Thursday, December 20, 2007

How do I know I'm Asian American?

I seem to be fond of obvious questions: What is Asian American Literature? How do I know I'm Asian American? But the truth is, I think if you start to really probe beneath the surface, you can see that the answers are not quite so obvious and the questions were meant to be provocative rather than simplistic.

The inspiration for today's post came from the discussion thread two days ago that followed my post about humor (particularly ethnic humor). Click here for the link. The comments started to dialogue about difference, particularly race, class, and gender differences (and we can throw in a host of others, like nationality and sexuality but you get my gist). Is there ever a time in a child's life when s/he is an innocent being, either without an awareness of difference or without judgment surrounding difference?

And more specifically, when do kids start to recognize racial difference, to see themselves as raced little people and to have values associated with those observations?

Any social psychologists in the blogosphere?

I don't know if I can recall the first time I was aware of my racial difference. One childhood incident does come to mind of being with my immigrant Chinese father in a park (I'm coding him this way so you get a feel for what he looks and sounds like) and I'm probably four or five and we're flying a kite, and this blond haired boy comes out of nowhere and leaps around us. He does this once, and when he does it a second time my father calls after him and says "I know what you're trying to do, stay away from our kite!" and that's when I see the pocketknife in the kid's hand. He seemed so big, that kid, like he was a teenager. But maybe he was only 13. And what I remember distinctly was that my Dad was both angry and ashamed. I could, of course, be wrong--and maybe I'm ascribing to my father my own emotions--that I became embarrassed and ashamed that we had been targeted by this kid. And somehow, in hindsight, I think it had to do with the fact that the kid was white and we were Asian.

I fully recognize that I could be reading backwards into this--except that this anecdote is one I only told for the first time a year ago--because it was a memory I had held so closely with feelings of shame and embarrassment that I had never wanted to discuss it with anyone before. And I always felt it had to do with my father's Chinese-ness, so perhaps there was something I overheard, something my memory is blocking about the kid replying to my father. Something my father said under his breath.

At any rate, is this how I knew I was Asian American or Chinese American or at least not white? I'm not sure. But I do think that my recognition of racial difference began around the time I was 5, coinciding with going to kindergarten and public school and playing with other kids in my mixed-race neighborhood (hey, this was California after all, and while not a racial dream state in the 1970s, I still lived in a racially mixed neighborhood).

So I guess I'm asking you, dear readers: when did YOU recognize your racial difference from others and start to think about race? How do you know what race you are even today?

[coda: I want to be really clear and say that I am not using "race" as a substitute for saying "people of color"--we ALL have a "race" and in as much as we choose to agree (consciously or not) in the construction of this very real fabrication (see the post Getting rid of race (December 14) if you are confused by my mumbo-jumbo language), having a racial identity is something that all of us have, even if those of us of a darker hue may think about it more often].


Ara said...

I was certainly aware of other races in my very mixed liberal small down. I do remember the first time I realized I *saw* race. It was when I was 16. I was standing out front of my house waiting for my driving instructor to show up. He pulled up, got out of the car, and I immediately thought "Oh, he's black." I didn't think he was less qualified, etc, but it was the first time I realized that I expected people to be white--that it was a default for me. Even though I a wide variety of people.

So, now I pay attention to how I describe people. As a white American, I do fall into the trap of listing race first if someone isn’t white. Very rarely do I include the race descriptor if I’m describing a white person.

Since we’ve moved to a more Metropolitan area, my son has been to three different daycare providers. (He’s almost a year and a half) At all of them, he’s been the only white child. It is going to be interesting to see how his racial identity develops—I try hard to provide him with none hegemonic toys and books (anyone have a Kwanza board book? I haven’t been able to find one!) but the white norm remains so dominate in our culture . . .

I recently watched the scene in the first IMITATION OF LIFE movie were the little white girl calls the little black girl “black” and she gets upset. It intrigues me to think about the critical moments where children negotiate their racial identity with each other. It’s even more interesting to think about how parents and other adults “correct” those moments.

Is “Nobody’s born a bigot?” a true statement?

[Sorry, kinda took this in a different direction.]

Jason Clinkscales said...

It's an interesting question that is kind of hard for me to answer. See, where I grew up was a predominantly Puerto Rican and black community, but unlike most of my friends, I used to leave the neighborhoods to go to different parts of the city. So even though I had met adults of different races, it didn't really strike me until I met a kid that wasn't Puerto Rican or black. I must have been 8 or 9 years old and I went to the suburbs. I was surprised that he wasn't completely shocked at the sight of me and my siblings, but I could only assume that having a black neighbor (our pastor) shielded any potential blow long ago. For me, it didn't really hit me until the next day when I went to school and saw the familiar skin tones.

Of course, now, I admit to surprise when I see another black person when I'm at work (fulltime or through freelancing). That's another story into itself.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for your observations and recollections. And it's an interesting question: Is nobody born a bigot?

My gut says yes, but I also think socialization happens at such a young age, and as Dance noted in the "sense of humor" blog, even at the time one is an infant people start to react different to babies based on simple color differentiation.

