My Kids Look White. Does My Thai Father Make Them Asian?

I am a 48-year-old biracial daughter of a Thai immigrant and a white woman who divorced when I was 5. My father moved back to Thailand after the separation, and I didn’t see him again for 26 years. After the divorce, my maternal family was eager to erase my Southeast Asian heritage. I was baptized in my grandparents’ church, and my Muslim surname was legally changed to my mother’s family name. Although I greatly resemble my father, we did not acknowledge him in any way. I have since forgotten many of the Thai customs I grew up with before my parents’ divorce. Culturally speaking, I am a Midwestern-born Colorado resident with little to show for my Thai heritage.

Now I have three children, all of whom bear a striking resemblance to their father, who is white, and to my mother. My children have met their grandfather only once, when we traveled to Thailand to meet him. As they applied to colleges, my children felt that it would be unacceptable, and grossly unfair, to check any box regarding their ethnicity as anything but “white.” Is it acceptable for me to identify as an Asian person? Is it all right for my children to tell others that they are Asian?— Andrea

From the Ethicist:

Some states used to have a “one-drop rule” for Black people, which meant that anyone who was known to have African ancestry might be legally treated as Black. Partly as a result, many people whose appearance did not indicate that they were of African descent both identified and were identified as Black. Others entered into the American racial melodrama of “passing.” But the situation isn’t quite the same for people who have some Asian ancestry; the pressure to identify as Asian may not be as strong. Especially if they “look white,” they often have more freedom to decide these things for themselves. Indeed, given what you report, it would be misleading for your children to claim an Asian identity. The fact that they don’t really feel Asian is a good enough reason not to check the “Asian” box. (It’s also doubtful that doing so would confer an admissions advantage.)

What about you? Does your having had a Thai parent significantly affect how you’ve been treated, how you think about yourself and how you act toward others? Do you see yourself as Asian or, as you designated yourself at the start, as “biracial”? The key point is that racial categories matter insofar as people care about them. The biological differences on which they are built — the color of our skin or the shape of our eyes — have no intrinsic social significance, and they map into different systems of classification in different places. Someone who’s Black in the United States can be pardo (a census category for “mixed”) in Brazil. The Black American poet Langston Hughes, in his autobiography, described working on a boat in the 1920s with West African crew members who looked at his “copper-brown skin and straight black hair” and scoffed when he insisted he was a “Negro.” They considered him white.

If there are cultural differences associated with racial identities, it’s because conceiving ourselves as — and being conceived as — Black or white or Asian plays a role in how we think about our lives and how we’re thought about, and treated, by others. People who imagine that race has a deeper reality may suppose that there’s always a correct answer to what you “really are,” racially speaking. That’s just not so.

In particular, if you’re a descendant of people with more than one racial identity, there’s most likely no clear answer to how you should identify, although, for better or worse, how you look will often make a difference to how others treat you. As for what you or your kids tell others, it doesn’t seem hard just to say you have a Thai father and they a Thai grandfather. Those are the facts; no rule dictates what you must make of them.

Readers Respond

The last question was from a letter writer who was worried his mother was spending too much money on pay-per-view pornography. He wrote: “My mother, who is in her early 70s and was widowed about a year ago, has been struggling to adjust to life without her husband. As her only child, I have also been struggling to find ways to be helpful. Finances have been a particular challenge for her; one concern is the cost of her cable and streaming subscriptions. Recently, she has added subscriptions for four separate premium pornography channels, adding $160 per month to her already exorbitant cable bill. Although my mother is an avid internet user, she evidently doesn’t understand that there’s ample free pornography available online. Should I discuss this issue with her?”

In his response, the Ethicist noted: “Why are conversations between parents and children about sex so difficult? Maybe it has to do with the fact that talking about sex is sometimes itself a sexual act. Hashing out the birds and the bees, or the economics of online porn, isn’t sexy talk, but it shares a precinct. Besides, your mother may consider your knowledge of her cable expenditures an invasion of her privacy. You won’t need reminding that this has been a period of loneliness and grief for her; you’ll want to be supportive without being intrusive. But online pornography has been a phenomenon since she was in her 40s; you shouldn’t assume she’s entirely unaware of what’s out there. There could be other issues. Will your mother be able to find the specific content she wants away from the organized world of cable television? Does her TV have access to the web? In short, you might want to do a little homework and be sure you’ve properly assessed the situation. Then you might send her an email with some relevant information. … Right now, your task is to approach a delicate matter with tact, humility and understanding.” (Reread the full question and answer here.)

Unless the letter writer is using his own money to pay the cable bill, why should he interfere? Presumably, it’s his mother’s money to do with as she pleases. Carol

Porn actors, producers, directors, cinematographers and everyone involved in creating pornographic films should be paid for their work. The letter writer’s mother’s subscriptions are a more ethical way to view adult content than the numerous free websites that have proliferated. Cheers to her! Tanya

As a 68-year-old woman who was widowed at 58, I am keenly aware of how women struggle to sort out their sexuality, loneliness and all the changes widowhood brings. I was fortunate to have a daughter and close friend who helped guide me through that transition. I think the letter writer needs to approach this with ease, tact, an open mind and no judgment. Kristi

I wonder if it would be worth considering more broadly the ethics of whether one ought to pay for porn. The assumption the letter writer makes that consuming free pornography is ethical seems to be worthy of further consideration. Christopher

I am a woman’s health nurse. I have had frank talks with family, including my mother, about our sexual realities. I’d add to the advice given that the letter writer should look at all the subscriptions in the same light. He should remove his discomfort by normalizing all the subscriptions and helping his mother choose her favorites. Using that same algorithm, they can look at all the expenditures to create a workable budget. The letter writer’s mother is highly likely to be dopamine/oxytocin-starved. (Oxytocin is the love hormone, also released when people are kind.) He can help alleviate her suffering by being kind and loving and by giving family encouragement to do the same.I just spent the larger part of a year accompanying a new widow. They need hugs and real caring and a chance to both reminisce and to build new memories of true kindness. The letter writer will also benefit from these exercises in compassion. Theresa

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