A recent media headline caught my attention, “Kamala Harris is Asian and Black. That shouldn’t be confusing in 2020 – but it is to some.”[i]
Confusing? Why? Not confusing to me. Not ever.
And in 2020? I suppose I should not be surprised. The US has been myopic when it comes to ethnicity and racial identity, and that is not going to change any time soon (laser surgery, contact lenses, or glasses cannot correct that kind of myopia).
Governmental politics aside, I am held by the fact that the notion of an Asian and Black identity was highlighted by an institution in the United States (US). The Fifth Estate rarely discusses Asian and Black identity and, if it does, it deconstructs it into separate monoracial categories – Asian identity and Black identity – and focuses virtually 100 percent on Blackness.
The only time it gives a nod to it is when it identifies someone of African-descent mixed race by his or her nationality, such as tennis star Naomi Osaka, who is Japanese and Haitian, but is identified in the media as Japanese because of her nationality. I have a US passport, but I am multiethnic, and navigate as Japanese and Black, regardless of what country I might be in at birth or by residence.
My mother moved to the US many years ago, but always said to me, “I am Japanese. I was born Japanese and I will die Japanese, wherever I go.” Spot-on. I am multiethnic, I maneuver the world as Japanese and Black, and I am a Japanese daughter; I was born that way and I will die that way, regardless of nationality. Hence, the genesis of this essay.
Oh, there is another reason as well. When Senator Kamala Harris was named former US Vice President Joe Biden’s 2020 vice presidential running mate for the 2020 US presidential election, some media sources asked me to comment on the fact that Senator Harris was Asian and Black. (Never mind that her Asian ethnicity is South Asian Indian and mine is Japanese; never mind that her Black ethnicity is Jamaican and my Black ethnicity is US.)
Suddenly, Asian and Black ethnicity became important to the media because it had entered the realm of governmental politics, a world that likes to hold the reins of identity in its grasp by designating race by country of birth rather than by ethnicity.
The governmental politics of the situation, however, are not of primary interest to me. The ethnic dimension and how it resonates in the realm of identity politics is.
The concept of a blended Asian and Black identity seems too difficult for the media – and most of society (including Asian American and Black American societies) – to grasp.
Recently, I read an article written by a Black male that addressed how tired some Black people are of hearing about mixed race people. Apparently, discussions about the challenges of living with two or more ethnicities is a topic to which he feels the media pays too much undeserved attention. A Native American and White writer could not understand why someone who is Asian and Black does not toss aside her Asian ethnicity in the name of Blackness. Can you imagine how he would feel if he were expected to deny his Native heritage and only identify as White, toss it aside as he might some sort of food that society doesn’t perceive he can have?
The world benefits from understanding ethnic perspectives outside of their own – slavery, the murder of unarmed Black people, Native American genocide, the female condition (which has darker ethnic elements), the World War II forced incarceration of Japanese Americans, the Holocaust, the immigration of people of color, war anywhere – there is so much to learn and I don’t feel any attention paid is undeserved or exorbitant.
I am Japanese.
I am Black.
I am some other things, too, but, being raised in a profoundly meaningful way by an immigrant Japanese woman, and having a father who had to struggle with the world’s attitude towards Blackness, my galvanizing essence is comprised of Japanese culture and Blackness. For the most part, I move on those pathways – although I will walk in the shoes of any of my kindred people.
In this essay, I am not reflecting upon the intricacies of all ethnicities vis-à-vis the concept of race in the US or any such racist positions about identity. Rather, I am investigating the intricacy of being mixed race with heritage that includes Black ethnicity in the hopes of raising awareness where there is none – or where there is supposed to be some, but instead there is only loud absence.
It is important for me to note that my Japanese cultural essence is not a contemporary one, but one that includes a Meiji Era-born grandmother and a Shōwa Era-born mother. The Japanese traditions and literature that were central to my upbringing ceased to exist in Japan many, many years ago. Contemporary Japanese culture is an altogether different animal. (Sometimes, it jars me.) My mother’s cultural traditions, literature, customs, ideologies, and worldview were my upbringing and are as entrenched in my DNA as my very blood. Neither do I apologize for those gifts nor turn away from them – ever.
