My Mixed Life: Sonia Smith-Kang, Entrepreneur, Multicultural Advocate, and Multiracial Activist
My Mixed Life is an interview series where we showcase interesting humans and their mixed lives.
Talking Louis: Who are you?
Sonia Smith-Kang: My name is Sonia Smith-Kang and I am a mother of 4, a wife, a critical care RN and an entrepreneur.
TL: What does your mixed experience look like?
SSK: I identify as AfroLatina. A proud military brat (Third Culture Kid) born in Puerto Rico to an African American father and Mexican mother. After Puerto Rico, my family and I were stationed on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu before calling California home.
TL: You are a multicultural advocate and activist, as well as the founder and designer of Mixed Up Clothing and the co-founder of Culturas, MultiCultiCorner, and Mixed Heritage Day. What do these various roles entail and what are your goals with them?
Underneath it all, my life is and has always been about and around culture. My rich multicultural heritage and experience has really laid the foundation for who I am and my life’s work which is to celebrate, embrace and amplify our stories. I do that in various ways.
With Mixed Up Clothing, I source fabric from all over the world and turn them into fun everyday apparel that tell a story. MultiCulti Corner is the event arm where we gather together and explore our diverse city, learn about each other’s cultures, spark awareness, appreciation and make new friendships along the way.
Currently, Mixed Up Clothing is busy sewing fabric face masks using all our vibrant fabrics from our apparel line. We have a #getbehindthemask “Buy 1, Donate 1” initiative where for each mask purchased, one is donated. To date, over 1k masks have gone to healthcare heroes, essential workers, immunocompromised patients, The Sioux Nation, migrant farm workers, the unhoused and other vulnerable communities.
The multiracial community is one of the fastest-growing population, yet we are still underrepresented so my co-founder and I started Mixed Heritage Day as an annual event as a day of community to recognize those that identify as mixed heritage, are in interracial relationships, and/or transracially adopted.
Culturas is a beautiful mashup of Mixed Up Clothing, MultiCulti Corner and Mixed Heritage Day rolled into one. It’s a tech-enabled media platform for multicultural individuals and families. We create and curate content, provide community and give makers and creatives of color a space on our e-commerce site.
TL: Mixed Up Clothing is more than a children’s clothing line. You use your fashion brand to teach people about diversity and inclusion, and to highlight vibrant cultures around the world. Where did this idea come from, and how do you go about sourcing fabrics and trims that are inclusive and representative of various cultures?
SSK: Ahhh, the creation story of Mixed Up Clothing is a good one. I actually went to college to become a RN. While working in a high-stress critical care unit, I needed a creative outlet. I sewed as a stress reliever.
When I had my children, I wanted to sew clothes for them with intention. I looked all over for apparel that spoke to our multicultural reality and couldn’t find anything so I decided I would do something about it. I ethically sourced my fabric from all over the world and made my children dresses, shorts, tops, you name it. I would get stopped on the street asking about the fabrics and cultures that were represented on the fabric. I noticed the clothes were beautiful conversation starters and got people talking about their cultures as well as learning about ours.
I had my Oprah “A-ha” moment and thought, I am going to do something with these clothes because the world needs to know we are here and we ain’t going anywhere so lookout fashion world, Mixed Up Clothing is here!
To the dismay of many, I left 15 years as a RN, emptied out my 401k, and took a leap of faith and started Mixed Up Clothing. Within a couple of years, I was featured on NBC’s Today show, Fox TV’s The Real, Latina Magazine and NPR. What I discovered was a thirst for cultural representation in every aspect of life, including fashion. It’s important to be seen so my work with Mixed Up Clothing is about bringing our stories to life and being a voice for the underrepresented. I take immense pride in that.
TL: You grew up mixed and multicultural and always felt different, even though you were surrounded by rich cultural heritage on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu. Though it took a while, what led to you loving who you are? How do you go about creating an intentional life?
SSK: When we left O’ahu and came to ‘the mainland” of California, it was at the height of “The Valley Girl” where I thought everyone had blonde, flowing hair and blue eyes. A recording began to play in my head that told me my brown skin, tightly coiled curls and brown eyes weren’t enough. I wasn’t Black enough or Mexican enough. Part of that voice came from people who actually said things to me like: “but what do you feel MORE of” or “you don’t look Black” and part of it came from just not seeing many people that looked like me.
I went from getting weaves and code switching to try and fit it. Don’t get me wrong, not every mixed person faces these challenges. This was my journey and it was challenging for me all the way through college. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I finally came into who I wanted to be and finally became, unapologetically, who I am today.
Whooo, looking back years later, I am still trying to heal my younger self which is part of my work in the multiracial space today in helping folx get to that place of “ya, I know who I am.” The intentionality comes from years of not having a voice or seeing myself. It comes from my 12-year-old self who wished she had: books, music, movies, friends, etc that looked like her.
My life’s mission is to bring in creatives, authors, makers of color (mixed or not) into my life and that of my children. I choose diverse schools and programs for them. I donate diverse children’s books and dolls to their class. I volunteer to organize multicultural fairs. Diverse artists, foods, music fill our home. They are learning the language of their ancestors and taking part in cultural heritage days. They wear garments like hanboks for celebratory events like their birthdays or holidays. It’s embracing our cultural diversity and understanding others.
