How Wisconsin Turned Me From Asian to White

It’s official. It took 20 years, but the State of Wisconsin has now officially changed my race from Asian to White. Imagine my surprise. Please let me explain.

I always bristle a little when asked about my race. Race is an antiquated concept in which we tried to group people based on their physical appearance. White, Black, Asian, American Indian and Hispanic are historically the most common racial categories despite the fact that members of these groups often had little in common with each other.

I grew up in Hawaii, where nobody ever thinks of themselves as Asian. Ethnicity is a far more important concept there. Ethnicity goes beyond the physical characteristics of race and includes culture and traditions. From language to food, cultural traditions, social norms, and even physical appearance, someone of Filipino ancestry is very different from a Japanese-American. Yet both are considered Asian.

I grew up at the intersection of two different cultural traditions. About a century ago, my maternal grandparents fled Germany to avoid serving in the Kaiser’s Army. My German grandfather arrived in Canada, found his way to the United States, and eventually they settled in Manitowoc. Their oldest son, my uncle, would go on to serve honorably in the United States military during World War II.

At the same time on the other side of the world, my paternal grandparents separately left the Philippines for the U.S. Territory of Hawaii to work in the sugar cane fields. My Filipino grandfather was an “illegal immigrant,” having snuck on board a ship using falsified documents at the age of 16. Their oldest son, my father, would eventually serve in the U.S. Army during World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. He was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action, the Bronze Star for heroism, and the Purple Heart for wounds sustained in battle.

When someone asks what race I am, I reply that my ethnicity is German-Filipino. On an aside, when I’m asked what nationality I am, I note that I was born in Hawaii, which is the 50th State, and thus my nationality is American. But I digress.

More than 20 years ago I met a lovely, charming Wisconsin girl and she agreed to marry this boy from Hawaii. It was then that the State of Wisconsin first decided that I needed to be placed into a single racial category.

We went to the Brown County Clerk’s office to get our marriage license and the form required that I indicate my race. As I’ve said before, race is an antiquated concept, but this was a really pretty girl that I wanted to marry so I didn’t think it wise to get into an argument with the assistant clerk. Thus I accepted their definitions of race and checked two boxes: Asian and White. After all, by the State of Wisconsin’s definition, I am equal parts both.

Sadly, the assistant clerk refused to accept the form if I checked two boxes. She insisted that I could only select one race. But which one was I to check? It felt like I was being asked to decide which half of my ancestry was more important to me. Do I consider myself a Filipino- American and thus Asian? Or am I a German-American and therefore White? According to the State of Wisconsin I wasn’t allowed to be both. I hated that they were trying to force me to make a choice. Thus, I refused (much to my wife’s horror). I wasn’t going to pick one part of my heritage over the other just so I could fit into their silly little box.

So the assistant clerk picked for me. Because I was half-Asian, I must therefore be all-Asian. Hence, on my marriage license (yes, my wife still did agree to marry me), the State of Wisconsin says I am Asian, and only Asian, because they did not allow you to be more than one race.

In the last two decades, our world has become far less concerned with race and far more understanding that a person can honor many different ancestral and ethnic traditions. I can say without any equivocation that in seven years of living in Door County, I have never felt one iota of discomfort because of my diverse background. Unfortunately, our state government hasn’t evolved quite as much as I’d hoped.

Last week, I was in the DMV office to renew my Wisconsin driver’s license. On the renewal form it asks for your race. As I have done so many times before, I wrote down “German-Filipino.” Apparently, the state’s computers already had me classified as Asian so during previous renewals they ignored what I wrote on the form. In the past, they’ve continued to categorize me as Asian and just gave me my driver’s license.

But this time was different. During this visit to the DMV I was told that I must pick from one of the state’s approved racial categories and write it on the form. As I did 20 years ago, I refused to pick one part of my ancestry and deny the other. I said that by the state’s definition, I am equal parts Asian and White. The folks in the local DMV office were very sympathetic and professional, but their hands were tied. Calls were made to supervisors in Green Bay, and eventually the word came down from a bureaucrat in Madison that if I wanted to continue to drive in Wisconsin, I had to pick a single race.

Still, I refused. And like 20 years ago, they made the choice for me. But this time they decided that I am White, and only White. So sayeth the State of Wisconsin. And that’s how after 20 years, the State of Wisconsin has officially turned me from Asian to White.

Hopefully, in the eight years before I have to renew my driver’s license again, the State of Wisconsin will recognize that people can be more than one thing. If not, next time I’m going to write down “Black” just to see what happens.