A new exhibit at the Wing Luke museum is part of a growing movement that says our identity is a personal choice, not a fact of birth.
Editor’s note: Laura Kina, who is quoted throughout this post, disagrees with the representation of her perspective here. You can read her response in the comments. On August 1st we published a response to this story by LeiLani Nishime.
“Aren’t you insulted by that?”
Michael Tenjoma, 23, set down the rolled-out slab of Japanese noodle dough and looks at the blackboard specials beside him in the Seattle restaurant.
“What?” asked the fifth-generation Japanese-American from Hawaii.
“That!” The irate customer pointed at the words “Jap. Satsuma Potato.”
Tenjoma let out a chuckle.
“It has a period after the word ‘Jap’. There’s nothing insulting about it.”
The customer stormed away, irate.
“I’m not Japanese,” Tenjoma said after telling this story. “Whenever I was in Japan, everyone kept asking me what I really was. But I’d just answer that I’m American. It seemed to bother everyone that I couldn’t give them a straight reply. But when I’m in Hawaii, I’m Japanese. It all really depends on where I am.”
In 2000 the U.S. Census allowed Americans to identify themselves as being two or more races for the first time. According to National Journal, people who identify themselves as multiracial have risen from 9.2 percent in 2000 to 32 percent in 2010.
“Under My Skin” — a recently opened exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum — discusses the issues of race and identity through art. Each piece weaves an intricate story evoking introspection, whether through modern art installations or traditional oil paintings. It is a quiet place with all 26 artists’ emotions and perspectives prodding into each attendee as they view each display.
Laura Kina, a contributing artist to the exhibit, is mixed. Her father’s side of the family is from Okinawa, Japan and her mother is of mixed-European ancestry with origins in small town Washington.
Her contribution to the exhibit is a chronological set of five paintings showing five generations of her family as they begin to mix over time; ending with the fifth generation, her daughter. In the final painting (the one at the top of this post), it would be near impossible to guess her daughter’s race. Despite this, her daughter looks strikingly similar to her Okinawan great-grandmother in the paintings — there’s a subtle connection between their eyes.
Another part of the exhibit reaches out to the so-called “default category.”
On a white wall in the exhibit is a simple piece of paper with questions aimed at white people. One of the questions posed is: “When did you choose to be white?”
For me personally, the answer is that I did not.
I was called an “egg” for the first time when I was 16.
I had never heard the term used before but it was related to “twinkie” or “oreo.” I was white on the outside, yellow on the inside.
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.
Oddly, this experience reminds me a little of how my Asian and black friends in my predominately-white Arizona hometown would sometimes be asked, “Why don’t you act more Asian? Why don’t you speak more like a black person?”
Of course it’s different. They dealt with having to their identity tied to their race by force. I have the privilege of accepting a white identity and just blending in to the mainstream if I want to.
But that wasn’t so easy when I lived in Japan.
I wished people would stop staring at me. I wanted to melt into the subway crowd and disappear. When I was immersed in the Japanese countryside for a few weeks and dressed in traditional yukata for a local festival, I ignored the stares and imagined that I looked like everyone else.
I was not a big-nosed, green-eyed white girl, but a person who felt a belonging in that community. I was a part of them.
“Race is a social construct. In a certain context, it could mean that everyone is mixed,” said Kina, who is also an Art, Media and Design professor at DePaul University. “It’s not a fixed thing.”
Why should your race peg you into a hole of how to identify yourself?
“People are increasingly ethnically ambiguous,” Kina explained. “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.”
Some sociologists argue that, as more and more Americans are mixed race, they have options in choosing how they identify.
With this concept in mind, do you have to be mixed race to be mixed? Can a white person be considered mixed?
“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.”
Valerie Conklin, 22, is an English teacher in Kyoto, Japan. She finally reached her dream of living and working in Japan, but suddenly decided to cancel her contract.
“During adolescence I definitely saw Japan as the ‘true place’ for me,” Conklin said. “I loved that Japan was this safe, clean country, where people were polite and community-minded, and which put an emphasis on girls being cute instead of sexy. I often felt so out of place among my peers when it came to American fashion, celebrities…I didn’t see the appeal of most of it.”
After living in Japan for a year, she realized that there were aspects of American and Japanese culture that she liked and disliked, ultimately realizing that she identified more with her American culture.
“I can try to apply the things I like about the Japanese way of thinking into my own life philosophy, while still retaining the things I love about my own American way of thinking as well,” Conklin decided.
Conklin was one of my former classmates in my Japanese classes. She is one of many white Americans who are fascinated with Asian culture that I have met over my decade-long Japanese-learning career.
Frequently in my Japanese classes in high school and college, my non-Japanese classmates would try to prove how much more Japanese they were — whether by their pronunciation, how many “real” Japanese friends they have, or how they can perform a tea ceremony. For many of these white classmates, they felt they had to fill a void in their cultural identity with another’s.
However, race does not equal a cultural identity. It is who you surround yourself with and what you feel connected with that identifies who you are.
Realizing this, I considered my relationship with my half-Japanese, half-Vietnamese boyfriend. If I married him, our children would have a multitude of cultures to learn from. They would eventually have issues in their mixed identity — or would they?
“There are changes in how mixed or minorities are treated in school from the 70s and now,” Kina said. “In the 70s, people were really conscious about political correctness. According to my high school daughter, over half of her classmates are mixed or biracial. There is not a need to be careful with what you say, and not as much of a big deal to have lots of friends who are different and mixed ethnicities. It is how you socially identify yourself that defines you.”
While in Japan, I was glad to show my differences as a white American while trying to learn the Japanese way of life. While in America, I switch.
My identity is culturally mixed. Japanese and American.
And my identity — like everyone else’s — is my choice.
Like Kina says, “you can’t always tell on the outside.”
The Under My Skin exhibit runs until November 17. You can find more details at http://www.wingluke.org/exhibitions/special.htm.
This article has been updated since its original publication.