts about the impact of the anti-Asian hate in the following way:
“I think, like, uhm, just like having shared worries with other mixed race and Asian people has made me feel more Asian, I guess. Like, everyone being worried about their grandparents and that sort of thing”.
These examples point to a shift in how these Asian-White participants relate to and connect with Asian communities and a push toward identifying with their Asian racial and ethnic identities.
Although we cannot claim direct causation, we believe awareness of racism and lack of closeness with Whites is connected to participants’ racial identity. We know how the question about racial identity matters, such as preferred self-identification versus classification by others, so we asked participants about racial identity in several different ways (Roth 2016
). Overall, participants did not choose White as their racial identity. For example, when asked to choose one racial identity they would mark on official forms, 88% (36) chose biracial/multiracial/mixed. Only 10% chose Asian (4), and 2% chose White. When given the option of providing their preferred racial identity as an open-ended question, 81% (33) wrote multiracial (or equivalent) or their specific mixture of ethnicities, while the rest listed Asian or their specific Asian ethnicity. When participants were asked how they believe others identify them racially, their responses also contradicted any pattern of moving toward Whiteness. For example, when asked how they assume Whites perceive them, 78% (32) said Whites would choose an identity other than White for them. For example, 37% (15) said Whites identified them as Asian/Pacific Islander, and 24% (10) said they were identified as biracial by Whites. A total of 22% (9) reported that Whites identified them as White, and 17% (7) said they were identified as Latinx. Regardless of how the question was asked, the participants overwhelmingly did not identify as White and embraced their Asian identity, either as part of a biracial identity or singularly as their Asian ethnicity. Participants also noted that their racial identity was important to them; 37 respondents (15) reported that their racial identity was extremely important to their sense of self, while only one said that it was not important. For example, Leah, who has a Japanese mother and a White father, firmly identifies as mixed. When asked why she prefers this racial identity, she discussed how other identities did not fit:
“…even calling yourself Japanese American, that’s what the children of immigrants also call themselves that. I think that’s also true of me but I don’t usually say that. Uhm, I don’t know, it felt weird. I’m not sure what I can claim, you know. Like during Asian American heritage month, it’s like, I feel like I’m part of it but I’m not sure if I can say that. I feel like mixed is the most accurate, other people who are mixed race, I feel like I relate to them so much. I want to be immediately understood”.
Most participants preferred affiliation with multiracial and did not identify as White. We know that racial identities are multidimensional and increasingly divergent with changing societal trends, from immigration to interracial marriage to social movements (Campbell et al. 2016
). Our findings suggest that the increased anti-Asian hate and violence, flamed by the racist characterization of the pandemic as a Chinese virus, affected participants’ feelings of racial group membership and racial identity. (See Table 3