Don't want to make you tell tales out of school, so to speak, but would love to hear more about the last bit you wrote in your post--about being taken aback when you see other African Americans in your workplace. I've just taken it as a given, for so long, that I'll be "the only one" as in, "the only Asian American, the only non-white person (and sometimes even the only woman--that's more on the golf course though) that I'm *almost* used to it--or rather, it takes me a second to register how abnormal my normal condition is when I DO see another Asian American/person of color/woman. So I'm just curious what your own experiences/observations on this phenomenon is now that you are in the adult work world.

Anyway, thanks to you too for your observations/comments about your earliest awareness of race.

CVT said...

My earliest memory of consciously thinking about the difference caused by race comes from somewhere around first grade (7 years old?).

I had this white friend who I would tell that I knew Chinese (I didn't). Of course, because I was mixed-Chinese-White, he believed every nonsense word I made up as true Chinese. That was just another kid, though.

When it REALLY hit me was when his mother was with us, and he told HER that I could speak Chinese. I figured that I was going to be found out at this point, because obviously an ADULT would be able to tell that my stereotypical sounds were utter nonsense. But when I went into my routine of making sounds and then "translating" them back to English - instead of calling me out, she found it "very interesting" and that was that. That's my first conscious memory of ignorance in action - and realizing that white adults were as ignorant of other cultures and race as naive children.

As a middle school teacher, I often have conversations with my kids about race. I have seen - on a few occasions - kids having that "a-ha" moment when they realize that - when given a choice - the students of colour all generally sit in one area, and the white students sit together in a separate area. It has led to some very interesting conversations. I even have a math exercise that explains how that can happen without overt racism or intentional segregation even being involved.

Personally, I think that the younger kids are when adults will have honest conversations with them about race - the better. Nobody ever had that conversation with me, and I still find myself struggling with figuring out how a mixed kid is supposed to move through a world where nobody includes him as "their own," and he doesn't even look like his family members. Suddenly, it's become my personal mission to have that conversation with my mixed students to try to give them that one adult that actually understands the walk between two worlds.

The best part of all this is the fact that neither side - white OR those of colour - are aware of the difference and want to legitimize this experience. Instead, I often find my view being ignored in favour of "browner" folks (by white people), or as "almost-white" by the folks of colour. A frustrating situation, indeed.

Instead of helping connect the two sides, I'm just stuck in a new, isolated category in the middle.

Jennifer said...

First of all, big kudos to you for being a middle school teacher. I mean, I know you must get a lot of lip service about, "Wow, you're a teacher how great!" or at least I hope you do. But SERIOUSLY--you have one of the toughest and most important jobs of anyone I know. And a lot of it is because of some of the things you just wrote about--you are on the front lines with these kids--and at this age, that pubescent to adolescent confusing age, well, there's a lot of hormones, a lot of confusion, and to have someone they can trust to help guide them is a big deal.

(By the way, I have a lot of friends who teach middle and high school so I hear it a lot and I have guest lectured in these classrooms and get a *teensy-tiny* taste of the joy/angst.)

I think the mere fact that you are willing to actually engage with questions of race is huge and I agree that it's a topic that should be addressed the earlier the better. Kids are sponges--they pick up on a lot and they certainly can sense things even if they don't yet have language to convey what they are picking up on.

Alright, I have to run, but thanks so much for the thoughtful comments.

And about the issue of mixed-race kids (and adults) being caught in the middle, I hear you. Have you checked out the Mixed Heritage Center website? I put in a plug for it a while ago. Perhaps just having kids realize that they aren't "the only ones"--that there are other people, even if not in their immediate vicinity/classroom/home who know what it's like to go through what they are going through would help.

In hindsight, I really wish that someone K-12 had introduced me to a story about someone who was Asian American (and I mean Asian American and not Asian). Just a short story, you know, that could help me to see that people who looked like me and who had similar experiences wrote literature or were part of history -- that might have made some of my confusion and angst as a teenager disappear.

Or maybe not--teenage angst and confusion does seem like one of those things that is endemic to all beyond race.

Jason Clinkscales said...

Not a problem really. It has happened a couple of times related to both jobs. The first time was related to my sportswriting gig. There aren't that many black writers in the press box when it comes to baseball - which in some ways, returns to The Color of Race - but when I started close to three years ago, I would notice once in a while when there was another black writer. Most of the time, I was the only one in a group of mostly white, Latino and Asian writers. Sometimes, the only other writer was a truly familiar face - it was my best friend, who also freelances.

The second 'moment' was actually when I began at my fulltime job. It has always been in the air, sort of speak, but at last week's holiday party, it came to light. There were a ton of folks I haven't met before or haven't seen in some time. I introduced myself to one of the account managers and she said "I always notice you in the office and there aren't that many black folks in our field".

