Half a Motherland, Part 1: Labels
Should I get this "Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders for Hillary" shirt? I mused last November, my finger hovering over the laptop trackpad as my eyes darted back and forth between t-shirts on the Hillary Clinton Store webpage. Am I Asian-American enough to wear it?
I asked an acquaintance once about the topic of identity politics and group affiliation. We were hiking in a group, and I remember thinking about the subject, wondering who to ask, and immediately looking at her--the sole other half-Asian in the group. The other girls had golden ponytails that caught flecks of burnt amber from the setting sun.
"Do you consider yourself Asian-American?" I asked her.
She shook her head. "Not really."
I ended up just buying a black shirt, with "Hillary" in printed in blue on the front. I went running in it once. There was a man out on a walk with his 5-year-old daughter, all pink puffer jacket and strawberry-blonde hair. I smiled at her; he saw my shirt, and gave me a spirited thumbs-up. I wondered briefly if he would have, if the first words he had seen were "Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders for"; would he have even kept reading, or would those words have been a signal: This shirt is not for you?
These posts are not for you.
High school: summer rolling around meant seeing a spate of posts on Facebook from Asian-American friends about "going back to the motherland" and "HEADED BAAAACK to [insert country name here]." I always hit "Like" with a kind of wistful feeling, the way you like that Instagram photo of a beautiful classmate in athleisure who you simultaneously envy and wish to be. I hit "Like" knowing that there was something of these posts that was of, and yet not of, my world.
Posts about internships and research grants quickly replaced those posts about trips to the motherland as the grasping hand of Gainful Employment snatched away college students' summers wisp by wisp. But those posts made me ask a question that I still haven't been able to answer: if that non-US country is my friend's motherland, what's mine?
This question became much more important in college, when I started wondering about what identities I fit into, what associations I could claim. Coming to Berkeley it seemed profoundly important to have one, maybe a couple. There were clubs for every ethnicity, interest, or desire. Call it prejudice or snap judgment, but you learn quickly what identities can be divined from a glance: what sexual orientations, group affiliations, majors, origins could be ascribed to someone with the right color of hair or a certain number of piercings, second language or favorite conversation topic. Maybe they'd even announce those identities themselves.
Especially as the American right persists in dismissing identity politics--throwing it into the same refuse barrel as their dreaded "PC culture" and "liberal snowflakes"--it's crucial to celebrate identity politics and its potential to bring vital stories into the light of public consciousness. Think Black Lives Matter, public support for trans students, or protests against Islamophobic policy--the sustained energy in all of these movements stems from a willingness to make recognition of identity central to your politics.
At the same time, identity politics are not infallible, and I argue that we need to carefully consider the origins of many of our classifications of identity and how reinforcing them may be counterproductive; the dangers of overzealous "gatekeeping" of identity; and the potential for cultural "pride" to become dogma, and our identities, far from being liberating, to become gleaming cages.
Edward Said writes in Orientalism, "No one has ever devised a method for detaching the scholar from the circumstances of life," and true to form, the questions about identity politics that have motivated this Half a Motherland series of posts all stem from a selfish root: that perennial question, where do I belong?
Part 1: LABELS
Whose classifications are we using?
The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. - Audre Lorde
I'm living in New York with my sister one summer. We sit down at the bus stop near Columbia University and a black woman in a deep purple skirt suit sits beside us.
Without any prompting, she declares, "Ni hao!" and waves at us. "I could tell you were Chinese," she says cheerily, "you know, from the eyes." She reaches up to her eyelids and pulls them to the side, making her eyes slanted, narrow slits.
Adrianna and I exchange shocked glances and laugh uncomfortably. The woman (a Jehovah's Witness looking for converts) later got on her bus. Adrianna and I sat there and discussed in shock how one never expects that egregious of a comment from a fellow minority--the horror!
In her 1993 article "How Native is a "Native" Anthropologist?" Kirin Narayan writes,
"For those of us who are mixed, the darker element in our ancestry serves to define us with or without our own complicity. The fact that we are often distanced--by factors as varied as education, class, or emigration--from the societies we are supposed to represent tends to be underplayed."
