Those Beautiful Children
As a member of the mixed race club, I deal with people’s reactions to my appearance all the time. When I came across Callahan’s ruminations on rude/insensitive/ignorant remarks from a parent’s perspective, I thought “How wonderful it is to know that parents think about these things. That they want to help their children navigate their racial identity with honesty and self affirmation.
Here comes the big however.
A study (1) published in the June issue of the Journal of Asian American Studies suggests that the racial identity of children carried more weight/worry for Asian American mothers of mixed race children than it does for white fathers. It’s a small-sample, qualitative study of dual-professional mixed marriages. I’d love to read more about different permutations of interracial marriages, across class lines, and with a wider geographic dispersion. Because its an interesting conversation. Let’s continue that conversation, asking questions like:
How does my personal racial identity affect my choice of life partners?
How does my personal racial identity, and that of my partner, affect my children’s identity?
What are the compounding factors that make this conversation even more complex?
1. Chong, K. H.(2013). Relevance of Race: Children and the Shifting Engagement with Racial/Ethnic Identity among Second-Generation Interracially Married Asian Americans. Journal of Asian American Studies 16(2), 189-221. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Retrieved August 20, 2013, from Project MUSE database.
I followed the Trayvon Martin case as a spectator. I read the official news. I read the progressive commentary. And the president’s comments on the case. Especially this:
And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these “stand your ground” laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened? (via Garance Franke-Ruta)
If Trayvon Martin could have been the son or the younger self of our president, what could he have been to me? I’m not black, not male, not living in Florida. I’m just a little mixed-race woman living in Seattle. I’m nothing like Trayvon Martin, right?
Of course. If a strange man followed me in his car and then confronted me, what would I have done? What would I have been expected to do? Probably scream and/or mace him and/or kick him in the nuts before running like hell. Because as a small woman living in urban areas, I’m not the threat. Never assumed to be the threat. Strange men are the threat to me because I’m trained to be afraid of rape.
Whereas if Martin had kicked Zimmerman in the nuts and ran? I have a nasty feeling that would have been considered an attack. Or proof of guilt. Or at least a justification for Zimmerman fighting back. But if Zimmerman had followed me, confronted me, and then shot me because I maced him? We would have a very different conversation on our hands.
It’s the start of a new quarter. Just like in undergrad, us graduate students are busy meeting new people in all our classes, including written introductions for classes where many students are online.
That in itself is cool. Knowing people’s professional aspirations and existing skills makes picking project partners and study buddies much easier. My professional goals read something like this: I believe that our identities (racial, gender, socio-economics, sexuality, locale, etc.) have a gigantic impact on our worldview and the ways that people interact with us. I’m interested in the ways that digital technology can make information more accessible and increase social justice. My goal is to work with Asian American collections, historical and contemporary, to increase the visibility of and knowledge available about Asian American communities.
Too bad writing my professional goals makes me nervous. What I mean is I’m an Asian American, and my mixed-race heritage is important to me. I want to use my career to make sure that stories, poems, photos, etc. by and about Asian Americans are preserved and made available to anyone who wants them. I think this will help people build connections with each other and love their themselves more.
What I’m afraid people read is I’m an angry, self righteous person who loves Asian Americans best. If you disagree with me I will pick a fight that gets really personal and really uncomfortable incredibly quickly. Then no one will want to be my buddy, for studying or otherwise. But I write the truth anyway, because can’t let my own overactive imagination control me.
New York is now roughly 13% Asian according to a recent New York Times article, but that’s not reflected in city services or positions of power:
social service organizations that focus on (Asian Americans) receive only 1.4 percent of the Council’s discretionary allocations, and less than a quarter of one percent of the money for city social-service contracts.
The story isn’t new, even though the article is. Asian Americans are ignored for a multitude of reasons– because we’re stereotyped as the model minority, because language barriers make it difficult for many of us to engage with American systems, because our populations are increasing faster than public policy can keep up with, because our communities have such diverse needs, because we often lack a unified political front.
In Asian American populations, especially ones with large numbers of immigrants, we often identify first with our ethnicities because we have (or at least think we have) more in common. We fight as Chinese Americans, or Cambodian Americans, or Pilipino Americans. It makes sense in a lot of ways.
But this is a reminder: Asian American is a political representation of diverse communities that despite our diverse needs and beef with each other, share common racializations and forms of discrimination. It was created by activists of different ethnic groups who believed that our communities would be stronger if we united under one banner. Maybe the term has become so commonplace that we’ve forgotten why we made it, but it’s time to make use of the moniker.
In the realm of mixed race, what you look like matters a lot. No matter who you are on the inside, culturally or linguistically or politically, people treat you the way you look. This isn’t news, but it still matters. Generally I’m all for preserving culture and self identifying, and I know this sounds bad, but is there a point at which a person should stop trying to make their children Asian American?
The question goes back to the problem with defining Asian America. Asian America is a loose definition, originally designed to unite different ethnic groups into one powerful political group. That means that we can define who’s in and who’s out to preserve that political power and sense of community.
Does cultural identity fade as visible ethnic markers fade? There might not be a reliable formula for it, but I would say yes. If you have three white grandparents and one Asian grandparent, it goes to reason that the influence of the Asian grandparent might be less than the other three combined. Things get more complicated when the mixes get more complicated, and if you have a mixed race parent who strongly identifies with their Asian (American)ness. But I don’t think its an unreasonable expectation.
But should we consciously let go of cultural markers when our children stop looking Asian? If a woman who’s a quarter Asian has a child who’s an eighth Asian, should she let that child assimilate into white America?
No. I don’t think the kid should only identify as Asian American, that seems a bit disingenuous to his/her white heritage, but why let other peoples’ perceptions rob you of a unique cultural heritage?
Among “enlightened, progressive Asian Americans”, there’s a common pastime, which involves accusing other Asian women of self hate because they wear color contacts or lighten their hair to various shades of orange or yellow (I’m aware that I made some gross generalizations. Just go with it.). The reasoning is that these blond “self hating Asians sisters” are trying to look white instead of loving their own natural beauty.
While I do believe that there is something to be said about the pressures of conforming to Western Standards of Beauty, I think there’s something that needs to be pointed out. Having natural hair and eye color doesn’t mean that a woman is somehow more Asian American that their bleached counterparts. It’s not as if the only Asian Americans we see on TV are blond, blue-contacted, Asian Americans who look white. With the exception of Tila Tequila, the pattern is quite the opposite.
This season, two new shows feature Asian American women:
Maggie Q in the new Nikita
and Grace Park in the new Hawaii Five-0
Granted, I haven’t seen either show yet, but the previews both show slim, sexy Asian women who know how to fight. Let’s hope their more complicated that the average dragon lady.
Maybe the bleached/orange hair look is actually a uniquely Asian American look, a refusal to be stereotyped as an exotic, mysterious beauty. Maybe.
The conversation went like this:
A: You know, that guy ——.
B: No, I don’t know who he is. Which one is he?
A: The guy who lives at ——-.
B: What does he look like?
A: He’s the American one.
C: WE’RE ALL AMERICAN.
C: He’s the CAUCASIAN one.
Where’s the problem? All the people in the conversation were Chinese American. Person A was trying to describe a white guy who hangs out with a lot of Chinese Americans. And person C reacted to the implication that Chinese American and American aren’t the same. It’s what we call the perpetual foreigner. It’s an old story, it just doesn’t go away.