As a fellow Japanese-Studies scholar, I feel I ought to comment on Maggie Thorpe’s “You don’t have to be mixed-race to have a mixed identity” in The Seattle Globalist. Although the article begins as a review of the Under My Skin exhibition at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle, Thorpe, a white grad student at University of Washington, uses the themes of the exhibition to discuss her personal identification with Japanese culture:
I became infatuated with Japanese culture when I was 8. Growing up in the southwest, I was like many white American youth, feeling “vanilla” and “boring” because I did not have a culture that was easily definable. So I found something else that appealed to me. These days, my co-worker announces frequently that I am the most Japanese at the Japanese restaurant I work at. The restaurant owned by a Japanese man, and staffed by mostly Japanese-American workers. When a Japanese pop song comes on the radio that I admit I don’t recognize, or there’s a reference to an anime I don’t know, I’m teased for not living up to my Japanese-obsessed reputation.
The article is problematic, to say the least, and Laura Kina, one of the artists Thorpe quoted, even clarified her stance in the comments:
While I appreciate the coverage of my art and the “Under My Skin exhibition” at the Wing Luke Museum, I would like to clarify a few of my quotes in this article by Maggie Thorpe as my quotes appear to be out of context and have come off as implying things I did not intend.
“People are increasingly ethnically ambiguous,” Kina explained. For example:
“People can choose what they are. Race is not the primary indicator of identity. For me, I have chosen to be a part of the Japanese-American community.”
There were three threads of conversation here that have been collapsed into a statement that does not entirely make sense now. The missing parts had to do with notions of “post-race,” which I recall critiquing and also balancing with an explanation of the way racial ascription works – we can’t control how others perceive and treat us. Changing legal definitions of race also impact our individual and communal identities. Yes, it is true that I choose to be an active member of the Japanese American community in Chicago. That was a whole other conversation about cultural and ethnic identity and community activism, which is connected but different than race. I’m sure I talked to her about the difference between Okinawan identity and mainland Japanese identity and how geography, generational identity, class etc. impact even this ethnic identity. Since I remember I had this conversation while I was waiting for my daughter to get out of Hebrew school one Sunday, I am sure I also talked to her about being part of a Jewish community.
Maggie Thorpe asks a provocative question, “With this concept in mind, do you have to be mixed race to be mixed? Can a white person be considered mixed?” I think she is trying to talk about her own sense of having a hybrid identity but the edited quote from me to support the affirmative answer about mixed race is also out of context: “Whiteness is considered the default category,” Kina said. “However, what is whiteness is an equally strange thing. If a white person identifies with the Japanese-American culture, then we do not care about their motive. We want them to participate. It’s all about supporting the community.”
I remember Maggie asking me how I feel about “white people” attending Japanese American cultural events. The underlying implication seemed to be a question about how I feel about white people who are infatuated with Japanese culture. I did not answer that question directly but rather spoke about how many of our Japanese American cultural events are open to everyone to participate and enjoy and that includes Euro-Americans hence the “We want them to participate.” Being and consuming another culture is a different story. In regards to “whiteness is an equally strange thing”… I remember discussing how even this category is not fixed; not so long ago Italians, Irish, and Jews were not considered white. Min Zhou’s 2004 article “Are Asian Americans Becoming White?” is a great article to read in this regard. To talk about “whiteness” we have to talk about white privilege and anti-blackness and that’s not “vanilla and boring” but it can be very dangerous.
I would encourage you all to go visit the “Under My Skin: Artists Explore Race in the 21st Century” exhibition at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience and make your own assessment of the show. Maggie said the show is “is part of a growing movement that says our racial identity is a personal choice, not a fact of birth.” Here is how the Wing Luke describes the show on their website:
In “Under My Skin,” 26 artists share their creative visions of race – the brutal realities of racism in the past and present, the ways race shapes the immigrant experience, and the hope that can be found in the complex realities of race in daily life. The exhibit invites visitors into a thoughtful conversation about race in the 21st century, and beyond. “Under My Skin” is on display at The Wing from May 10th through November 17, 2013.