Therefore Tiger Woods (half-Asian) is "black."
And the one-drop rule applies to Asian-Americans too: one Harvard Gazette article discussed this with the subtitle "biracials viewed as members of their lower-status parent group," and adds that "individuals who were a 50-50 mix of two races, either black-white or Asian-white, were almost never identified by study participants as white."
Therefore I (half-white) am "Asian." The lady in NYC was no fluke; she thought about my race the way most people would. She only made the mistake of saying it out loud.
I blame history. There's something of identity politics that relies on the colonial logic of the dominant race: that is, understanding race as a static, scientific sort of classification resistant to change. Scientific racism implicates many disciplines, from physical anthropology to biology; the idea that races are fixed biological categories, with their own characteristics, has been used to justify countless abuses throughout history. UNESCO said in its 1950 statement "The Race Question” that "'race' is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth,” one that has “created an enormous amount of human and social damage."
To build a sustainable politics based on race, you need endogamous association (ingroup marrying other ingroup members) to assure inheritors to that politics; otherwise, you end up with people neither of one world nor the other, unsure of their allegiances. That's why endogamous association is so important to groups that feel the continuance of their specific identity under threat, and there are a lot of them: whether Orthodox Jews, high-caste Indians, or racist white people on Stormfront forums who laud men of certain minorities for staying away from white women (yo NSA, my internet history is all because of research, OK?)
Mindy Kaling even took a jab at the subject in an episode of The Mindy Project, "The Coconut Question": in one scene, she's walking with an Indian-American friend in a store when a white woman calls them adorable and she comments to her friend, "Why do white people love seeing people of other races date within their race so much?"
Mindy answers her own question with this: “I think it’s because it’s segregation that they can feel good about.”
I find it amusing how terrified white nationalists are of mixed-race children. But I can also see how our existence makes it hard to lean on the same old easy categorizations. A childhood friend recently posted 23andMe results on Facebook with the caption: "Got the results of the DNA test back and I finally have an answer to the age old question, "what the hell are you?"" What followed was a breakdown of ethnic ancestry from Europe, East Asia, South Asia, and Oceania, prompting a flurry of excited comments and one that stuck out to me--"Oh my god dude, I'm glad I'm not the only one who can't easily answer this ["what the hell are you?"] question."
What are the identities that these "what the hell are you?" people should cleave to?
The existence of people like my friend, and his friend, complicates race-based politics. They also reflect the reality that without endogamous association, identities won't remain static across multiple generations. Indeed, identities may not even be static within one generation: Hanna Haddad writes in this Berkeley Political Review article about the problem of defining Palestinian-Americans for Census purposes as white, and the popular emergence of "SWANA" (Southwest Asian and North African). With a change on a form, people could be rendered non-white, presented with an official recognition of a new identity.
But new forms of recognition don't provide solutions for those of us who can't justify forming new categories of identity in the first place. You'll never find a "1/4 South Asian, 1/4 Oceania, 1/4 East Asian, 1/4 European People's Club" on a campus anywhere, because the cartography of identity was never charted for the people born on the borders.
Instead, the cartography of identity was charted for the people in power. Historically, the American government has been intimately interested in quantifying what it means to be "ethnic." Take Native Americans for example: “blood quantum” is a term used to refer to the fraction of your ancestry certified to be Native American. This fraction is used to answer a binary question: are you Native American, or are you not? It’s tremendously politically loaded. Whether or not you get to "count" as Native American can determine whether or not you receive certain benefits and protections under law, not to mention the psychological and cultural importance of being seen as authentic in your identity.
Prior to the Civil War, the Cherokee and some other Native American tribes enslaved African-Americans in a pattern similar to their white counterparts. Black slaves accompanied the Cherokee in the wake of the Indian Removal Act. After the Civil War, the Treaty of 1866 ensured that these freed men became full-fledged members of the Cherokee nation.
