Maikiko James

What Are You?

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Personally, I’ve found that this question can be an invitation to some really great conversation. Chinese, Japanese, and African American by descent, I’ve been thought to be anything from Filipina to Hawaiian to Latina. It’s funny what appearance lets you get away with. I have friends from all those backgrounds and I feel comfortable being around a lot of very distinct groups. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that when I am around a particular group of people who all identify with one of these ethnicities, I feel a little out of place. Not because the people are unwelcoming, but because I find myself wondering if I am Chinese, Japanese, or Black enough to ever truly belong.

This doesn’t mean that when I’m with my friends I get incredibly insecure or worried that they look at me differently because I’m not really one of them. What it comes down to, because they are my friends, they really could care less. For most of my life, race wasn’t really an issue. One could attribute it to the fact that there is no color to pigeonhole my skin into, or the fact that I grew up in an urban area surrounded by people of all colors and backgrounds

This all started to change when I entered college last year. I joined the multiracial student club at New York University (NYU) and all of a sudden my racial make-up was a source of discussion and a reason to attend all sorts of events and activities.

I had always been happy to claim various racial backgrounds, but I had never really invested myself in what that meant. It hadn’t really held any consequences in my life one way or another. Now it was a reason to attend events and meetings, an essential part of my identity — at least in other people’s eyes. And then I learned about the conferences.

That’s right, there are whole conferences with participants from all over the country and world who have one thing in common – an association to "the mixed-race community." Everyone from multiracial people to "transracial adoptees" to interracial couples to "monoracial supporters" and beyond -- concepts apparently so new that even my computer is highlighting the words misspelled as I type them -- and here they were gathering by the hundreds.


"It’s like living in the middle of one of those Escher paintings. You know those paintings where it starts off like a bird and it finally turns into a fish and right in the middle you don’t really know what it is? That’s like me in there – going aaahhh!!!" - Andy Bumatai, "The Sum of Our Parts"

As I excitedly filled out my registration forms, I thought, "This is great! There will be whole groups of people who will completely identify with me." Looking back now, I realize I had no idea what to expect. And when I told my friends back home, even my mixed friends responded with, "Oh, um… great."

At the conferences themselves, The Pan-Collegiate Mixed Race Conference at Cornell University and The Happa Issues Forum Conference at San Francisco State University, I had a variety of experiences. I spent the bulk of the time in workshops which allow participants to explore what it means to be mixed in all different social contexts – the media, the professional world, school, etc.

Some of the more intense workshops involved the subject of coming from a mixed white background as opposed to being a mix of several minority races — with the assumption that on some level, grow up part white is simply easier than if you are not. It was fascinating to see so much animosity build in a room full of people who were supposedly there to build community. It was also interesting to think about how having multiple racial background doesn’t really make someone immune to feelings of prejudice or discrimination.

There is a lot of resentment between people who feel they can’t have shared experiences because their racial mix involves two very separate cultures, plus they have to deal with their own internal grappling. In "The Sum of Our Parts," a collection of essays on the Asian American mixed race experience, one piece focuses on this subject specifically. An essay called "The Diversity of Biracial Individuals" gives reasons for "mixed" conflict. It says, "The individual of minority-minority mixture may have some complicated issues of belonging to two minority racial groups who have been at odds. Identification with one may cause difficulty for inclusion with another… For the minority-majority [mixture], however, the choice between identifying with the oppressor or the oppressed may be the more difficult one."

Although we didn’t all get along at these conferences, I found that many of the people there had done a great deal of thinking about these issues and therefore had some very mature perspectives. Mature enough to know that this new "multiracial community" can, for a whole spectrum of reasons, be leaders in social change.

The people I’ve met at these events all have one thing in common: an amazing sense of individualism. Everyone I met had a unique story about how they had arrived at the "multiracial community."

Jen Chau is a great example. Chau is the founder of the group http://www.swirlinc.org/ Swirl, Inc., an organization in New York City that works to "unite the mixed community." She says that after growing up in a "very white, homogeneous neighborhood in queens," she was missing a sense of a "mixed community."



"Being mixed is definitely not all of who I am, but it is one aspect of my identity that I do think about on a daily basis. My experiences, the way people relate to my face/my phenotype makes it an ever-present issue."

Now she says, "there is a certain sense of comfort knowing that there are people who will be able to relate to you. Being mixed is definitely not all of who I am, but it is one aspect of my identity that I do think about on a daily basis. My experiences, the way people relate to my face/my phenotype makes it an ever-present issue."

Jen’s take on the situation is a typical one. Being mixed does not define us, it’s simply a part of who we are, and it’s nice to have people to identify with. But, its also something to be careful about.
Society seems to have this constant need to categorize people. And as the products of a collaboration of cultures (like almost every American is), mixed race folks are in a prime place to challenge and expand upon those categories.

But that’s not to say it’s not important to spend time with those who have been through what you have. Margot Seeto, a sophomore at Wellesley University and a facilitator at one of the conferences I attended, believes that creating a "safe" place for "self-affirmation, self-empowerment, mobility, and social and political unity."

"Identity has a lot to do with shared experience." She says. "And so while of course people of mixed race descent are definitely part of each of their individual ethnicities/races communities, there definitely has to be another, separate space for those who share the experience(s) of being mixed race."

A "safe place" seemed to be a big theme within the discussions. Although multiracial people aren’t always oppressed by greater powers fo being mixed, we often find ourselves between communities, searching for a place where we won’t have to worry about being Chinese enough, Japanese enough or Black enough, for example, to fit in.

Unfortunately, what comes with forming any type of group, or even community, is an undeniable aspect of exclusivity. So even as people living the mixed race experience would seem inherently inclusive, there really seems to be no way around those feelings of closing off to others. When trying to create a world for ourselves, we tend to leave others behind.

While studying at the University of Washington, Matt Kelley created Mavin Magazine and the Mavin Foundation, In 1998. In the years since, Kelley and a group of dedicated volunteers formed the Mavin Foundation one of the biggest multiracial awareness organizations in the country.

When you look at the number of people involved in the Mavin community itself, exclusivity doesn’t really seem to be a problem. But as a very active member in the formation of this "new" network, Matt has had the opportunity to reflect on all the implications of that.

"Multiracial people are uniquely well-equipped to shed old models of community (those based on exclusion), and to redefine community and membership," he says. "However, a natural reaction to being perpetually on the outside of something so powerful as race compels many mixed folks, once they find a sense of mixed-race community, to employ the same kind of exclusive boundaries that isolated them in the first place."

Matt says he sees this in student organizations as well as in community and national multiracial organizations, but points to "Heritage-specific" mixed groups like BOTH
(Blends of Traditional Heritages)
a group at Penn State whose members have mixed African American backgrounds as particularly close knit.

"Undoubtedly, these serve an important role in shaping what is otherwise a very ambiguous ‘identity’ and ‘community’," he says. "But as someone who has often found my most comfortable community outside of either of my parents' cultural heritages, I'm grateful for any opportunity to blur boundaries of race and community."

Maybe that is what the next generation is expected to step up and do – blur. Racial lines, identities, communities. As I can personally assert – the possible combinations are endless. According to the 2000 US Census, 2.4% of the population checked the "two or more races" box. This may seem small, but when we translate that to real numbers – it’s almost 7 million people and there’s nothing small about that. The creation of a multi-racial community is crucial, because despite a certain level of exclusivity, it’s a community that will inevitably keep growing, and eventually, as one hypothesis goes, so many of us will be hybrids that the title "mixed race" will be unnecessary.

Originally from San Francisco Maikiko James, 19, is in her second year at New York University.

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