[This post was originally published at Feminist Mormon Housewives by Kalani Tonga.
The original text can be found here.]
A couple of years ago, I wrote a post for my personal blog about my experience with being biracial. (You can read that here.) At the time, I thought I had worked through most of the issues I was struggling with. I even made the statement, “It’s taken me a good 15 years to process the information and figure out for myself who I am and what I’m all about, but I feel like I can finally look at my two cultures objectively, take the good, leave the bad, and be ok with the fact that there will be many people who judge me and don’t like what they see.” That certainly sounded to me like I had worked through things enough at the time to accept what I was (and what I wasn’t) and move forward in a healthy way. However, I was recently asked to participate in a conversation about women of color and feminism, and I found that I was very hesitant to step up and embrace a leading role in a discussion about women of color. Being the overly analytical overthinker that I am, I took a night to ponder my hesitancy to participate and realized that much of what had been drummed into me as a child and young adult still affects my feelings today.
I suppose I should start by saying that I am half Tongan and half “palangi,” or “white” (specifically Swedish). In Tongan, they call biracial people “hafekasi” or “half cast,” and can I just say that being biracial is freaking hard?! Author Lani Wendt Young said it best in her novel Telesa: The Covenant Keeper, when she said that the biracial lead character was “too brown to be white but too white to be brown.” It’s a very strange feeling to be an “insider” and an “outsider” at the same time. All my life, I’ve been told by the Tongan community that I am “too white to be Tongan.” I can honestly say that I’ve never felt uncomfortably different around any group EXCEPT for Tongans. It’s so weird and hard to explain. I feel like I can walk into a room full of people of all ethnicities and feel like I can fit in, but if I walk into a room full of Tongans I’m like a fish out of water. I’m different. And not “different in a good way.” Different in a “look at her…she doesn’t act right” kind of way.
The Tongan culture has very strict, well defined gender roles. Tongan mothers teach their daughters all of the things that a good Tongan girl should know:
- Good Tongan girls don’t go out late at night.
- Good Tongan girls know that men and boys are more or less free to come and go as they please; whereas, women are expected to stay home and cook and watch the kids.
- Good Tongan girls know that their husband’s sisters have the privilege of naming his children.
- Good Tongan girls don’t have close friendships with boys.
- Good Tongan girls know their place and respect those who are placed “above” them, due to age, family rank, etc.
- Good Tongan girls do not wear swimsuits or short shorts or tank tops.
- Good Tongan girls do not question their parents…it is understood that to question one’s elders is a sign of extreme disrespect.
The list goes on and on and the Tongan culture is very different in many ways from mainstream America. Because the Tongan culture has such strict gender roles, the fact that my mother is white put me at a distinct disadvantage when it came to learning about Tongan customs. My mom is one of the most amazing women I know. She did a phenomenal job as a mother. However, she obviously did not raise me in the same way that a Tongan woman would probably raise her children. Growing up, we lived out in the middle of nowhere. My interactions with the Tongan community were somewhat few and far between, and until high school, involved mostly just my extended family. I was not “raised Tongan.” My knowledge of the Tongan culture was limited to a few Tongan words and songs, some yummy ethnic foods, and the occasional dances I learned for luaus or weddings. My dad was the best father I could ever have hoped for — he was involved in my life, I knew he loved me, he was my coach and my friend and he taught me SO many things that have shaped who I am today. But, as far as the Tongan culture goes, it just wasn’t a focus in our household, and he didn’t teach us a whole lot about what is and is not socially acceptable for Tongans.
And so, when the time came for me to graduate from high school and venture into the big bad world all alone, I was very ill-prepared to deal with the incredible disapproval I received from the Tongan community because I “didn’t know how to act.” Being biracial felt a lot like walking through a mine field where other people knew where the landmines were, but they were not very forthcoming about that knowledge. Amongst Tongans, I’ve often felt “damned if I do, and damned if I don’t.” If I did or said the wrong thing, other Tongans talked about me and my family, and said I wasn’t taught right. If I asked what the right thing to do was, other Tongans talked about me and my family and said I wasn’t taught right because I had to ask. It felt like a lose-lose situation every time.
I don’t want my children to grow up feeling like they are fish out of water amongst their Tongan friends and relatives, and I don’t ever want them to perpetuate the idea that someone can be “less Tongan” than someone else simply because of how they were raised or because they have mixed parentage.
I am Tongan.
I get to own that because it is a part of who I am, and I will encourage my children to do the same. They will also tell people they are Swedish, and will say it just as proudly. So, here are a few things I hope to teach my kids, and I wish someone had told me earlier in life:
- You never need to apologize for being you. There are lots of right ways to do things. Doing something differently than someone else doesn’t mean you were raised wrong. Different does not equal wrong. It just equals different.
- There are beautiful things and ugly things in every culture. It’s okay to accept the beautiful things and reject the ugly ones.
- Similarly, don’t confuse ugly people with an ugly culture. Sometimes it’s the people you are in contact with that make the culture seem ugly. Don’t be afraid to remove those people from your life.
- It’s never too late to learn about your culture. Find someone safe who is willing to teach you, and learn everything you can.
- Your skin is beautiful. It doesn’t matter how dark or light you are, those things do not determine your “Tongan-ness” (or blackness or Latina-ness or whatever you happen to be!)
- Learn what is and is not culturally acceptable within each of your cultures. Then, you can make choices based on an informed understanding. You may still decide that the cultural restrictions do not work for you. That’s okay. If you have all of the information, you won’t be making a blind decision, and you will be ready for and able to deal with the consequences of your choice.
- You are not alone. As interracial dating has become more mainstream, more and more people come from mixed backgrounds. It may sometimes seem lonely, but you are not alone.
- If at all possible, learn the language. I can’t tell you how many times I felt utterly isolated and alone because of a language barrier.
- Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and your family. Be proud of your mixed heritage, and don’t let anyone tell you that you are less than because you’re different.
- It’s okay to own your racial identity, even if you live differently than others of your culture, and you don’t have to pick a side. You belong to both cultures equally, and no one can take that from you. Own it.
- You are enough exactly as you are.