KAMALA! Black and Asian Biracial Identities
Crossing racial borders through storytelling.
Posted Sep 17, 2020
Kamala Harris and Naomi Osaka have brought attention to identities and experiences of people of mixed Asian and African heritage, something I’ve studied for nearly 40 years. Harris and Osaka each have their own unique heritage and identity, as do all the people I have met and interviewed in the U.S. and across Asia. While they are individual stories, they also illuminate the ways in which communities historically socialized to see each other as polarized opposites and as competition and comparisons actually have much in common.
Artistic expression is a way to create and empower an identity. This reality came alive to me a few years back at an event, “Black and Yellow: Blasian Narratives.” Directed by Jivan Atman, it featured students from Stanford joining a group from Morehouse and Spelman, two historically black colleges. The students presented both monologues and interactive storytelling. Their diversity was stunning, Asian being Korean, Chinese, Sri Lankan, Japanese, and Vietnamese, with diverse forms of Black as well, from the Caribbean to Ghana.
“Blasian narratives” were intimate and critical dialogues about race. The presentations showed the complexity of lives that cross borders and enter liminal and marginal spaces, where creativity can flourish. Each person, in their own unique way, expressed their identities-in-flux, as if they were re-creating it right there on stage. As I watched them perform, I remembered the words of the identity scholar Erikson: “Identity consciousness is overcome by a sense of identity won in action.”
By bringing forth their selfhood, these and other Blasians are asserting their right to know and be themselves. This is important when others want to reduce you to something they are familiar with, by classifying you in one of their racial boxes. While acknowledging the critical concern with how they are perceived by others, they also proclaim the right and ability to self-define and assert themselves.
They are connecting to the diverse parts of themselves and in so doing, connecting with wider communities of people, cultures, and histories. This process of creation is healing and empowering for both individuals and communities. They are also testing how much unity there is in such diverse experiences of Blackness, Asian-ness, and Blasian-ness.
Another form of creative identity expression is writing. I do this in writing about my own mixed identity and also gathering the writings of others. Good writing can articulate the intimate and complex nature of identity development.
Scholar Mitzi Uehara Carter, whose story I have told in When Half is Whole, uses the phrase “Grits and Sushi,” for her form of Blasian. For Mitzi, “Black” is African American, and “Asian” is Japanese, so “Blackanese.” More intimately, “Japanese” is Okinawan, so she’s “Blackinawan.”
“Our bodies, our presence, our reality are a nuisance to some because we defy a definite and demarcated set of boundaries. We confuse those who try to organize ethnic groups by highlighting these boundaries because they don’t know how to include us or exclude us. We are Blackanese, Hapa, Eurasian, Multiracial.”
Mitzi’s uses these terms in a way that does not exclude her from other groups. She was racialized in the U.S. as a Black woman, and culturally and ethnically is Black and Okinawan. She worries that identifying as mixed race could bolster neoliberal discourse of multiculturalism by evading a serious discussion of the socio-historic constructions of race so that a more celebratory idea of “mixedness" is showcased.
Expressing the dilemmas of mixed race is a role that ethnic artists and writers can take to a higher level where they provide insights and conceptions of how we might heal ourselves from what most deeply divides and threatens us. Mitzi and the young Blasians I saw on stage are creating a revolutionary consciousness by actively connecting to all their parts and engaging in activities that bring others together. Those in the audience may reflect on their own identities, feel empowered to look deeper into their own history, and reclaim the power of the resilience of their people and ancestors. In the sense of oneness that is created, we cross borders and connect to ourselves and others, healing the hurts of human suffering caused by the illusion of our separateness.
Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, When Half is Whole: Multiethnic Asian American Identities. Stanford University Press, 2012