But in 2007, the Cherokee Nation decided to expel descendants of these African-American freedmen, citing their lack of “Indian blood.” In one New York Times debate on the subject, Syracuse law professor Kevin Noble Maillard wrote, "Real Indians were created by Real White People," going on to say that white policymakers wanted to
"take away Native communal ownership and replace it with private possession...But to give away all the land, federal officials had to answer the question: "Who is Indian?" White bureaucrats (not natives!) classified applicants of mixed Afro-Indian ancestry as Freedmen, while full-blood and mixed-blood white Indians became Citizens by Blood. Paradoxically, white European ancestry did not categorically threaten membership, but black ancestry was a likely trigger for Freedmen status. The Holy Grail of "Indian Blood" comes from the federal government."Associate professor at Hofstra Law School Rose Cuizon Villazor stated bluntly, "It is ironic that tribes that have themselves been subject to racial discrimination through the federal government's use of blood quantum rules have now adopted the very same rules to promote their own sovereignty." My sister wrote an essay on the subject of blood quantum in which she argued that its modern-day applications force Native Americans to play the often uncomfortable game of gatekeeping (a role once occupied by white Americans, like Henry L. Dawes of the Dawes Rolls fame). Ultimately, the color of the gatekeeper really doesn’t matter. The power is the same: these temporal St. Peters stand at the not-so-pearly gates of cultural and racial identity.
This gatekeeping makes the writer Gary Younge, who has written an entire book on the subject of identity politics, uncomfortable; he said in a Salon interview that
"gatekeepers...affect the material conditions of people's lives...A gatekeeper's job is to say you can only do this and you cannot do that. There is the price of entry to be what you are, so if you want to be a member, this is what you must pay. And if you transgress this, then you're cast out. In order for that to work, philosophically, the nature of the identity has to be fixed. It can't change with time and circumstance. For gatekeepers to make sense, the identities that they evoke cannot be fluid."When I was a child, the spectral figures of these gatekeepers terrified me. I ran headlong toward whiteness every time I looked in the mirror. I thanked my lucky stars that at least I had an eyelid crease, while desperately wishing for the green eyes and red hair of an Irish lass. Sometimes the ghosts of those desires traipse between my lashes again. In the university Counseling and Psychological Services meditation group I’m in one semester, we look at ourselves in mirrors and I find myself thinking back to a messy tangle of thoughts that resolve themselves in the sharp clarity of the glass: Too Asian.
At other times, I wonder if I’m Asian enough. In childhood I slogged through 4th grade in Saturday-morning Chinese school with a puppy-like desire to fit in, to be as Chinese as the girl with the perfected Beijing accent. In high school, I sat with a largely Asian-American lunch group. I wished that my family were conventionally Asian enough to be invited to the boring “Asian parties” that my friends had the luxury to complain about.
During Halloween in Berkeley, I see posters on cultural appropriation, scattered everywhere in the dorms, declaring “MY CULTURE IS NOT A COSTUME.” White Berkeleyans are (mostly) too “woke” to dress up as Pocahontases or Mulans. I wonder what I’m allowed to do.
One day I shop for costumes at a vintage store near campus. I look down at the thick lustrous pile I have clutched in my hands, rayon and taffeta and gingham all spilling out between my fingers, and realize that I don’t know if I’m overstepping with the spate of vaguely Chinese-looking dresses I hold in one hand. I frantically look up articles on EverydayFeminism.com about appropriate situations for “ethnic wear” and realize that there’s nothing about people of mixed backgrounds. Do we get to wear more? Are we supposed to wear less? Aside from the elementary “stay the f**k away from blackface,” what are the rules?
I wonder, too, about the idea of culture as a costume. My freshman-year roommate once explained her abiding disgust for cultural appropriation this way: “In elementary school, these white kids would make fun of me for my food ‘smelling funny’ because it was Indian. And now I see them getting likes on Instagram because of henna on their arms. You don’t just get to make fun of me for being Indian and then turn around and wear a bindi at Coachella.”
|Fig.1 for "What Not to Do at Coachella."|
Do you get to wear a culture as a costume if the only tenuous link you have to that culture is the color of your skin? For some, culture is skin-deep. It’s a glittery outfit to be trotted out of the closet when it’s “cool,” it’s the “sari not sari”-captioned Instagram photo before going home to jeans.
