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When You’re Mixed-Race, Authenticity Is an Uphill Battle
Proving who you are, and having others accept you as such, can be frustrating
Sonia Smith-Kang wears a lot of hats. She calls herself a multicultural activist but an equally accurate description might be something like “master connector.” Across genres and platforms, live and online, she’s a collaborative entrepreneur who seems to be constantly strategizing new ways to expand and strengthen her support network for multiracial people and families.
Currently, she’s president of the Multiracial Americans of Southern California (MASC), one of the oldest and largest organizations of its kind, with 17,000 members. The group boasts a social media following of about 50,000 according to Kang, with activities ranging from educational and legislative campaigns to social and cultural events. There are picnics for transracial adoptees and their parents; “Culture and Friendship” holiday events; and “Multiculti Corner” walking tours of communities like Koreatown, where members visit temples and taste dim sum for the first time. Although many still think of mixed as “black-white,” says Kang, the MASC board includes members who are Japanese-Greek, Pakistani-Filipino, Sri Lankan and African American, to name just a few combinations. Part of the work involved is simply expanding our perception of what being “mixed” actually means.
Together with MASC board member Delia Douglas Haight, Kang founded Mixed Heritage Day, which received official recognition from the Los Angeles Dodgers and Mayor Eric Garcetti in August of 2016. More recently, she and Haight created Culturas.us, a media platform designed to be a one-stop hub for multicultural news and events. She is also the owner of Mixed Up Clothing, a hobby turned business venture, with fashions “inspired by mixed family life, diverse cultures, and global travel.”
Her plate is full, and yet Kang, a former critical care nurse, ends her days with the feeling that there is still much more to do.
“It’s gotta be ramped up even more,” she says. “These conversations are still so needed.” But sometimes it feels “like we’re in a vacuum,” she confesses. “Kind of preaching to the choir.”
It’s a bright summer morning when we meet at the Canoga Park office of Mixed Chicks hair products. As we shake hands in the reception area, I’m struck by the array of vibrancy that is Sonia Kang: bright fuchsia matte lipstick, nail polish in a shade of unapologetic orange, and a multicolored, zigzag-patterned dress from Mixed Up Clothing. She’s here to discuss an upcoming MASC event called “Curls and Convos” that will feature panelists like Kim Etheridge, co-founder of Mixed Chicks, among other influencers.
As committed to playful Facebook groups as she is to hardcore academics, it quickly becomes clear to me that partnerships and cross-fertilization are her modus operandi. Her goal, as she puts it, is to “align herself with founders and companies and communities” that share a mission of “bringing us all together.”
“Hair always had this huge part in who I was as someone biracial,” she explains as we settle into Etheridge’s office. “It’s tied into how you see yourself and how others see you, and where they want to fit you and put you.”
Kang’s mother is Mexican American and her father is African American. Her parents met in the military, and Kang was born in Puerto Rico. When she was two, the family moved to O’ahu, Hawaii where they lived and attended school on the Schofield Barracks military base in Wahiawa. When she was six, Kang’s parents separated and she moved with her mother and siblings to Pacoima, California to live with her maternal grandparents. Her father stayed on O’ahu where Kang and her siblings returned to visit him every summer.
“I went to school just down the street from here,” she says. At Sutter Junior High, “blond hair, blue eyes, and feathered hair were the thing. I didn’t fit in.” Kang asked her mother to help her feather her hair. “We went through everything from baby oil to Aqua Net. I never thought about just letting my curls go free. I was doing everything to suppress them.”
“I struggled with not feeling enough. Not Mexican enough. Not Black enough.”
Later, when Kang was enrolled in a predominantly Latino school, her identity swung in another direction. “I wanted to have my mom’s last name,” she recalled. Martinez. Although her father was African American, she remembers deciding that it would be so much easier to be one thing, like her classmates.
“I remember being in algebra class and the teacher taking roll call. Smith.” Kang groans at the memory. “I begged my mom to let me change my name.” Her mother didn’t understand why. But Kang found a way to make the change — unofficially. “There’s a T-shirt somewhere that says Sonia Martinez,” she laughs. “It was a nonlegal thing. I laugh now… but it was…” She pauses. “I struggled with not feeling enough. Not Mexican enough. Not Black enough.”
As a college student at the University of San Francisco, she went in yet another direction. I was like, “Look. Where’s the Black Student Union?” After a few years of that, she finally found a middle ground. “I said, ‘Where’s the “mixed” group?’ From that point on, I was like, ‘This is what we’re gonna do. I’m going to find everything I can about embracing that piece.’”
As she speaks, Kim Etheridge, co-founder of Mixed Chicks, nods in agreement. So does April Mccallister Brown, 23, a MASC intern and student at Brigham Young University in Hawaii who is helping to organize the “Curls and Convos” event.
“The ultimate goal,” Brown offers, chiming in, “is to have girls and women, anyone really, feel empowered to say ‘I’m proud to have my curly, wavy, kinky hair’. I’m proud of where it came from. I’m proud of my identity.”
Like Kang, she too has her own mixed-race story.
The child of a Swiss mother and an African American father, she comes from a large, extended family (her father has 14 siblings) with several Black aunts and uncles who are also in interracial marriages with Asians and Hawaiians. “My brother is Lebanese,” she continues. “Also, I also have a sister who is Chinese, who came to our family when she was 14.” For the panel, she says it would be great if Etheridge could talk about “wellness and hair and identity and how they’re all interwoven and related.”
