LIANE HANSEN, host:
The question, what are you, is often heard by people of mixed-race heritage. And NPR's Melisa Goh, who is of Chinese and white descent, has found an answer.
MELISA GOH: My mother's family is white, about as white as Americans come. She grew up on a hilltop in Ashcamp, Kentucky, just west of the Virginia border. She tells me that if she had brought home a black man � or even anyone not from the Appalachian hills � her father would've reached for the shotgun. Apparently, when she brought a Chinese guy up the holler, my grandfather was too stunned to react. He managed to recover in time for the wedding five months later.
One of the things that makes being of mixed race unique is the question: What are you? Long ago I trained myself to answer: I'm an American. It's a tidy little line that welcomes patriotic solidarity, while setting up a defensive perimeter should the rest of the conversation take an ugly turn.
It's a safe thing to do, because another part of being mixed is being an outsider. People don't know where you fit. I tend to pass for white, but there's a whole other culture that has equal claim. So the conversation about what I am can slip fast from race to nationality. Is your father American? Well, yes, yes, he is.
It wasn't until I was older that I realized the rest of the world might feel differently. I think of my mother angrily brushing her hair before going inside to lash the gas station clerk for telling my father to go back to where he came from.
I missed my extended family's reunion dinner last month, so, as usual, I called mom for the update. Everyone looks good, by the way; no new cancer scares. And then I practically hear her eyes roll as she tells me about the bumper sticker on my cousin's car. It reads: Somewhere in Kenya, a village is missing its idiot.
That would be the work of my cousin's husband. He's her knight in shining armor and actually saved her life once, and you couldn't find a bigger heart or a better friend. But there's nothing he likes better than giving a poke in the liberal eye. But this jab struck a tender spot. He sees the sticker as a purely political matter. I see it as unquestionably racial. I drew blood when I pointed this out, and our conversation took that ugly turn.
But for me, those who question President Obama's citizenship are sending me a personal message: If your father came from somewhere else and isn't white, then you may not be American enough. To them, I'll always be an outsider.
Thing is, my cousin's husband isn't one of those people - far from it. He and my cousin have adopted three Chinese orphans. He'll never, ever tell them they're not as American as their blond, blue-eyed brother - and I wouldn't dare anyone to try. So, I don't understand what's so funny about that bumper sticker.
It turns out, what are you isn't a question just for funny-looking people like me. It's a question each one of us has to answer. And that answer, for all of us, isn't black or white.
I've been living in my skin a long time, and I know who I am. Now it's time for everyone else to figure it out.
HANSEN: That was NPR's Melisa Goh.
You'll find more stories from our series Beyond Black and White at our Web site NPR.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.