Monday, August 9, 2010

Mixed Is/Mixed Ain't

"A long time ago I disappeared. One day I was here, the next I was gone. It happened as quickly as all that. One day I was playing schoolgirl games with my sister and our friends in a Roxbury playground. The next, I was a nobody, just a body without a name or a history, sitting beside my mother in the front seat of our car, moving forward on the highway, not stopping. (And when I stopped being nobody, I would become white--white as my white skin, hair, bones allowed. My body would fill in the blanks, tell me who I should become, and I would let it speak for me.) This was back when Boston still came in black and white, yellowing around the edges. You could just make out the beginnings of color: red-eyed teenagers with afros like halos around their faces, whispering something about power and ofay to one another as they shuffled to catch the bus; a man's mocha hand on a woman's pale knee. I disappeared into America, the easiest place to get lost. Dropped off, without a name, without a record. With only the body I traveled in. And a memory of something lost. This is what I remember."

This excerpt is from the first page of Danzy Senna's semi autobiographical novel Caucasia published in 1998. Without giving too much away (the book is a relevant must read, even twelve years later): set in the turbulence of 1970s Boston, the story is told by Birdie, the daughter of a black scholar/revolutionary and a blue-blood WASP mother who denounces her family and white community to join in the "struggle". Birdie is the youngest of two children. From the beginning it's very clear that Birdie can "pass" as white in a way that her older sister Cole never can and it's this continuous act of Birdie's "passing", becoming invisible and at one point quite literally white, that emerges as one of the central themes in the book.

As someone who has never passed as anything other than black (and maybe a lil' somethin' else from time to time, but always black), I was surprised to find just how much of Birdie's story resonated with me-- the idea that our mixed bodies become at once the canvas and the mirror upon which others cast their perceptions of who we are. At the same time, I kept wanting to get inside Cole's head. I wanted to hear her side of the story-- the story of the sister "left behind"-- the sister who's "black" body could not be erased or so easily forgotten. Instead of feeling like Birdie, I found I felt much more like Cole. We only hear about Cole through Birdie and see her through Birdie's eyes. Birdie seems envious of the ease with which her sister can pass through and into the black community, while she struggles to make her blackness visible. Ultimately, Birdie passes as white, Cole passes as black.

Lately, this idea of passing has been nagging me. Racial ambiguity and passing are big issues in our multi experiences, yet  are they prerequisites? How do our current conceptions of passing support the centering of white/non-white identities in the mixed community? Can we think of passing as multidirectional-- not just passing as white, but also the ability to pass as black, Asian, Latin@ or even races/ethnicities we don't identify with at all?

Most recently, at the Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival I remember a moment (albeit very brief) in which I felt a bit out of place. It was a funny feeling to have since, as I mentioned before, it was the first time I had ever been in a space where multiraciality was so visible and seeing so many other multi folk was something akin to a spiritual experience. Yet many of the organizers and participants were racially ambiguous in a way that I never have been (well not unless you count the first few days after my birth, before the melanin kicked in). And it left me with that heavy "not enough" feeling.

Crazy, huh, to feel like you're not "mixed enough"? All of a sudden I felt like I wasn't "light"enough, my hair not coiled and curled enough to pass myself off as a mixed (black)girl. Granted, this was all in my head and lasted only a few fleeting seconds. Yet reflecting on that moment, I realized there were quite a few things going on:
  • Like every other category, there are definite essentializing characteristics and stereoypes associated with multi people. I have, unfortunately, despite all my continued efforts towards counter-socialization, still managed to internalize some of them :( Even though I'm multi, and despite how open other multi people are, I've managed to internalize this idea about what a "text-book" multi person looks like (yes, wildly problematic, I know! I'm workin' on it.)
  • White/non-white multi experiences are still inevitably being centered when it comes to who's talking and what's being spoken about in terms of multi issues. And while that experience is really important and should be heard, there are also the voices of non-white multi people out there, as well, that add a rich complexity to the issues already being discussed.
  • Someone recently said to me: "I'm not mixed, multi-racial, or whatever...I'm just light-skinned." This declaration got me to thinking about passing and multiness generally, but particularly how it plays out in the black American community. How do we define "mixed-race" or "multi-racial?"  Who gets  to claim a mixed identity and how is mixedness policed within a given community? Ultimately, who's mixed and who isn't?