“My mother had no clue how to do my hair,” agrees Etheridge, completing the circle of sharing. There was criticism, by aunts and even women who just happened to be walking down the street. Don’t you know how to do your kid’s hair? “The answer was no,” says Etheridge. “So I learned to do my hair early because maybe I felt embarrassed.” In creating Mixed Chicks, her goal was to build a community. “A safe haven for moms where no question was stupid.”
Later that morning, Kang and Brown drive 15 minutes north, to a shared office in Chatsworth, where they have a meeting scheduled with Delia Douglass Haight to discuss upcoming plans and events.
For Culturas.us, an interview with the interracial couple “Black and Ginger” is in the planning stages, says Haight. The couple has been documenting their relationship online and have amassed nearly 10,000 YouTube subscribers. “He’s from Nigeria. She’s Serbian-Hungarian,” says Haight. “They have global visibility. People want to hear their story.”
Kang takes notes with a gold pen, jotting them into a small, black hardcover notebook. Much of what MASC does, she says, is for the parents.
“My mom is Mexican. She only came from one point of view. I would have liked someone to tell my parents, ‘Don’t wait for your child to ask questions. Talk to them about race before they ask.’ Parents play a role in helping us tell and create our own story.” They’re important because “children don’t have the language.”
After lunch, Kang shifts into “mom” gear, heading onto the U.S. 101 to pick up her son and daughter from two different schools. Weaving through the carpool lane she’s headed for Northridge Hospital, where her husband, Richard Kang, MD, is working an extended shift as medical director of pediatric critical care. “He’s going on hour 36,” Kang explains. Typically, when he’s away from home for so long she likes to bring the kids by the office so they can spend some time with their father over dinner and homework. (She has two older children from a previous relationship: Gabriel, 20, a business student at California State University, Northridge, and Breanna, 27, who studies childcare development at Mission Junior College.)
At the hospital, I meet Luke, 11, whose dark hair is streaked with a large swath of blond, in alignment with his summer all-star baseball team which chooses a different color each year. Ava, 13, dons a “We Are Mauna Kea” T-shirt in solidarity with Hawaiian activists.
“My kids are Asian, Mexican, and Black,” says Kang. For her, it was critical that they learn both Korean and Spanish as well as English, so that they wouldn’t have to go through the pain that she experienced growing up. “They really came for me,” she recalls, of kids who excluded her because she didn’t speak Spanish as well as they did. “You were seen as someone who wasn’t Mexican enough or authentic.” She wanted to make sure her kids would be able to “check off those boxes” if the time came.
“We knew going in it was going to be a very intentional life we were creating,” says Kang. “It’s like when businesses create their business plan, we had our own version of that.”
They decided that their children would be able to see “full reflections of themselves.” Korean. Mexican-American. Black. Mixed. “If you walk into our house you see multicultural dolls and toys, DVDs from around the world, Post-it notes with Korean words on them… Korean art and ceramics. Instead of childproofing our house, we culture-proof it.”
Her husband Richard takes a seat on the couch beside her while Luke squeezes in between his parents. “In Korea, kids weren’t expected to live past 100 days, so when you reach it that’s a big celebration,” says Richard.
“We bought them traditional hanboks,” adds Sonia.
At this, Ava, who is working at her father’s computer across the room, makes a disapproving sound.
Sonia laughs. “Did I mispronounce it?”
Now Richard is laughing at an unexpected memory. “Growing up my family always had these turtles. In Korean culture, they’re seen as a form of good luck. People always asked, ‘Why do you have all these turtles?’ So we have those around the house now, too.”
“It’s been a really wonderful learning journey,” says Sonia. “Eye-opening.”
But even when they met, in 2005, it wasn’t easy being an interracial couple.
Richard was born and raised in Queens, New York by first generation immigrants from South Korea who always assumed their son would marry a Korean woman. “Korean culture is a very closed society,” he says. “It’s not that common for Koreans to marry outside the culture. My parents were resistant to the idea at first.”
You see that look. Somebody’s still trying to understand you and who belongs to you. These are the incidents that remind you there is still some education that needs to be done. Kids don’t always look like their parents!
For years, they remained distant. “They weren’t very involved. It took them a while,” says Richard. “It was tough for Sonia.”
Things didn’t get better until eight years into the relationship.
“I think it was maybe my dad’s illness that turned things around,” says Richard, “because you realize that time is precious.” After his father’s death in 2013, his mother came to live with the Kang family in California and they became closer.
“I’m especially proud of Gabriel and Breanna,” says Richard, referring to Sonia’s older children. Their father is Mexican and learning how to adjust to this multiracial family wasn’t easy for them either. Now, says Richard, they even call his mother halmeoni, the Korean word for grandmother.
“It’s still hard to believe that in this day and age there are people who are not open to interracial families and relationships,” says Sonia. “We still have some ways to go. Part of me still struggles with wondering, ‘When will it be normal?’”
She talks about being in the pickup line at school and asking for her kid.
“You see that look.” She makes a confused face. “Somebody’s still trying to understand you and who belongs to you. These are the incidents remind you that there is still some education that needs to be done. Kids don’t always look like their parents!”
To get ahead of the questions, she has a back-to-school ritual. “I introduce myself by sending the teacher an email with a photo.” She laughs. “That’s typically what I do at the beginning of each school year.” That way, “it’s not uncomfortable for the kids, for me, or for the teachers.”
Going a step further, we also “invite the teachers to use us as partners, by providing books for the classrooms that show blended, multiracial families, and for teachers to use as a resource. We make sure that they have access to that and provide that. And we let them know that we’re available to come in and talk during any of the holidays or multicultural festival.”
It’s a lot of work, yes. But Sonia doesn’t mind.
“I just want to make it better. Not just for my children but for those who are coming behind them.”