Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Authenticity Trap

Last week I did a workshop at the ECAASU (East Coast Asian American Student Union--an undergraduate collective of East Coast students who are interested in Asian American issues and/or who identify as Asian American) annual conference titled, "Authentically Asian American." The workshop was really about identity--about questioning what this phrase even means--to question, most of all, our notions of "authenticity."

It was really wonderful having this rich conversation with so many smart students. And I was struck by many things--first and foremost, the number of people who showed up for this workshop (I think it was around 80) demonstrated how eager students are to have a space to talk about issues of race and identity. And the kinds of comments, questions, observations, and testimonials from the students (who were largely but not solely Asian American) also demonstrated how they don't often get a chance to talk about these issues candidly, in safe spaces, and with their peers (I was the oldest person in the room by a good 15-20 years).

But what I wanted to write about today was this whole idea of "authenticity"--and the ways in which we get caught up in this notion that some people are more "authentic" than others. And that each of us has wondered, at some point, whether we are also "authentic" or whether we are fake and frauds.

[Aside: I'm going to stop putting quotation marks around the word "authentic" for the rest of this post since I think that everyone gets the point I'm making that the whole notion of "authenticity" is suspect--and that I'm in no way endorsing a singular and real or authentic vision of what it means to be a "fill-in-the-blank"]

Among the students chiming in with their opinions were several who identify as mixed-race. And these students, in particular, spoke very meaningfully of feeling that because of their multiracial makeup, charges of being inauthentic were often either leveled at them or they had internalized these feelings.

The interesting thing about what these students shared (and it echoes what multiracial students of varying backgrounds share in my classes at Southern U) is that aside from very personal/individual issues, what mixed-race Asian American students are concerned about, in terms of feeling inauthentic, are what many monoracial students feel.

For example, one issue that came up as denoting authenticity was language--that if you spoke an Asian language, the native Asian language that matched up with your ancestral background, that made you more authentic than the Asian American who spoke only English. And this is an issue I know all too well. In fact, recently during my office hours last month, I was thrown back in time when talking with one of my Asian American students.

This student, whose parents are immigrants from China, was raised in a bilingual household. She came by to talk about a question she had about our class and then she asked me whether I spoke Mandarin or Cantonese (she knew I was Chinese American). When I told her that I spoke neither, her jaw literally dropped and before she could help herself she said, "Why didn't your parents teach you how to speak Chinese??"

All of a sudden, I felt inadequate and defensive. While I'm positive my student was not questioning my credentials nor trying to make me feel bad in any way, the questions I've had to field, from Asian Americans and non-Asian Americans alike, about why I don't speak Mandarin or Cantonese, always makes me feel as if somehow I'm being marked as deficient in the eyes of my questioner--somehow my credibility, my AUTHENTICITY, is being questioned and seen as suspect. And when my parents get invoked--when the question becomes why my parents didn't make me learn Chinese or make me enroll in Mandarin classes--I definitely feel defensive because I am defending my parents from the implicit charge that somehow they did something wrong.

I shared this story at the ECAASU workshop because I wanted to show students that our ideas of authenticity are traps--they constrict others into fitting into singular definitions of who we think they should be--and it creates stereotypes about various groups. If to be authentically Asian American one should be fluent in an Asian language that matches with your ancestral heritage, this presumes that both parents are also fluent in the same Asian language, that someone grew up in an area where they could speak and practice the language among a whole group of people, and/or that their parents are of the same linguistic if not cultural and ethnic background. Which means that the Asian American multiracial person, the Asian American adoptee, the second or third generation Asian American, or the Asian American person who had only one parent fluent and another parent who was also monolingual--these people feel left out and somehow deficient.

I do want to make clear that the issues and concerns of multiracial students, Asian American or otherwise, are unique--and I'm not trying to take away from the experiences of mixed-race Asian American students in talking about language frustrations--mixed race Asian Americans may, indeed, be fluent in an Asian language that matches up with one of their ethnic heritages. But I share this story and raise this question of authenticity to demonstrate the ways that we so often, unconsciously, walk around with feelings of inadequacy--and that this feeling may be shared by more of us than we realize. After all, we are all authentically human (well, except for the sleeper cylons out there--that's for any BSG fans reading this) and if we're human, it means that we make mistakes and have flaws. And we have many, MANY differences (I don't want to suggest that we're all human and therefore race doesn't matter--I would NEVER make that claim)--but maybe what we should realize in getting out of the authenticity trap is that if someone identifies with a racial group, s/he has specific reasons for doing so and we should respect those reasons and try not to let the authenticity trap dictate whether we want to allow that person into our group.