To throw in my two yen from the perspective of a white woman with an MA in Japanese studies and time working abroad, I, like Maggie, initially got interested in Japan because of anime. At 15, I thought Japanese culture was fascinating–and I still do–but I have no pretensions that it is better or worse than American culture, or the Midwestern culture in which I grew up. At the risk of being overly vague, some things in Japan are done well; some are deeply flawed–and that’s true of
I have never felt like like my “whiteness” makes me boring or “vanilla,” and to suggest that those of us who are white were looking for what Thorpe insinuates to be a rich, exotic culture to appropriate is insulting. I also like ancient Roman culture, but not because I am dissatisfied with my family background or upbringing, but because learning about culture in general is fascinating. On a more personal note, I embrace my German American Midwestern heritage, and I find Midwestern history is fascinating, by the way– but there are cultural reasons why I left that part of the country. It was not a good fit for me and I’m critical of my Midwestern roots, to be sure, but studying Japan and moving to Japan were not “solutions” to the Midwest or the US.
I’ve also been told–and so has every other linguistically and culturally fluent expat abroad– that I’m “more Japanese than a Japanese person,” and I understand the sentiment the speaker is trying to express even though the phrasing is awkward, but my response is that I have an MA in Japanese culture. I studied to be and am now a professional with a deep working knowledge of Japan’s language, history, and culture. Had I studied American Studies instead, I would not be “more American,” but I would have a deeper grasp of culture and history, presumably. At the same time, I recognize that there are many, many things I don’t know yet, and that’s why I keep studying and reading and learning and questioning even though I’ve graduated. Culture is not a monolith; culture and cultural narratives are diverse, ever-changing, and endlessly complex.
The current general dialogues about cultural appropriation, recognizing privilege, and actually discussing identity politics in both academia and on feminist media have been incredibly useful for teaching me to try harder to see outside myself and approach culture and gender from a diverse, inclusive, intersective standpoint, which is precisely the point of the exhibition. I feel at odds sometimes with my appreciation of Japanese art and aesthetics as a result, and I wish I could tell people, “No, I study this culture; this is not just to seem ‘exotic’”–but even that is problematic, the thought that I am ”better” for studying it at the graduate level (as Thorpe apparently does as of 2013).
To change topics slightly, for those raised in Japan who are not ethnically Japanese to identify as Japanese, something I’ve pointed out in my writings on the word gaijin and the problem of exclusion, is different. I loathe “the g-word,” but my rejection of a racist label does not mean I consider myself Japanese. I will denounce “Japanese only” taiko groups as much as I will denounce the white-washing of American films. I would be interested to know more about non-natives applying for Japanese citizenship feel about how they fit into Japanese society, honestly, because the American melting pot/tossed salad narrative and the Japanese homogeneity narrative are so very different.
While I can only speak for the personal identity of myself, participating in multiple cultures, cultural identity, and cultural appropriation are far more complex issues than Thorpe articulates here, issues so complex that, despite the narrow focus of this post, I doubt my ability to discuss them adequately in this space. The beauty is that the exhibition DOES articulate the questioning and unease, the uncertain nature of “who am I?”, “where did I come from?”, and “who do I want to be?” I can’t tell you who you are, but Thorpe’s article goes to show the need for discussing cultural identity and identity politics with the complexity they deserve.
While I hate ending on “an old saying” and personal experience, there’s a joke among grad students that goes something like, “when you get a bachelor’s you think you know everything; when you get a master’s you realize you know nothing; and when you get your PhD you realize no one else knows anything either.” Humility is critical for success at the graduate level, and so is deep introspection about your background and place in your field in terms of how you interact with the work and your peers, especially in humanities and social sciences. Thorpe’s justification of her identity seems like middle-school identity play. Adolescent fantasies run in the realms of the mundane–usually “I wish I stood out from my peers by being cool and ‘exotic’” if you are an average member of the majority, or “I wish I fit in better with my peers so they wouldn’t tease me about my appearance or culture” if you are somehow physically different–as well as the fantastic: “I wish I were the reincarnated princess of the Moon Kingdom and fought galactic evil and had a hot boyfriend/girlfriend.” This does not read like the work of a budding academic. We all make mistakes, but when insensitive mistakes about your field are published on the Internet rather than just suggested in questions in class, it’s not just a healthy learning experience about checking your privilege and growing with your peers in school; this may actually negatively impact your academic credibility.
For more on commodification, cultural appropriation, and cultural imperialism, I encourage you to check out Sociological Images. Also, my friend Mia Monnier wrote a really stunning essay on her mixed racial identity on her blog which was also featured on Mixed Race Studies. Have more resources and suggestions? Leave me a comment!