Monday, February 8, 2010

Adopting a culture and an identity: Scott Fujita

In the different blogs that I periodically read, there are often debates about how appropriate it is to show your love and respect from a culture/ethnicity not of your own heritage. When does your fondness cross a line from appreciation to appropriation?

I was reminded about these kinds of conversations and debates when I first heard about Scott Fujita [tip of the hat to Angry Asian Man]. Fujita is a linebacker with the now Superbowl champion New Orleans Saints. And while it might be surprising that someone with the last name Fujita is large enough to be a lineman, what is more surprising is that Fujita is the adopted son of a Japanese American man and a white woman, with no biological or genetic ties to Japanese ancestry whatsoever.

[Aside: 2/8/10, 5:02pm: In re-reading the above sentence, I'm cringing at the stereotype I just evoked of Japanese (and/or Asian) Americans as being small or at least not large enough to qualify as lineman status (which I associate with being over 200 lbs). As anyone who is familiar with sumo culture in Japan knows, there ARE Japanese men big enough to be linebackers. Sigh. My apologies for this blunder--again, it just goes to show you that as much as you think you are savvy and sensitive to issues of race, even the best of us flub it now and again]

Yet, in countless interviews he has claimed that while he may not look Japanese or be biologically Japanese he identifies with Japanese culture and feels Japanese. Or, as he says in this piece below: he is Japanese in his heart.

What I find most intriguing about Fujita isn't just his cross-ethnic identity, it's his fight for social justice issues, especially ones that do not seem to be part and parcel of being an NFL player. Like his support of LGBTQ issues (last year he supported the National Equality March) and against anti-choice activitsts, most recently he spoke out very directly but respectfully against the Superbowl PSA sponsored by Focus on the Family that had an anti-choice message at its heart (click here and here to read about Fujita's principled stances).

Perhaps it's being a graduate of Cal-Berkeley--after all, Berkeley, even if you're a walk-on football player, is still a hotbed of liberal-progressive-radical beliefs (at least most of the country would like to think so. I don't think's it's as radical as others make it out to be, although there was the Naked Guy who went to class there in the late 1980s, and that was definitely left of mainstream). But really, I think it was the example of his family and their internment during WWII. His grandparents married quickly in the days leading to Executive Order 9066 so that they wouldn't be separated when they put people in camps (unlike in Canada, the U.S. actually did try to keep families together, somewhat). His grandfather ended up enlisting in the famed 442nd regiment (the most decorated unit of its size with one of the highest attrition rates) and his father was born in Gila River Internment camp in Arizona. Because of the war, the Fujitas couldn't pay the mortgage on their family farm in Ventura County and lost it. As I've written elsewhere, the Japanese American internment is one of the most shameful and under-recorded/unknown points of American history. Scott Fujita clearly understands how his family has been impacted by the internment and clearly feels the injustice of what happened to his family. But what seems remarkable is that he also seems to have channeled that sense of injustice into a larger sense of social justice for others, as an ally.

I know that there are folks from all ethnicities who will be troubled by Scott Fujita claiming a Japanese American identity. But take a step back and think about the radical potential of not just what his adoption shows but why he identifies as he does. His adoption of a Japanese American identity isn't just about eating white rice (as he says in the above video) or about having Asian aesthetic objects in his home (as this ESPN piece was surprised that he doesn't, until getting to his home office and seeing a large sculpture). Scott Fujita's adoption of a Japanese American identity seems as much rooted in a history of social justice causes as a celebration of culture, born out of his deep love and connection with his family.

And that is, perhaps, what makes Fujita's identity of being Japanese American one that has transformative potential. Because it's not just about the food. In the articles and interviews done about him, it's clear that he understands that it's about the history. Fujita seems to really get that that because of what you look like or who you love or your gender you could have basic rights taken away and that's simply wrong, and this seems to be a lesson he learned, in part, from his Japanese American family.


Anonymous said...

"Scott Fujita's adoption of a Japanese American identity seems as much rooted in a history of social justice causes as a celebration of culture"

This ties in nicely w/the fact that the label "Asian American" was first a political label tied very explicitly to social justice (& some activists nowadays bemoan that the label seems mostly to be used now just as a descriptor of ethnic background).

atlasien said...

Nice piece. However, I don't think I've run across a single comment by any other Japanese-American who thinks Fujita is some kind of impostor. As far as I'm aware, everyone has been very positive about him.

I'd call him Japanese-American. He even has much stronger ties to Japanese-American culture than I do.

Racially, he's white, of course. Scott Fujita represents a case where race and ethnicity seem to conflicting, but really aren't. I believe someone can be black and Japanese-American, Asian and Japanese-American, white and Japanese-American.

Paul said...

thanks for this video and your comments! i'm teaching david henry hwang's YELLOW FACE now, and this example is actually a really interesting counterpoint to the idea of racial passing brought up in the play.

