S. Yumi Yamamoto
A Mixed Review
Updated: Nov 6, 2020
I have been sitting with this blog for months because, even as I write this now, I am still vastly unsure of how this will be taken. This is my experience moving through the world, my perspective, and yet I'm afraid that somehow this will receive backlash. With the US as divided as it is, especially now in the middle of an unprecedented election count, I feel that I have no allies. My own cousin will not read this experience and see it for what it is, calling me a racist for daring to take a look at race relations as they play out on a personal level. I am reminded that, even though we are both half Japanese and half White, we are not the same. We have moved through the world so differently and been treated so differently that he has come to one conclusion and I have come to a different one. I know I have thought this through, and yet, this doubt eats at me from the inside. Perhaps that, if nothing else, is the reason to put this out in the world.
Recently, obviously, there has been a lot of discourse about race. It has brought so many poignant points about what it means to wear your race, what it means to live in your skin, and why the old discourses don't work anymore (and perhaps that they didn't really work in the first place). I, as a light-skinned individual, cannot and will not comment on colorism and how it affects a person. That's not my story, and as much as I try to understand what that experience is like, I have not lived that experience and I likely never will take on the full gravity of it.
However, I, as a mixed-race individual, have had a difficult relationship with wearing my body and my identity. I've had a difficult relationship with labels like POC. I've had a hard time conforming myself into boxes, feeling like an imposter each time I try, and being looked at differently because I don't fit nicely into one label.
As a young, angry undergraduate, I remember having a conversation about an article we were reading in a Global Studies course. I ranted at my friend (who was majoring in the subject) about how I hated that this author pointed the finger at White people and kept painting minorities as victims. I didn't disagree that minorities had a disadvantage, or that what he was saying didn't have merit. I hated the fact this article put me in a difficult position because I am half White and half Japanese. Racially, I am both victim and perpetrator. I am forced to choose a side, and yet neither will claim me. I don't look and don't act Asian enough to sit with the Asian kids, and the White kids look at me either as something exotic or (often) as the token Asian to make them feel more diverse. How could I sit there reading this article about race relations when I was taken out of the conversation entirely?
Bless my friend for being as patient as she was. I would have slapped me.
But we both had points. Hers was that I wasn't taken out of the conversation: mixed-race is a racial minority and thus was included in what the author of the article was saying. People of mixed ancestry are not given the same privileges and treatment as the race of majority/power (in our case, Whites), and thus the divide exists. Just because the article and the author didn't specify mixed-race didn't mean we weren't included. This is true, and the thing I failed to see in the article.
My point was that mixed-race kids are put in a difficult spot, and that is a unique experience that is usually left out of general conversations about race. Our voices are largely left out because it's not neat and tidy, and we're just told what we are. And often, we aren't given a choice. Our legal names determine how we're treated, as do our faces: how our skin color presents, what features are most prominent, our family traditions, where we grew up, what religion we practice, and where we choose to go in the world. If we happen to be White-passing, we are treated differently than if we are not, but our mixed-race status is still the same. That experience is not the same as those of us who "look ethnic", but our mixed-race status is the same. It's all chosen for us by people who aren't us.
So yes, I am part of the racial-minority conversation, but mixed-race isn't one experience like it is to be full Chinese or full Black or full Mexican. Even those "experiences" aren't ubiquitous, and yet there are more threads connecting those of "full blood" than those of mixed status. And heaven forbid if your "other half" is White, because that throws a huge wrench in your identity as a minority. Often, this is overlooked and ignored. People have chosen for you that the White half of you doesn't count because that complicates your existence being a POC. The clearest example I can think of is how Barack Obama is half black and half white, but the racial discourse surrounding him was always him being "a Black president". Yes, he is black, but he is mixed. This is also true of Tiger Woods, who is Black, White, Thai, and Chinese by blood. Yet, he is labeled a Black golfer. All complexity of identity is stripped down to one thing as it presents on our skin and our faces. Perhaps that is because how we look is how we're treated, but it doesn't change the fact that we are mixed.