Today, I am part of a movement where stripping away of identity and culture is not an option. I believe we can choose what it means to be “me” and all that goes into it.
TL: You and your Korean-American husband have four multicultural, multiracial, and multilingual children. What expectations did you have for your intercultural and interracial marriage? How have your expectations been met or not met?
SSK: This is a deep question and one I had to think about if I wanted to share because my interracial relationship started off pretty rocky when I met my partner’s family. I was hesitant to share but I want to be transparent that not all interracial relationships are accepted. There may be tension and racism. There are still looks and whispers. Suffice to say it wasn’t easy when I met my now in-laws and once again, I felt like I wasn’t enough.
It’s hard when you are not accepted based on your cultural identity. It tapped into my inner voice that I worked so hard to get through. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t take to me just because I was not Korean. I had to ask myself what I was willing to do and also ask my partner what he may have to give up if we were to be together.
I shared with him that I was not willing to move forward with a relationship if it was going to hurt either of us. I will never hide who I am for someone else and if this was going to be an issue, then I refused to move forward. The onus would be on him and them to work through whatever they needed to because I would always be who I am. Like a scene from Seinfeld, “yada, yada, yada,” years went by and we are now at a place of acceptance of one another and sharing our lives harmoniously.
TL: How did your intercultural and interracial marriage influence the way you and your husband decide to raise your children?
SSK: We had a long talk about this before having our children. Many talks. I believe in compromise in relationships but there are some things I was unwilling to compromise on when it came to us raising our children.
Again, this is where intention comes in. Growing up there was a push to assimilate into American culture. The idea of a melting pot where everyone went in and came out American was an ideal many tried to reach, including my Mexican family. There was a stripping of language and tradition that happened that was harmful.
Today, I am part of a movement where stripping away of identity and culture is not an option. I believe we can choose what it means to be “me” and all that goes into it. For my children, there’s no picking sides or parsing out of cultures. There are no measurements. Despite their multiracial heritage or “mixedness”, they are whole. There’s something powerful that happens inside when you can get to that place and claim (or reclaim) who you are.
TL: One of your biggest pieces of advice for raising mixed children is to be proactive and compassionate about issues that may arise at school, and in life. In other articles, you’ve emphasized that your children don’t owe anyone an explanation, and they’re not responsible for making other kids comfortable with who they are. Now that your kids are older, how has your advice changed over the years? Are there any other lessons you’ve learned over time about raising your mixed children?
SSK: I still maintain that advice. My children have learned early on that I am a huge proponent of self-identification. We discussed with each of them early on and continue to have conversations around culture and identity as they grow older. I try not to wait for incidents to surprise them. I find ways to impart pop culture stories or news articles and discuss issues surrounding the story.
I not only wanted to keep them abreast of current news, I want to instill empathy and compassion of others and we can only do that if we do the work. Starting young and discussing issues often, helped my children find the language they needed to advocate for themselves and, when safe, for others. I believe children need to talk about their identity.
Those conversations were oftentimes started by me because they may not have the language to share their feelings and can begin to think something is wrong with them because their parents aren’t talking about it. “Something must be wrong with me since mom or dad aren’t bringing it up.” To rolled eyes and sighs from my children, I hold check-ins with them where we discuss who they are, what they’ve noticed, how others see them and how they walk through life.
We discuss tough issues as well. We talk about privilege and allyship the same way we talk about the birds and the bees or drugs and alcohol. We discuss driving while Black and Brown. It’s important to us that we normalize these discussions because it can one day save their lives.
Starting young and discussing issues often, helped my children find the language they needed to advocate for themselves and, when safe, for others. I believe children need to talk about their identity.
TL: One of the biggest misconceptions about being mixed is that we have to choose. Mixed people don’t have to strip away their other cultures or pick which one they want to be. How do you go about incorporating your family’s various cultures into your everyday life?
SSK: We use AND as the language around identity and culture. We teach our children not to feel like they have to measure or quantify who they are. They are Mexican AND Black AND Korean AND Mixed. Ultimately the decision of how they choose to identify and when is up to them, but my husband and I are trying to build their language around it and reassure them that however they choose to identify is up to them.
We also surround ourselves in the work and movement. I serve as president of a nonprofit called Multiracial Americans of Southern California (MASC) and am part of a team that advocates for the multi- community and seeks to broaden self and public understanding of our interracial, multiethnic, and cross-cultural society by facilitating interethnic dialogue and providing cultural, educational, and recreational activities.
TL: Because we’re a small press, we have to ask: What’s the one book you always recommend to people?
SSK: A must-read in my home is Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. This book holds special meaning to me because it was the first book I read where I was able to see and feel my Blackness. A powerful read about Black characters and our history.
I wanted my kids to read it for the same reason. I wanted them to understand what a huge accomplishment this book is/was. I saw myself for the first time in this book. It was the first time I felt an overwhelming sense of belonging and a need to share my story.
It’s why I push so hard for #weneeddiversebooks and to amplify the works of authors of color.
I’d like to leave you with this great quote from the book. I feel it’s fitting to end this interview: “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” - Maya Angelou
Thanks, Sonia, for sharing your mixed experience with us!
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