Maybe my discomfort, standing in that vintage store in Berkeley, was less with my divided race and more with my undivided cultural agnosticism. I didn’t feel Chinese enough to feel that I wasn’t appropriating if I were to dance out a dress with a Mandarin collar.
I have never dressed up as anyone non-white. Felicity this year, the Greek goddesses Nike and Athena the years before, Little House on the Prairie’s Laura Ingalls Wilder before that, a spate of cliche drugstore-Halloween-costume witches before that. The most ethnic I ever got was when I was three years old and my aunt and mom wrapped my sister and me head to toe in Kirkland Signature toilet paper. We were mummies.
There are non-white folks in history, mythology, and activism who would make for more interesting Halloween tributes. What about Cleopatra, Nur Jahan, Empress Theodora, Rosa Parks, the Mirabal or Soong sisters?
When one Chinese-American friend told me that she was thinking of being Frida Kahlo for Halloween I remember warning her that it might be interpreted by some as cultural appropriation. She raised her eyebrows in surprise.
That Halloween, I minced into a party wearing a pink-striped vintage frock that swished at my feet--I was Felicity Merriman, the Revolution-era American Girl doll. I twirled. I curtsied. I reveled in period costume and the feeling of not stealing anyone’s culture.
But when my friend waltzed in, red shawl draped artfully on her shoulders, flowers in her hair and a dark unibrow flawlessly penciled on her skin, I felt a twinge of envy.
Next October 31st, I probably won’t stray from my prairie girl/Greek goddess tradition. Somewhere, there is always someone who is much better at performing Chinese-ness, Asian-ness, POC-ness, than me, someone who will never question their own birthright to a costume, a hairstyle, an accent. I am not that person. If I weigh in on issues of cultural identity, an Asian friend will quickly remind me, non-maliciously, that I’m half white. So when I come running toward those vaunted gates of cultural entry, I pause when I get there. I look a gatekeeper in the eye. She looks like me.
There are other strands of identity, not just cultural, where gatekeepers play a role. In LGBTQ movements, people who identify as bisexual frequently have to reiterate their authenticity and fight for visibility. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the subject of “Bisexual erasure.” Then there are groups of people for whom the rigidity of existing labels may cause challenges--Amy Sohn’s light-hearted New York Magazine article “Bi For Now” describes the challenges of women who came out as lesbian, only to later end up in heterosexual relationships (who Sohn describes as “hasbians”). In this narrative, “hasbians” present a threat to the marginalized communities they step out of, while male partners interpret their unclear sexual orientation as threatening. The article quotes comedian Deidre Sullivan, saying: “The hasbian is very threatening because she crosses in and out of a sacred space.”
No wonder some are drawn to larger terms of identity--Maya M writes in Bustle that she uses the word “queer” to identify herself, rather than lesbian, because it is “a word that actively resists definition.”
The first time I met someone my age who identified as queer was in high school. We were sitting across from each other at a table in a Redmond Regional Library meeting room, talking about an event that we would collaborate on planning. She stated it -- “I identify as queer” -- flatly, without even the hint of a pause. In my head, an exclamation point lit up in neon pink even as my face stayed neutral. What does that mean? I thought. I was not a “woke” fourteen-year-old--no Tumblr, no forays into radical feminist theory. It was 2011, and I didn’t know what to do with a term like “queer.” So I translated it to something more easily digestible: lesbian. I guess she likes girls, I assumed, and thought no more of it. Assuming that “queer” equaled “lesbian” meant some form of knowledge, some form of power--it was a term that I could look at and say “I know who you like,” neatly filing you away with Ellen DeGeneres and Wanda Sykes. But “queer?” What a mysterious, big-tent sort of word. It lets you render yourself more unknowable to the casual observer, and this is a powerful thing: in a word, it lets you say that someone else has no especial right to know the composition of the bodies that live in your dreams.