 One of the biggest challenges to answering this question is how "mixed-race" is defined. Mixed-race as we've come to understand it applies to all those who can claim two or more "races" as part of their immediate ancestry. For clarity sake, most refer to this as "first generation" mixed-race: meaning your parents are of different races. This definition, however, starts getting a bit complicated when you think about multi people having children (ie: If Michelle Obama was actually Kenyan and white American like Barack) are these children also considered mixed-race? And actually, let's back up for a sec: can Sasha and Malia Obama be considered mixed  though their mother isn't "first generation"? What about people with that one Native American great-grandma somewhere down the line? What about people that can claim two different ethnicities, but not necessarily "races" like Japanese and Filipino or Dominican and Puerto Rican? What about transracial and/or transnational adoptees who are monoracial, but have been raised in families of a different race(s)? See? It all starts unravelling... especially when things like the rule of hypodescent, and native blood quantam laws have historically policed how multi people identify.

I've also come across (mostly older) people that think mixed-race applies to just white/non-white individuals or even more specifically bi-racial black/white individuals. I've also heard people say that white ethnics/ethnicities should be included in mixed-race. The response from many is that the distinct experience and history of racialization, marginalization, "othering" and racial inequality faced by people of color and their mixed descendants in the U.S. makes including white ethnicities well... not likely to happen any time soon. The assimilation of white ethnic groups throughout U.S. history into a dominant WHITE group writ large is fascinating stuff and only further highlights the constructedness of race itself.

There are also arguements around mixed races as in races that are considered multiracial by definition such as Latin@s, Pacific Islanders and African Americans. All these communities have had a long history of racial mixing and that should not be understated. U.S. racial policy made it such that mixed African Americans could not claim anything but black (one-drop rule) and later during African American freedom movements and rights struggles, claiming to be mixed within the community was sometimes viewed as being anti-black and a threat to the racial pride and solidarity being built. At the heart of Latin@ identity is the mixing of indigenous, European and African peoples while Pacific Islanders have indigenous, Asian and sometimes European ancestry. There are also countries all over the Americas that consider their national racial identity to be "mixed" like Mexico (la raza cosmica), Brazil and Trinidad.

If race is a social construct and there are whole nations of people that identify as mixed then who, in fact, is mixed? Are we all mixed?...

So, I took us on that wild rambling goose chase to conclude with this:

I don't think we're all mixed. And while, I'm still grappling with all the issues I highlighted above, something still irks me when people say, "Well, we're all mixed-up anyway, so what are all these mixed people whining about?" I believe that there are certain experiences that bind multi people together, but that also differentiate and even divide us as a collective just like any other identity group. In the U.S. as in other countries where there are mixed people, there is a distinct history that weaves itself between the lines and more often than not, that history is not a very happy one. In our desire to embrace all the identities within us and to recognize  and not exclude others, multi organizing and efforts to develop a "collective"identity can get quite complicated.

But no one is saying we have to establish some sort of clear cut collective identity as multi people. It's precisely this inability to build a defineable, collective identity, that makes the multi phenomenon so post-modern. If anything the strength in multiness is that it inherently deals with the fluidity and maleability of identities and the shaky foundations of "authenticity" and monolithic identities. It demonstrates that whether we're multiracial or even monoracial we're all a bit like Birdie-- our bodies filling in the facts and fictions, the realities and the myths of who we once were, who we are and who we could become at any given time...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

How Many Hafus Make a Whole?


ha•pa (hä’pä) 
  hafu (ハー hāfu)
  half (häf)

       whole ?      

I remember the first time I picked up Kip Fulbeck's Part Asian, 100% Hapa... I was a bright-eyed, (way too) pensive undergrad still grappling with my multiple identities and trying to find the adequate words to bridge the vast continents of race, culture and experiences within me. I had just recently been introduced to the term "multi" as a legtimate way to identify myself and now I was hearing a new word (which wasn't quite so new at all): hapa.

