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A Nation Engaged: 'To me, being an American is a bunch of hyphens'

Sonia Smith Kang (back row right) poses with her multiracial, multicultural family. She is Mexican-black, and her husband is Korean.
Sonia Smith Kang (back row right) poses with her multiracial, multicultural family. She is Mexican-black, and her husband is Korean.
Sonia Smith-Kang

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All this week on Take Two, we're exploring what it means to be an American through the eyes of Southern California residents. It's part of a collaboration between NPR and local member stations titled "A Nation Engaged."

Sonia Smith-Kang, is a designer for the multi-cultural fashion line for kids, Mixed Up Clothing. Her mixed heritage has played a crucial role in shaping her identity as an American:

"We're pretty used to getting the question of 'What are you?' And I  say, 'I'm mixed, Mexican and black,' and the follow-up question is always, 'Well, what do you identify with more?' As if giving an answer wasn't enough. You're asked to kind of explain that further and for me, I always felt both. I am what I am. I'm 100 percent of each. Those kinds of microaggressions, call into play somebody's identity and to me that's harmful." 

Smith-Kang's husband is Korean and they have four children together. As a mother raising multiracial children she found herself faced with constant conversations surrounding identity.

"One of the most important things I teach my children about being multiracial is that they don't have to pick. They don't have to pick what culture they are, they don't have to go into: 'I'm 25 percent this, 50 percent this...' I want them to know that they are whole people and that they are also American and it doesn't mean stripping away their other cultures in order to be an American. Korean, Mexican, they're black and they're American. There's no choosing.

One of the other points that I teach my children is they don't have to have somebody understand them, it's their right as a multiracial person to decide what they'd like to share, and what their identity is and they don't have to convince anyone else."

These questions and conversations led Smith-Kang to create something special for her children, and for multiracial children everywhere.

"I always wanted my children to be proud of their cultures and ancestors and so I started making clothes that I sourced fabric and different trims from all over the world and each one comes with a different story that celebrates our cultural diversity. So, Mixed Up clothing was born out of that want and that need for not only my children but children that look like them to have a place where it's okay to be of different backgrounds."

Smith-Kang is grateful to be part of a movement that helps those of mixed heritage embrace their 'otherness'. However, she recalls a time when that type of sentiment, wasn't there.

"I grew up in a Latino household where Spanish was spoken, but it was discouraged by the school system. It was almost as if you were asked to shed your culture in order to come out and be what "America", what the others think that you are and so we were asked to kind of shed our culture.

Now there's a shift, which is a great shift, that I'm fortunate to be a part of this movement where checking 'I am other' is actually empowering."

As Smith-Kang looks towards the future, she shares her hopes for a mixed America.

"I think in our educational system we need to teach about different cultures and diversity and inclusion. We also need to encourage and have more representation. There are different organizations that support the Latino, the black, the Asian, LGBTQ and other cultures. I think the multiracial culture needs to have its own representation as well. We're the second fastest growing population and it wasn't until the year 2000 that we were able to check more than one box. We're not going anywhere and I think we need to continue to learn about one another through education and representation to move us to the next level. And I'm hoping to see that from the next president."

To hear the full interview, click the blue play button above.

Share what being American means to you in the comments below.

Series: A Nation Engaged

NPR and KPCC's coverage of critical issues facing the nation before November's presidential election. The stories seek to build a nationwide conversation around focusing on a specific question each time.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on Facebook.