"I'm just Japanese"
"I'm just mixed"
"I consider myself mixed within the context of Mexico"
"I just feel whole because I'm human"
"I'm confused. What box do YOU want to put me in?"
* * *by Sharon H Chang
My head is swimming as I sit here wondering how to begin. On Saturday night I had the distinct honor of sitting as a panelist for Mixed Heritage at Seattle's Union Cultural Center along with youth speaker Saiyana Suzumura and Jabali Stewart, Director of Intercultural Affairs at The Bush School. The event is part of an annual series Dialogues of Resistance & Healing funded by a recently awarded 4 Culture grant. The dialogues are a forum for folks to come together around issues, conversations and art forms that are important to the community but often underrepresented. That formally and technically said, these are no ordinary dialogues. You won't find yourself sitting in a conference room with stock commercial carpeting and fluorescent lights; over-warmed, under-cooled by artificial air and a central system; eating bagels and cream cheese, muffins or veggies off a Costco party platter.
|Panelist Jabali Stewart|
|Co-facilitators Leika Suzumura and Caitlin Romtvedt|
And they're willing to show it. Researching and writing on race/ethnicity can be fascinating, illuminating, and celebratory. But in a world where ethnoracial order continues to determine the worth of a person and the value of their life, more often than not my work ends up very overwhelming, discouraging and depressing. The digger I deep the more pervasive I understand racism to be. Sometimes I wonder if we will (or can) ever change and a deep hopelessness descends upon me. I look around and see people constantly avoiding, refusing to take action in even small ways, deferring blame and/or dismissing problems as "somebody else's." So you can understand when I say one of the most inspiring things I took away from Dialogues was a room full of people who care and want to make a change.
Personal is Powerful
There is so SO much power in testimonial. Medium of delivery has shifted greatly with modern technology (e.g. Internet, film, TV) but we have ever been a race of people who are beautiful storytellers and who love having stories told to us. What is often missing from today's lightening-fast-too-busy world however (in which we are more likely to interface with microprocessors than actual human beings) is the opportunity to be still and hear the words straight from the teller's own mouth. This uncommon opportunity was something very special Mixed Heritage gave us Saturday night. When asked about early race memories, panelist Jabali remembered in 4th grade trying to figure out why Black kids called him "white" but white kids called him "nigger." Panelist Saiyana remembered visiting Japan at 5 or 6 years old and eating with Japanese friends who were very accepting but also much lighter-skinned than herself. "You know you never think about your hands," she said thoughtfully as she recalled suddenly looking at her hands that day, seeing her brown skin, and realizing, "Oh yeah. I'm mixed." It doesn't get more real or visceral than that. And when it comes to undoing racism, this is where the spark is ignited.
|My table display. Children's books about mixed heritage.|
Race, Power and Pain
Nevertheless try as we might we couldn't keep the conversation away from the subject of race and hurt which is ultimately a conversation about the ways some groups of people are advantaged over others. As one attendee said, "Race gives people solace and it gives people power." Another relayed her anger when first moving to America from Mexico; seeing the comfortable lifestyle of the American people, knowing it was sustained by the labor of her people, then looking to how her own country is so poor. It occurred to me mixed heritage discussions often go down this road because being "mixed" at its core demands the question, "mixed" what? Great recipe - but tell me the ingredients? Then as we start digging we often find ourselves very conscious of color/culture line-crossing and the ways it can collaborate, but also collide. And what causes so many of the collisions? Right. Imbalance of power. For example growing up there wasn't a day in my life I didn't notice my dad's Taiwanese accent and how it caused him to be treated like a foreigner. It certainly left me wondering if can we ever talk "mixed heritage" without talking about race, power, and privilege -- or if the two are inextricably intertwined.
We Still Have Work To Do
Where we got stumped is exactly where I found myself re-energized. And this was my final great takeaway. As the evening came to close, children started melting down, adrenaline wore off and tiredness gripped the bodies of grownups I heard in words, in-between the lines, the question -- what will our future look like? On the one hand people seemed to feel mixing might mean the end of race and hope for a better future. As one participant said growing up, "Mixed race people were the only ones who got it." Another participant optimistically felt, "It's a better world now - I hope it keeps getting better." On the other hand 12 yo Saiyana, a child of our future and proud of her mixed heritage, showed us that race mythologies/oppressions persist. She related being profiled by a museum security guard who identified her as Black at the same time Black peers at school refuse to acknowledge her multiraciality. Indeed some attendees felt, "If you go deep into the stories, we are not learning the lessons," and that, "We continue to feed the guiltiness and the hate." There was hope at the same time there was concern. Everyone agreed resistance dialogues are essential but also seemed to wonder, what else can we do? I realized it can be hard to have these talks and feel little or no resolution. But I also realized sitting with that uncertainty can be one of the most important parts of effecting change. Because it keeps us thinking and questioning. It keeps us edgy. And it reminds us to keep trying because we've come so far but we still have so much more to do.
A big THANK YOU to the Union Cultural Center, event organizers, panelists and all who participated in this great dialogue!!!
We made a ripple