Regrettably, many of my experiences in many cultures of color – such as the cultures of Latinos, Native Americans, Japanese, South Asian Indian, Asian Americans, and others – have caused me to face a wall of anti-Blackness that makes it hard not to be astonished. That is why when I hear the cry for “diversity,” I know that raising one’s awareness of cultures that are not one’s own is a responsibility that EVERYBODY faces, not just White people. Why do I think this? Granted, US school curricula conventionally have focused on White European American history and sidestepped those of BIPOC cultures. Many experiences, however, leave me no other choice except to marvel at the work so many of us need to do in the name of humanity. Sometimes people say the oddest things to me and, even as they are saying them, I think to myself, “Please don’t say that. Don’t say it, don’t say it, don’t say it.” However, they do; and the mind boggles.
An Italian American woman stared at me with contemptuous fascination and said, “May I touch your hair? Does it feel like steel wool?”
A Black woman said to me when I commented about the history of the murders of unarmed Black people in the US, “How can you possibly truly understand? It’s a Black thing.”
A Native American said to me, “Well, real Native Americans today are mixed with White. If they’re mixed with Black, do they really count?”
In moments such as these, I heave many a sigh (or yawn).
Another thing, it is interesting to observe people designating their race based on what country they were born in. For example, Non-Hawaiian Asian American friends and White friends born in the state (not even a country) of Hawaii, tell me they are Hawaiian. Black or White people born in Asia with no Asian heritage tell me they are Asian. Same for the United Kingdom.
I get that such people want to hold purchase in their identities by holding fast to ones that are dictated by the governmental authority of nationality and I get how society can have an impact on one’s identity, but when I consider a person’s seared-in-the-gut identity, first I regard who raised them, and the ethnic heritages of their parents and ancestors. Of course, it is up to them to choose how they wish to be identified.
Personally, however, I do not give a toss about where a person is born or languages spoken. I care about who they are, based on how their mothers raised them and their father’s influences on their upbringing. Society will bury mixed race into a hole underneath the sand box of humanity, but I never went there and am not going there. (In the vernacular that often infects social media and the Twitterverse, “You can’t make me.”) My parents’ ethnicities determine my ethnicity, not the media, social media, popular culture, personal whims given any respective sociopolitical climate, neighbors, nations, government, or anybody/anything else. I am multiethnic. Take it or leave it.
I realize many do not understand or accept what it means to be genuinely and sincerely multiethnic, such as looking across the table and observing parents from different countries, of different ethnic groups, and of starkly different colors. Stereotypes of tragic mulattoes, delirious half-breeds, and people passing for White (although the opposite seems currently to be the penchant for some) come to mind. Being multiethnic means that violet is both red and blue, but it is a new entity that is given a new name. If that makes no sense to you, then all I can surmise is that you want everybody to pick a governmentally defined category of race and be silent. Not happening here. I will not check a box; my multiple heritages are not distinct, but confidently and happily coalesced. When I am embraced by a community, they know that is my reality, no apologies.
Because I am not Black and White, which is the historical blending of races in the US along with Native Americans and Whites, and because I was raised by an immigrant Japanese woman, not a Black woman or a Japanese American woman, my multiethnicity and atypical multiculturalism can make people just a little uncomfortable. That discomfort, however, is not my problem. That discomfort should encourage those individuals to take a long, long look in the mirror about the genuine views of ethnic diversity that they wrestle with as their heads hit their pillows and perhaps do a little soul-searching. Fragility, indeed.
A few weeks ago, a White female professor said in an online meeting in which I was present, “Can’t we just park our ethnicities?” While I don’t think she meant any genuine malice when she said it, that is the point – these kinds of sentiments are buried in the subconscious and emerge seemingly out of nowhere in a manner that truly is not meanspirited. Emerge they do, however, and they add to the racial pandemic that has besieged humankind for centuries (and for which there is no vaccine).
Not only am I unable to “park” my ethnicity, but I also do not want to. I treasure my heritage and all the gifts my mother endowed me with in raising me on her own after my father passed away when I was eleven. This she did as an immigrant in a country that was hostile to her difference (even more so because she had married a Black man).