Now, I'm not "half" or "part" Asian, but  as a multi person, there was this great sense of recognition and empowerment that came with seeing Kip's simple photographs and the hand-written statements from each participant of the Hapa Project. Despite some of the murmured criticism and real critical debates around the use (some might even say downright "appropriation") of the native Hawaiian term hapa, the mere act of putting mixed Asian identities in the U.S. out there was radical and transformative in its own right. By doing so, Kip put us all out there as multi people and dared us to claim spaces and (re)name ourselves. It was a really important moment for the multi collective here at home.
As I highlighted in an earlier post, there are really exciting conversations going on around multi issues all over the world. Most recently, three multi Japanese women Natalie Maya Willer, Marcia Yumi Lise and Haru Adelia Maruyama Carrasco-- a photographer, social researcher and multimedia designer-- embarked on the Hafu Project.

"Haafu" (romanization) is a Japanese term that like hapa means "half." Japan has used different words to describe mixed people throughout its history. The Hafu project defines hafu broadly as those who identify as part Japanese anywhere in the world, while also recognizing histories of Japanese migration globalization/internationalization and even imperialism*. The project is multimedia-based and includes photography, video, exhibits, a website and public lectures about multi Japanese people in Japan and elsewhere. In addition, Marcia Yumi Lise is advising co-directors Megumi Nishikura and Lara Perez Takagi who are working on a documentary also entitled Hafu, which aims to chronicle the experiences of multi Japanese people in Japan. (FYI: The co-directors are currently looking for a multi-Japanese person who has recently moved to Japan or planning to move to Japan in the near future to be one of the central characters in the film. Click here for more info.)

In Japan, multi Japanese people are gaining visibility and increasingly being heralded as the "ideal", "having the best of both worlds" (sounds familiar, no?). Yet like many countries, Japan has had a history of being less than kind to its mixed population. Multi Japanese people have been marginalized, discriminated against and othered. This history goes wayyyy back and is rooted in understandings of collective identity, national identity, kinship and community in Japan.

The Hafu project states, " While being a Hafu is often seen as something desirable in Japan, it is true that some Hafus are largely regarded as non-Japanese in Japan due to their non-Japanese appearance and blood line. The Japanese society is obsessed with collectivism and conformity. While on the legal level, nationality defines who belongs and does not belong to a nation, on a social level, people of mixed heritage are often subjected to ethnic and racial hurdles." So,  in thinking about these amazing Hafu multimedia and film projects, I've been reflecting first on the ways in which "half" gets used by both multi and non-multi people in describing mixed identity and second, how multiness and nationhood intersect-- who comes to "belong" to a nation and who is rendered a perpetual "other," or "foreigner"? (Stay tuned for "How Many Hafus Make A Whole: Part II!! Also check out Mia Nakaji Monnier's article Part Asian, Not Hapa)

(*Though, I wonder which "part" Japanese identities,if any, get centralized in the Hafu Project, ie: white and Japanese, black and Japanese, Chinese and Japanese, Filipino and Japanese etc... what role does Japanese imperialism play in terms of thinking about mixed racial subjects in Korea, the South Pacific or even Hawaii? In the U.S. multi movement, white and non-white identities are often central, which is also another reason why Kip's book was groundbreaking in it's inclusion of hapaness and multiness outside the white-non-white binary. Just a thought...)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Life & Times of Jazmine DuBois

I've loved The Boondocks and the warped genius mind of Aaron McGruder ever since his strip first appeared in the comics section of the Sunday Advance when I was twelve. He's been corrupting my mind with his satirical brilliance ever since....

I thought I'd do a few posts on multi people and the media and instantly the first image that came to mind was not Halle Berry, Keanu Reeves or Vin Diesel, but rather Jazmine DuBois in all her naive, doe-eyed, giant blonde afro puff glory.

Jazmine, and her parents Tom and Sarah DuBois are a really interesting part of McGruder's world and we could sit here for hours just breaking each of these characters down. Jazmine is bi-racial and when she's not busy praising Santa Claus (she thinks he's Jesus) she spends most of her time feeling "mixed-up," and defending herself from Huey's dry (yet hysterical) remarks about her identity crises. It's a little hard to tell where McGruder stands on multiraciality in the black community. While it may seem like everyone is always telling Jazmine to just "get over it" and come to the "black side" already, McGruder does treat Jazmine with uncharacteristic care and even empathy compared to many of the other characters, complicating her story while still relentlessly mocking her in a big brother kind of way, via Huey.

No matter where McGruder and his hosts of lovers and haters might stand, Jazmine and her role in the Boondocks world are definitely worth taking a closer look at....