But even such an umbrella term quickly falls prey to the same forces of gatekeeping and exclusion that render other labels intimidating to those unsure if they make the cut. In “Am I Not Queer Enough for the Queer Community?” Sarah Gladstone writes, “Sometimes I have to amend the assumptions about my sexuality by clarifying that yes, I like girls, but I like boys, too. I’m left feeling sheepishly ashamed, apologetic, exposed. No one’s ever said it, but I feel like I’ve let them down, like I’ve tricked other queer folks into believing that I am queer enough to share their spaces. The outline of my being blurs, my mirage settles into angles that just don’t quite seem to fit, and I’m left feeling like I’m occupying a space I’m not queer enough to take.” Jennifer Wong writes in “Not Queer Enough,” “People beg queerness to be visible in a way they would never demand of heterosexuality.” There are entire advice columns geared toward the individual struggling to be seen as queer by others.
Berkeley is home to a number of people who wear queerness on their tattoo sleeves, comb it through neon-colored undercut hair or reflect it in gleaming steel piercings. I felt like the odd girl out in my freshman dorm room; I was the only one without a tattoo or a piercing, the only one who, one Valentine’s Day (how sappy of me) started steadily dating a cis hetero man. “You’re so straight, Adora,” my roommates would say lightheartedly, along with disappointed sighs that they hadn’t managed to “turn” me.
They hadn’t been there at Student Orientation, in a dusky room with a bunch of newly admitted students students noisily daring each other to strip and kiss and make out. They hadn’t seen me lean in toward another girl on a dare--she had a boyfriend then, but she said “he says girls are OK”--and kiss her. The noise stopped. And then she pulled away and gave me a momentary, eyebrow-half-raised glance. “Woah, don’t get too into it,” she said warningly, and then she laughed. I wondered if there was something wrong with the fact that I had liked it, that a moment practically engineered for the teenage male gaze had felt like something I would do without anyone daring us first.
They hadn’t been there at the last hurrah of my post-high school summer, the last party I threw in the old Redmond house where I grew up before we moved away forever. I wrote in my journal, “I ended up kissing her twice that night, S. once, B. once, and H. once. They were all brief, free kisses. We cuddled on my bed like so many pigs in a pile and it was warm and beautiful in all senses of the words…”
They hadn’t been there in Berkeley’s Hearst Gym pool, the day we got to play water polo. None of us knew how to play, so we all gathered by the wall like fish in a tank clamoring for food, waiting for the PE teacher to explain the game. There, gripping the slippery black marble ledge with wet hands and panting from the exertion of too much treading water in the deep end, I caught myself staring for a moment at a classmate. All about her head, animated droplets of water caught the sun, and they adorned the ends of her close-shorn hair like a net of jewels. I drank in the picture for a moment. Suddenly I grew self-conscious of my gaze and looked bashfully away.
Once I stand in line for pizza with a friend and she jokes about wishing she were lesbian, because it would be “easier” than dealing with the flaws of the opposite sex. Later we look at art and she comments that our light-hearted banter on the subject was probably insensitive. After all, people don’t choose their sexual orientation, she commented in the tone reserved for Things That Are Certain.
I wondered out loud, “If someone’s sexuality was fluid enough that they, like, could be lesbian, it just wasn’t as easy, could they make the joke about wishing they were?”
She looked at me blankly. “I think if it takes work to be something, then you’re not that thing.”
I tried to explain, feeling acutely aware of not having presented enough identity qualifications, or perhaps the wrong kind. “No, not ‘more work’ exactly...just like...they don’t know? Like their sexuality feels kind of moment-dependent? So sure, they’re straight for all intents and purposes now, but maybe once, they could have not been?”
It occurred to me, too, that I could have said something clearer: “Well, I might be queer; I don’t really know, and anyway, I’m in a straight relationship.” But it would have been clearer for her, not for me.
In the end, I wondered if this ineloquent sexual indecision registered to her, just as “queer” had once registered to me, as simply another version of some more rigid category that she could understand and then file away--a knowledge built on a lie, gathering dust in the card catalogue of her mind.
Edited on May 18 to add an additional section.
Next up is Part 2: Pride.