I live in a racist society that is polarized with an archaic and limited view of ethnicity as a Black-White duality. US society has manufactured ethnicity into a construction it calls “race” (I distinguish that construction from racism and racist) and largely defines US race as being Black and White. That means that, if one is not White, one, for all intents and purposes, is Black. That reduction happens most readily if one is mixed race with Black ethnicity. (A gay Latino activist of late stated, “She looks Black so why does she consider herself Japanese?” I equate such nonsense as being tantamount to, “She looks stupid, so why does she consider herself smart?”)
In an ethnically unenlightened and/or clueless US society (or any other such society), one is challenged time and time again to navigate that society with one’s darker race in the foreground. Many neighbors, friends, schoolmates, teachers, doctors, dentists, professors, business colleagues, shop persons, etc., operate with racially myopic behavior that derives from cluelessness and whatever dogma that cluelessness has embedded in their musculature, whether or not they are aware of that embedding.
Being Japanese and Black is a daily trial. Of course, there are many people I have met who accept me on my own terms as a mixed race person who embraces her ethnicities wholeheartedly. They are not the ones that make me pause and reflect on the Asian and Black identity becoming a topic in media. Many, however, do.
Sometimes Asians or Asian Americans express a cultural or sociopolitical need to embrace me as a member of their community, even though I still encounter anti-Blackness that makes me uneasy.
In the mixed race community, sometimes I experience another brand of that anti-Blackness from mixed race individuals who are part White and have no Black heritage (or think they don’t).
Sometimes Blacks also express a cultural or sociopolitical need to embrace me as a member of their community, but that expression usually is more of a challenge as in, “You may be mixed, but you’re also Black.” (I surmise that this stance is founded on the hypodescent theory of the archaic one-drop rule, but that rule has never meant anything to me because of its racist origins: it was invented by White slave owners to separate what was property [Black slaves] from what was not [White people]. Being able to label anything part Black as property was economic gain for White slave owners in that they could buy and sell more property, and also benefit from increased free labor that would sustain and build their wealth for generations to come.) That expression also often requires one to address only one’s Blackness and to dismiss even one’s mother who raised you if she isn’t Black.
In claiming their identities, I do not ask people to deny their mothers or prove who/what they are. I do not think someone isn’t who they are because they don’t look the way that the media says they’re supposed to look like. I do not think I am better than someone because my ethnicity is different from theirs or because my skin is lighter than theirs. I don’t say that people cannot possibly understand someone like Senator Harris because it’s a “mixed thing.” No, I think it’s unethical to throw up such obstacles. When groups throw them in my path, I consider them as immaterial as pebbles to be walked around. It might get stuck in my shoe for a second, but I’m digging it out and discarding it.
Since media sources ask me to comment on Senator Harris’ selection as Biden’s vice presidential running mate, I will reflect upon it. It is historic in many ways. Yes, it is historic because she is a Black woman and because she is an Asian woman. For those of us who are firmly mixed race, it is also historic because she is a mixed race woman and, for me, because she is immigrant-kindred. Like her Asian Indian immigrant mother told her, my mother told me not to let people tell me who I am, but for me to tell them who I am.
As a politician, Senator Harris must confront the complexities of the US voter. Some voters may embrace her Blackness, some may embrace her Asian-ness, some may embrace the fact that she is mixed race, and some may embrace the fact that she is a female. (Yes, I am aware that she also may be decried or embraced for other reasons, but, aforementioned, my interests are not with regard to the election, but with regard to ethnicity and culture.)
Contrarily and with equal (or even greater) force, some may denounce Senator Harris as not being Black enough or too Black: on one hand she may be perceived to be good for Black communities, but then the reality that she was raised by an Asian immigrant female may call into question her Blackness; on the other hand, non-Black communities will question whether or not a Black politician can represent their needs (although people of color have had White politicians representing their needs for eons).
I understand. I face different versions of this speculation as a writer and as a professor with regards to the right to write or teach about mono-ethnic groups of color because I am mixed race; and also with regards to speaking out about ethnicity and culture, which can make one unpopular with powerbrokers.
I am learning more about Senator Harris as time goes on. One thing I have learned is that her first name and one of my middle names shares the same meaning in two different Asian cultures – lotus. The plant grows underwater from resolute roots and blossoms above water. Notwithstanding what happens, I must continue to blossom in myriad ways and I will not be uprooted.