Paul said...

also, i'm sure you've thought of this already, but his example would be fascinating to think through in contrast to transracial adoption (esp. korean adoptees) of the more typical sort--asian kids in white families.

your focus on fujita's fight for social justice issues as more central to his cross-racial identification than biology (or even culture) is definitely along the lines of critiques that people bring up about transracial korean adoption (where the children are brought up "colorblind" and thus unaware of social injustices and how to deal with and struggle against them).

macon d said...

Thank you for this thorough consideration of an interesting border-crosser. I wasn't aware of the extent of his racial/cultural identification.

IzumiBayani said...

Thank you for the "Aside" note, and even more so for leaving the original post intact. I really appreciate it.

I think it's interesting how it seems like there needs to be unusual, extreme, or lucky circumstances that need to occur for a "caucasian" person to understand, let alone be passionate about social justice issues. What about run of them ill white people?

IzumiBayani said...

Correction, "Run of the mill". Bit of a confusing typo. my bad

Jennifer said...

Thanks everyone for leaving a comment. I won't respond to everyone, but I did want to address IzumiBayani's last comment or query about run-of-the-mill white people becoming passionate about social justice/anti-racist issues.

Since I'm not white I can't really answer this, and even if I were white I'd hardly be able to speak for all white people.

But...I will say in my experience with my white friends who are also white allies in a number of social justice causes, there's usually some kind of epiphany moment and/or they were raised by parents who really hammered home a message of civil and human rights.

But I think in a lot of cases, folks don't often go outside the comfort zone. It's easy not to. I mean, at heart, humans are a rather selfish species. Case in point: environmental issues. We usually don't do anything about the planet and "going green" until it hits our wallets or until doomsday is upon us (or both). One of the reasons I'm in favor of higher gas prices, which I know is problematic from the pov of folks who really need their cars to get to work and who can't really afford that extra $1/gallon. On the other hand, how are we, as a society, going to shift our priorities to think more about the environment--or in the case of race, to really get that working against racism is an issue that ALL OF US need to care about.

[and she steps off the soapbox]

ps. I appreciate the props on my aside--I figure if you mess up, you should own it and learn from it and move on.

david said...

This post reminds me a whole lot of my grandfather. He's from Hawaii, born and raised, but not ethnically Hawaiian. He identifies with Hawaii and it's culture.

He's got different Hawaiian objects in his house; a couple ukulele's, a mask, and a lot of Hawaiian music. So even though he's not of Hawaiian ancestry he sees himself as Hawaiian.

Also, as a white person or "run-of-the-mill", I am passionate about social justice issues. I think white people on the West Coast are but I can't speak for everyone.

I also can't speak for my friends as well because most of them aren't white.

Jennifer said...

Hi david,

I also know non-indigenous folks from the state of Hawaii who identify as Hawaiian (or as local) even though they aren't of Hawaiian blood. I think with Hawaii it's tricky because there's the local culture of the state and then there's the indigenous Hawaiian people. But certainly Barak Obama seems like someone who identifies as a local--who calls Hawaii his home.

I am curious about your response to the run of the mill question and your assertion that being on the West Coast makes you more aware of social justice issues as a white American--why do you think that's the case? As a Californian (once one, always one, even while living in the South) I did have a lot of white friends who were passionate about social justice issues, but I mean, that's kinda the crowd I ran with--there's also that kind of crowd here, which I associate more with a university setting. But do you think that there is something particular about the West coast that's different from the rest of the nation?

m m said...

Sort of off discussion but I wanted to add that the only people considered Hawaiian in Hawaii are those who are ethnically Hawaiian. I'm born and raised from Hawaii and we use the term "kamaaina", "local" or "from Hawaii" for anyone of non-Hawaiian blood raised in Hawaii. I've yet to meet anyone non-Hawaiian here who would identify themselves as Hawaiian. But race is viewed and discussed very differently here.

Red said...

I really like Scott Fujita because of what he says and stands for and for being an example of cross-cultural adoption. Adoption is about bringing in a new member of the family and raising them in the culture of that family. Then of course SF's going to identify as Japanese-American. And I applaud him for it.

david said...

Well Jennifer, to address your question about my assertion that being on the West Coast makes a person more aware is the diversity of California.

There are a lot of minorities in California and, if I'm correct, has the largest minority population in the U.S.

Also, I have a lot of friends that are of different races and nationalities. Which has allowed me to learn more. Lastly, I'm looking at this topic as a person living on the West Coast who is used to diversity and knowing people of different races.

Christine said...

Awesome work. I'm Hapa and also adopting internationally. So I was able to relate. Its nice to see the opposite Asian /white family adopting a white kid, instead of the norm White parents adopting a visible minority child internationally, and how he affirms with the Japanese culture. Very cool. I hope you don't mind I put a link of your article on my blog.

All the Best


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