The comments don't necessarily upset me as they may for someone else. Much of this is because I am well aware that I am at times the lone black person or at times, person of color, in a certain setting. As you said, Jennifer, I became used to it, but at the same time, it would hit me later on. In both sports media and advertising, fields I work in, I've approached it as I have when I was in a predominantly white college: I had tunnel vision when it came to the task at hand, but folks noticed I came to get the job done. Not to say I wasn't affable because for the most part, I consider myself as such, yet I knew that there were going to be more eyes on me than my majority counterparts. Ideally, I wanted people to see that just as them, I have to pay dues and get the job done. It's still tough, but the more people see me, the more they come to realize that I'm not going away.

dance said...

As said before--By the age of seven, I had noticed the paradox that the earlier your ancestors came to America, the better--unless those ancestors came in slavery, in which case, never mind.

That's my first concrete memory of race, but it's also one of my earliest memories, period.

I grew up in northern California in the 1970s/80s, and in a *very* multicultural and mixed-race neighborhood and family setting, so I suspect that for several years before 7 or so, difference was very normalized. That is, I didn't attach judgment to difference because I was trained to think "different" was the natural state of things.

Jennifer said...

Jason, thanks for sharing. I do have a follow-up question, which is, when the co-worker commented that she had seen you around and/or noticed that there weren't a lot of AfAm employees in your company, did you appreciate the honesty of the comment (and the obviousness of it) or did you feel it was un-necessary and perhaps unwarranted on her part to highlight your "only one-ness" state or your racial difference, even if it was meant in a good spirit.

I have found myself on both ends of this kind of commentary--that I have made that comment to someone else before (either something along the lines of, hey, we're the only 2 AsAm people, or more specifically in my department, I was frank about it with the (then) only AfAm male grad student we had in our midst--something to the effect that when we did meet I acknowledged his "only one-ness" state--I am going to surmise that he wasn't offended by the fact that he would come and chat with me on a regular basis when I had my office door open--I suspect further, in this context, that he may have been relieved to have someone say something so obvious that he, himself, had been feeling (as he later acknolwdged to me), which is mostly why I said it--because I know when I was in grad school I wanted SOMEONE to say,'Hey, it's sometimes lonely/hard being the only one huh?"

But I also know that having someone point out your "exceptional" racial state can also be exhausting and, depending on your mood, the absoltue wrong thing. So perhaps this all has to do with the context of a situation.

Dance, sounds like you and I grew up in similar parts/circumstances (I don't think it will give too much away to readers to invoke the word "Hayward" since I made nary a splash there since I left at the age of 18). At any rate, thanks again for sharing your observations (and personally, I think it'd be a hoot if it turned out our paths had crossed somewhere, you know like at Music camps or something -- and yes, as a violin player of 7 years I went to LaHonda Music camp and hit the pinnacle of my career with the first violin chair doing Pachabel's Canon).

Finally, for you more regular blog readers/blogger, is it overkill for me to keep responding to people's comments? I think I'm treating the comments like email messages, which means I feel like the polite thing to do is to acknowledge them (and for so long I was getting so few comments that I did it to spark debate or to continue the conversation).

But perhaps, not so necessary? Would welcome thoughts from anyone in the blogosphere on the etiquette of having the blogger make comments to the commenters.

Jason Clinkscales said...

Actually, I didn't take issue with it. I think a major part of it is that the industry has had issues in recruiting non-whites to the point that there has been some governmental interference (or at least grandstanding) in the past couple of years. So I have been quite aware of it. On a more personal front, I've become used to it, even if at times I wish that it wasn't brought up. I think because she was rather good looking eased any potential disaster as well (a poor excuse, I know).

I'd elaborate more, but I'm on the way out. Enjoy the holidays and/or time off.

baby221 said...

Finally, for you more regular blog readers/blogger, is it overkill for me to keep responding to people's comments?

I'll answer this one first, cause it's a shorter answer. :) Basically, it depends on the volume of comments. If you're getting upward of, say, 25 comments per post, you might want to respond to batches of comments, instead of each one individually. Heck, I do that and I only get maybe three or four comments like, ever. :p So your mileage may vary, but basically it's good blog etiquette to at least participate in your own discussions :)

As for

when did YOU recognize your racial difference from others and start to think about race? How do you know what race you are even today?

Actually, I had this whole long answer all typed up, and then I remembered that I actually wrote a post about this exact topic not too long ago. If you don't mind my shameless self-promotion, you're welcome to read it.

baby221 said...

Also, @cvt: Having a middle-school teacher like you probably would've gone a long way toward legitimating my identity. I'm hapa and while as an adult I've chosen to live in the in-between spaces of intersected identities (pansexual, multiethnic, transgendered), as a kid it would've done loads for me to be exposed to that kind of bridge-building. As it was, I got stuck talking (or shouting) in pretend-Tagalog at kids (and sigh, sometimes adults) who assumed that I must be able to speak the language. I feel you there.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for the practical advice about commenting--I really did start this blog to have a conversation, so I agree that it just seems not only polite but necessary that I chime in when I can, because I do want to have a conversation and not just monologue about these issues.

And I welcome all forms of shameless promotion of one's own blogs (or other forms of writing) when they are related to the topic of this blog--namely about race and other forms of anti-oppression (I already left a comment on your blog so I'll hold off here, except to say that I thought it was powerful).

Thanks for taking time to join the conversation over here at MRA.