Even the term "mixed-race" is loaded with protocol and policing about who can use it. When I lived in the UK, I dared not call myself mixed-race because I was told it implied that I was Black... but what else to call myself? I was just Asian. Why? Because my face "said" I was Asian, so that's what I was boiled down to. (It didn't matter what kind of Asian, either. I was asked if I just got off the plane from Hong Kong by a cabbie even though I speak with an obvious American accent.) I used to very proudly call myself happa, which is a term coined in Hawaii and used largely in the LA Japanese community I grew up in. It is a repossessed term that means "half", but implies half Asian and/or Pacific Islander. And like I said, happa is repossessed: that used to be a derogatory term for people like me because we weren't pure-blooded. I've been told that the Japanese term "hafu" (again, literally "half") is largely derogatory. I was introduced to the concept of "blood quantum" while studying in Hawaii (which I still don't fully understand especially as it relates to Indigenous peoples and legality), but the biggest take-away point is that blood matters and that we have traditionally policed that blood.
I feel White when I'm with Asians, and I feel Asian when I'm with Whites. My Asian friends only see my face for the White parts. My White friends only see my face for the Asian parts. Heck, even my other POC friends only see my face for the Asian parts, barely acknowledging the Whiteness that presents. I used to play a game with my friends and ask them what I looked like, and do you know how many people have ever said I looked "mixed"? Two. I can't tell you how often I've looked in the mirror and dissected my features: my nose is like my father's, as are my eyes and the shape of my lips, but my coloring is like my mother's. And my brows. And my upper row of teeth. The bottom row of teeth is like my father's and his whole family. I hated my eyes as a child. I wanted them to be smaller, more almond-shaped and mono-lidded like all my friends, like all my Japanese family had. I wanted thick, straight, black hair like all my Korean and Chinese friends. When I turned 18, I went out and purchased Revlon box dye from Rite-Aid in the blackest shade there was and fixed my hair. I "fixed" it, because that's how I saw my hair: defected.
Most women have issues with their looks for one reason for another. My insecurities were wrapped up in the fact that no one looked like me and, even as a child, somehow I knew I had to commit to one side. It took me years as a child to learn that, strangely enough, a lot of the Asian girls wanted to look like me (brown hair, double eyelids, large eyes) when all I wanted was to look more like them. It then took me years as a teen and a young adult to realize that my Asian looks were fetishized and that the attention I garnered was less about me and more about my Asian-ness. As an adult, it's taken a lot of anger and confusion and slamming up against discourse to accept that I am not represented, and it's likely that within my lifetime I never will be. My representation is found in the full-blooded Asian actors, models, activists, and other public figures because they speak to the marginalization I feel. I have to be okay with that. I have to be okay with creators who talk about their perspective as a full-blooded person and fail to recognize the mixed children listening to them. I have to be okay when I hear things like "you colonizers don't belong here" and stop questioning whether or not that includes me. I have to be okay with seeing myself as half of the problem and trying to untangle why I'm so angry all the time.
Maybe that's why I hang onto people when I hear they are mixed, and immediately feel a kinship that isn't earned. Maybe that's why I've never spoken about my race and have such a hard time talking about my culture. All of it feels borrowed; like it isn't mine and I have no right to it. There is something to be said about the systematic erasure of culture, and the effects that have had on a family psyche (particularly on a family that has been the "enemy"). I feel White because I am a Southern California girl who lived in a comfortable middle-class suburban American city, but I'm not. I know I'm not. I enjoy fish for breakfast and eating undercooked/raw eggs. It feels weird to wear shoes in the house. I took odori rather than ballet when I was little. My favorite time of year is obon season because there are special foods and dances and celebrations that feel like home. It hurts to hear racial slurs aimed at Asian people, and I get defensive of the misconceptions about Japanese people and their traditions. And those things hurt more than the slurs aimed at my White family, of which there are admittedly very few.
Maybe that's what it comes down to: the hurt. It is a unique hurt because often we are unique. My experience as half Japanese and half White is different than my schoolmate who was half Korean and half White (and who was blonde, green-eyed, and over six feet tall); and it will be so different from my cousin's kids, who are half Mexican, quarter white, and quarter Japanese with the last name Yamamoto. And their experiences will be different from my other cousin's children, who are half Filippino, quarter White, and quarter Japanese. My experience is vastly different than my sister's, who has darker skin and wider features and curly black hair. All of our hurt will be different, and there's no place for us to seek refuge for the damage done. Of course, things will overlap, and of course, there will always be those who try to heal the wounds. But, ultimately, the complex nature of our being will not be understood.
We don't discuss our tally of benefits and disadvantages in the wider scope of racial discourse because we are too complicated. We are quiet because it's not our turn. We stand with our POC fellows because, at the end of the day, we can't ignore the tragedies and injustices that affect us and our families. We may not look the part, or act the part, or be fully accepted by everyone as "enough", but we are there whether you acknowledge us or not.
And so, so often, you don't.