“So if you’re from Africa, then why are you white?” Karen Smith asks Cady Heron in the iconic film, Mean Girls. To which another character, Gretchen Weiners replies: “Oh my God Karen, you can’t just ask people why they’re white.”

Self-identification can be confusing and complicated, especially when others have already given you a label.

Karen’s question reminded me of my longtime friend, Fie, whom I met in the fourth grade when she and her family were evacuated from Pakistan to the United States after 9/11. She was born in Kenya and raised in Pakistan with her Danish dad and American mom. I remember the confusion that sprawled across my class when she told people she was from Pakistan, but was Caucasian and mostly identified with being Danish since she hadn’t lived in America before.

“How can that be?” my fellow fourth-grade classmates and I naively wondered.

As I Google-searched information to see how others identify themselves in the country I came across a Huffington Post article, “Some Blacks Insist: ‘I’m Not African-American’.” The article consists of multiple individuals of color discussing how they respond when others assume they’re African-American and the difficulties society has in resisting the urge to put ethnic labels on people.

One woman in the article, Joan Morgan, a Jamaican-born writer who later moved to New York City, describes how she feels being called African-American erases her family’s history and the sacrifices they had to make moving from Jamaica.

“People struggle with the fact that black people have multiple ethnicities because it challenges America’s original black-white classifications,” said Morgan.

This point that Morgan makes about America’s struggle in realizing that most people are not just part of one group brought me back to a photo series I saw at the Pacific Science Center called “The Hapa Project.” The project highlights the concept that our appearance does not identify who we are and shows how varied everyone’s backgrounds can be.

I recently asked Fie what she tells peoples when asked, “what she is.” Now she says she tells others that she’s Danish-American since she’s become more accustomed to American culture, but really feels like she’s from everywhere.

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