Let me start this off by saying that I was confused about the difference between race and ethnicity before I entered college. I guess I always thought they were the same thing or very close to the same thing. After participating in countless diversity trainings, taking some classes on racism, joining my school’s Polynesian student group, and just learning more about my own ethnicity, I think I’ve started to understand the concepts a little better.
My understanding is that race is very narrow and based on a person’s biology. According to the US Census Bureau, the five categories of race are American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and White.
So what is ethnicity then? I’ve understood ethnicity as something more broad than race and based on someone’s cultural identity. It can be based on things like the language you speak or your nationality. For example, if someone’s race is Asian, but their nationality is Italian and they speak Italian, their ethnicity might be Italian. To me, ethnicity seems to be something acquired and learned over time, rather than assigned at birth.
I know that my race is of Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (NHOPI), and of White descent, but I do not identify with all of these as ethnicities. In fact, there’s been times where I feel that I don’t belong to any of these ethnicities. I was born in Hawaiʻi but moved to the mainland as a baby. Then I was born and raised in a predominantly White and Conservative area. I actually thought I was just White until about second grade when kids started giving me “Asian” eyes, making fun of my last name, and being grossed out by my musubi lunches. I don’t think this hurt my feelings at the time, but it made me wonder why I was being singled out and it made me realize I was different. Throughout my high school years, I would just tell people my ethnicity was Japanese and Native Hawaiian just because those were my races and I didn’t know what else to say.
I decided to attend a university where ~26% of the students identify as Asian (race) and ~40% of the students identify as White. The city I grew up in only had 2% of people that identified as Asian, so this was somewhat of a (good) cultural shock to me. I saw people that looked like me, plus many of them also identified with a specific type of Asian ethnicity as well. After meeting several friends who identified with some kind of Asian ethnicity, I realized that I had no idea what foods they were talking about, the cultural practices they were talking about, nor did I speak any other language than English. This is when I really felt that I didn’t belong to the Asian ethnicity. My grandmother and mother were immigrants from Japan, yet I felt like I knew nothing about Japanese food, culture, or language. Why didn’t my mom teach me these things when I was young? Now I feel like I don’t belong nor do I feel like I can call myself Japanese after meeting people that really have a Japanese ethnicity.
So now that I don’t feel like I can identify with the Japanese ethnicity, can I identify with the Native Hawaiian ethnicity? I decided to take up ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (Native Hawaiian language) as well as join my school’s Polynesian Student Alliance. I felt like the values and few cultural practices I learned growing up aligned with these groups. However, I still felt less “Polynesian” than the other students. Many of the students had Polynesian tattoos, could speak in their native language, and had been studying their Polynesian history for years. This is when I gave up and felt like I didn’t belong anywhere.
Don’t get my wrong, learning about these cultures and meeting people of the same race or ethnic background in college was amazing and eye-opening; I just felt like I wasn’t up to par with them and didn’t want to feel like I was trying to be someone I wasn’t.
After graduating college and entering my Master’s Program at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa is when I really understood where I stand with my ethnicity. My mentor, who is also Japanese and Native Hawaiian, explained to me that you do not need to check off all these boxes to be an ethnicity, nor is there someone accepting you into the ethnicity. You are the ethnicity because of how you feel about that culture, not because you compare to others in the ethnicity. This advice stuck with me and if you are in the same boat, you can do the following things that have helped me better align and feel accepted with my ethnicities:
Start actively learning about the cultures (ex. History, cultural practices, etc.) or start to learning the language of the people
Protecting and advocating for these communities
Being more open minded and accepting of yourself