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Monday, October 28, 2013

Mixed Heritage and Knowing We Still Have Work To Do

"When I think of heritage, I don't think of race"

"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
Union Cultural Center is a warm place full of twinkling lights and colors. There's an open ground floor for events/classes hugged by walls hung with instruments and art. Upstairs there's a loft that feels like home with area rugs, a futon, desk, partial kitchen and children's toys. Food is always central here, and the night of Mixed Heritage begins with a potluck. I graze on spring rolls, BBQ pork, mixed greens, and homemade banana bread. When it's time to start talking, attendees don't file into rows looking at a table of invited speakers. Rather everyone sits together in a circle with the panelists sprinkled throughout. Almost every chair is full with one of the most diverse groups of people I've ever seen mutually together in one space. There's an attempt to use a microphone, but it ends up being put aside.

Co-facilitators Leika Suzumura and Caitlin Romtvedt
Other than throwing out a few questions to panelists in the beginning (i.e. introduce yourself, what you do, how you identify as a person of mixed heritage, etc.) most of the evening is fairly unstructured and fully participatory. For some, this means just listening attentively, nodding and/or letting a parade of emotions march across their faces. For others who have a lot to say, this means speaking out. Listening and turn-taking are practiced respectfully. There's no interrupting, no invalidating or rudeness. The eagerness and excitement are palpable; the weight of significance hangs in the air. Everyone cares and that's why they're here. In the end I almost felt I gave less than I received there was so much to fill the room. Really it was quite beautiful. This is what the night gave to me...

People Care

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.

Mixed Meanings

My table display. Children's books about mixed heritage.
What does "mixed heritage" even mean anyway? I tell you I walked in with what I thought was a pretty comprehensive collection of ideas -- but ended up leaving with a million others. When I hear "mixed heritage," I certainly think multiracial. But Jabali doesn't because he grew up with 2 ethnically different parents involuntarily streamed into one racial box here in America (his mother is from Louisiana with Irish, Puerto Rican, and Cherokee heritage while his father is from Trinidad with Scottish heritage). One woman explained she feels mixed within the context of her native Mexico because her mother is very indigenous looking while her father's family tends to have fair complexions and lighter eyes. From stories like these I learned to understand "mixed" as a way more broad concept than I had previously thought; something that can actually encompass much and be claimed by many in different ways. "Mixed heritage" does not have to mean multiracial. In fact, almost everybody in the room, even traditionally "monoracial" people, identified as mixed heritage in some capacity whether it was racially, ethnically and/or culturally.

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


  1. yes - let's hope the butterfly effect continues.. thank you so much for inviting us, it was inspiring and informative. I could identify with some of the speakers, even though I am not mixed, just cross-cultural. the personal really is powerful.


    1. Really appreciate you coming out. It was great to see not only you but your WHOLE family there. So imp for our kids eh? One of the most profound moments of the night for me was when K, listening attentively to Saiyana speak about identifying as Japanese (i.e. Blasian), shouted out, "I'm Japanese too!"

    2. Yes, definitely. I basically spent my whole life trying to be white, and/or whatever else it was convenient for other (white) people to believe I was, and that seemed good enough...until now. As a parent I'm realizing that's not what I want for my kids, and that we do have a choice. I'm just beginning to learn (the terminology, that it's ok to talk about it, etc.) and I look forward to learning more.

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