Racism creates toxic stress that has a deleterious effect on human beings and not just on the objects of racism, but also on perpetrators – we reap what we sow. All of us absorb (and proliferate) social stereotypes, but, left unexamined, they may lead us to behave in discriminatory ways that can have profound consequences on many dimensions of life, including higher education and the arts.
It is said that seventy-five percent of human beings possess a subconscious preference for Whiteness. I surmise that has generational roots, and that such beliefs are the origins of systemic racism and implicit bias.
Whatever you are or however you identify, I honor your choices. Do not let people tell you who you are; you tell them who you are. If they cannot or will not hear you, carry on and persevere.
“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/ Of people… whose skin is a diff’rent shade…/ You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late… To hate all the people your relatives hate…/ You’ve got to be carefully taught…” – Richard Rodgers from the song “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” from the film “South Pacific,” 1958.
[i] Nittle, Nadra. “Kamala Harris is Asian and Black. That shouldn’t be confusing in 2020 – but it is to some,” 12 Aug, 2020, Web. www.nbcnews.com. D/L on August 16, 2020 @ https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/kamala-harris-asian-black-shouldn-t-be-confusing-2020-it-ncna1236501.
Unless otherwise specified, all photographs are provided by the author and are part of The Velina Avisa Hasu Houston Family Trust. Permission to use must be garnered from Velina Avisa Hasu Houston, Ph.D.; H. Rika Houston, Ph.D.; or their descendants. All other photographs are from the Creative Commons, www.creativecommons.org, respective licenses noted.
1 – US Senator Kamala Harris, South Asian Indian mother and Black Jamaican father. “Kamala Harris” by Gage Skidmore is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/0f9adebb-a556-4e5b-a8db-70dc35570c44.
2 – The author’s mother as a teenager and in present day.
3 – The author with her sister and mother in Kansas, post-immigration.
4 – A historical photograph of a mixed race family in Australia. “Mixed race family in Queensland” by Aussie~mobs is marked under CC PDM 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/e519b9cc-0884-46b5-b745-4c48e94e1a38.
5 – A portrait of King Kamehameha the Great of Hawaii (when someone tells me they are Hawaiian, this ethnicity is part of the equation that comes to mind). “O’ahu – Honolulu: Bishop Museum – Kāhili Room – King Kamehameha the Great” by wallyg is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/7678948b-4bee-4404-b7c3-d5a9193ecdd5.
6 – Just how different are we? Masks from various cultures around the globe. (From left to right: (1) Polynesian mask (country of origin unknown), (2) African mask (country of origin unknown), (3) African mask (country of origin unknown), (4) First Nations mask, (5) Noh mask, Japan, 6) New Ireland, South Pacific. Photographs of various masks: (1) “Polynesian Mask” by Amaury Laporte is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/525e8330-feaf-42e8-8356-5a4785be7dc7. (2) “African mask” by Dowbiggin is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/239373f1-4f82-4390-a5fd-b9126833baca. (3) “DSC08919 African Masks” by godutchbaby is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/b76f7481-af18-49d3-935a-d49a750c5477. (4) “First Nations Mask” by ngawangchodron is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/023fba67-4d6a-4520-9083-43802671824f. (5) “Noh Mask: Kojo (Old Man)” is marked under CC0 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/cc0/1.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/77f2baa2-6e3a-45cd-8998-be72d2824986’. (6) “Dance Masks of New Ireland in the South Pacific” by mharrsch is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. D/L September 27, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/d3b9bd4b-0a8e-44bb-8899-a58fe8b3048a.
7 – Senator Kamala Harris. “Announcement of Senator Kamala Harris as Candidate for Vice President of the United States – Wilmington, DE – August 12, 2020” by Biden For President is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. D/L September 29, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/fb283f13-6448-483a-9857-21bc88ddda9b.
8 – Mahatma Gandhi contemporary art regarding his words, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” “You must be the change you wish to see in the world” by duncan is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/. Web. www.creativecommons.org. D/L September 29, 2020 @ https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/b9df53ad-6cd2-4565-9bf7-0fd848d53850.
9 – The author in Kyoto, Japan, 2012.