Breaking Out of the Box: Reflections on AANHPI Heritage Month and Multiracialism
By Ashton Vicente
When I first sat down to write this article, I didn’t feel like an expert or that I was qualified to write about the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) experience, which may sound silly because I am legally considered Asian American myself. But I’m more than that—I’m biracial (half white and half Filipino). To me, being bi-/multiracial is occupying a limbo of not feeling white enough in predominantly white spaces and not feeling Asian enough in predominantly Asian spaces. I am a person of color, but am I really Asian enough to write about AANHPI Heritage Month when I have multiple conflicting histories inside of me and we are taught such strict racial boundaries? Even as a young adult, I’m still navigating what it means to be multiracial, for myself and in the larger community.
My grandparents immigrated to the United States from the Philippines, and they raised their children to be very “Americanized,” meaning they did their best to have their children assimilate into the American culture as a protective factor. Standing out made you a target for discrimination and served as a barrier to the so-called American dream. Thus, my father never learned Tagalog, doesn’t have his parents’ accent, and grew up to be as “white passing” as possible with his dark skin and hair.
I feel even further removed from my Filipino side because I have lived my whole life in the United States very much steeped in the local white, Midwestern culture, of which I share half my heritage. What marked me as “different” was my tanned skin, round facial structure, and dark eyes and hair—people would often ask me if I was adopted if I went out with either one of my parents because I really don’t look like them as a mixed-race child. I remember in college going to a meeting of the Filipino student organization, and while everyone was kind and welcoming and even looked like me, internally I didn’t feel like I quite fit in because I didn’t share their same upbringing and traditions.
I went through most of my childhood unbothered by this because I was white-passing “enough” to avoid any blatant discrimination, but the big turning point for me came in high school. When I received my temporary driver’s license, I was only allowed to check one box for race, and there was no multiracial option. I asked our instructor what I should pick, and she asked me what I considered myself. I told her that I consider myself half white and half Filipino, shocked at her outrageous question. She pondered this for a moment, and then said, “Just put white.”
After this point in my life, I became hyper-aware of my race. My dad was often the only Brown person I’d see when we went out, and people would assume he wasn’t with our lighter-skinned family because of this. No one in popular media looked like me, and there were no portrayals of families like mine. I didn’t feel like AANHPI Heritage Month was mine to celebrate. Again and again I was confronted with the “check one race” conundrum on legal forms. I was living in a society that didn’t acknowledge my existence.
I am white, I am Asian, and I do not fit in a box. And I am enough.
It’s more important than ever to acknowledge the incredible diversity within even one identity group. There are no strict dividers between people, no “us” and “them,” nor is there a single lived experience for Asians or any identity group. And my own experience isn’t unusual—you likely have employees or colleagues who feel the same way I do. In the United States, the multiracial population (self-identifying as two or more races) rose 276% from 2010 to 2020 and is growing three times as fast as the population as a whole. Diversity is a given that we must make space for in the communities where we live and work.
So I ask you, as we acknowledge AANHPI Heritage Month and all the heritage and history months throughout the year, don’t stop there. Heritage and identity are far more beautifully complex than affinity months, which should serve as celebrations rather than existential crises for multiracial individuals like me or people who don’t feel they are “enough” for whatever reason. Our identities transcend a single month or box to check, and it’s time we break out of the cultural borders that have kept us from honoring the many intersections of identity that allow us all to thrive. By sharing and making room for each person’s unique story, we can begin fostering equity, inclusion, and yearlong success in our culturally diverse world.