One of These Things Is Not Like the Other
For as long as I can remember, people have been telling me how beautiful my mother is, often using the word “exotic” in their description of her. That’s a word that gets thrown around a lot with Asian women, but with my mom’s high cheekbones, narrow nose, and eyelids that are somewhere between single and double, it’s hard to place her racially. Most often people assume she’s some sort of Native American. In fact, according to family legend, her great-great-grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee woman, but no one ever mistook her mostly-English father for an Indian.
My mother grew up—as I did not—in a town with a strong Japanese-American community, but this was not often a comfort to her. When she was young, she’s told me, the Japanese kids rejected her for being too white, and the white kids rejected her because she looked like a Mexican. And, of course, the Mexican kids knew she wasn’t one of them, either. She told me once when I was in college that it had been a relief to her that my brother and I would be more than half-Japanese. “At least you’d know what you are,” she said.
I’ve been trying to write this post for months now. In that time, first the Internet exploded over Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair photo, then about Rachel Dolezal’s appropriation of black identity. I had been mulling over questions about race, gender, identity, and social constructs, and suddenly it seemed like all of Twitter was either asking the same questions or taking those questions apart and hanging the askers out to dry as either racist or transphobic or both. The more prudent part of me thought it might be a good idea to stay quiet and listen. So that’s what I did. I listened and read, a lot.
I listened to Gene Demby and Steve Inskeep talk about whether Rachel Dolezal’s story should change how we think about race. I read pieces from Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker and Jonathan Blanks in The Washington Post about blackness and race and appropriation and America. I learned that “transracial” is a word with a 40-year history in the adoption community, and that people in that community—such as Martha Crawford and Lisa Marie Rollins—object to the word being misused and appropriated by people wanting to make a joke out of it.
The question that has been asked hundreds of times over—and later derided and ridiculed and called out for its biases—is, “If Caitlyn Jenner can be a woman, why can’t Rachel Dolezal be black?”
It’s a flawed question for a lot of reasons, as so many people have pointed out. Inherent in a question like that is a comparison between a person who transitioned to an authentic expression of the gender she feels inside—that is, the gender she is—and a person who pretended to be a race she isn’t in order to gain something. Many people quite reasonably found the analogy between the transgender experience and Dolezal’s cynical falsehood insulting, even irresponsible.
A great many people also pointed out that Dolezal’s appropriation of black identity allowed her to take all of the benefits of blackness without having had to suffer the negative consequences that actual black people deal with every day. Growing up white, Dolezal would never have had to deal with increased police scrutiny, the threat of racist violence, or the entrenched structural racism that keeps millions of black people impoverished and disenfranchised even today. Here things get a bit more complicated, because as valid as this criticism appears to me, it’s uncomfortably similar to some of the so-called “trans-exclusive radical feminist” arguments that some people use against the acceptance of trans women—trans women, these people say, benefited from the privileges of a patriarchal society while they presented as male, and therefore it is unfair for them to be accepted as women. Many TERF statements also come back to the idea of falsehood, that trans women aren’t “real” women, merely men pretending to be something they’re not. To me, the arguments against racial appropriation feel valid, while the arguments against gender transition feel bigoted, but I can’t fully articulate why. Needless to say, the idea of having to “pay your dues” in order to be accepted is incredibly problematic, or at least it seems so to me.
Eventually we come down to a question that I’ve been watching play out over and over again on Twitter over the past week: is it possible to be born the wrong race?
We hadn’t been to Michi’s in a long time, but my brother and I had a hankering for sushi and when we arrived at our usual place only to find it closed, I thought of the restaurant we’d always gone to when I was little, so my dad took us there instead. It was pretty quiet when we stepped in—a lot of the customers had left when Shogun had opened on Main Street, leaving just the die-hards and the old-timers. There were just a few other guys at the sushi bar, Japanese-American like us, and from the looks of them, they were probably regulars.
The three of us sat and ordered, and soon enough the food arrived. We had just started eating when one of the men at the bar turned to my dad and said, “What’s the matter, Dean? Did you forget how to use hashi?” My dad didn’t look up or make eye contact, didn’t respond to the taunt at all, just put down the fork he’d been using to eat his salad and sipped at his miso soup instead. We ate in uncomfortable silence, and eventually the other man left.
Is it possible to be born the wrong race? What does that even mean, really?
The problem with a question like that is that race, ethnicity, culture, and nationality are not the same things. These are all social constructs to some degree, but the way they are determined isn’t the same. Some are based on some form of heritage, whether genetic or cultural. Some are entirely political, based on law or place of birth or external classifications. They’re not the same. Still, it’s unsatisfying to simply point out that they’re different, because they’re not entirely separate either.
Identity is a complicated phenomenon, and part of what makes it so is that it’s not just personal; it is also in large part shaped by and in reaction to the way we are treated by others. Community is a huge factor in how we define ourselves, both the communities in which we participate and are accepted, as well as those from which we are excluded. And, right or wrong, the way you look does influence the way others perceive and interact with you. That, in turn, has implications for how you receive and participate in culture, which parts you are able and allowed to access. It affects how you think about yourself. It certainly has affected how I think about myself.
The first of my grandmother’s grandparents to come to America arrived in San Francisco in 1892. The last of them got to Hawaii around 1900 or 1901—the records aren’t clear, and much of the family history was lost during the Internment. My grandmother, herself, was born in 1928 in the same town as her parents, her children, and all of her grandchildren, including me.
By the Japanese method of counting, my grandmother is sansei, or third-generation American. She’s proud of her heritage, and more than any other person, she has been the one that taught me what it means to be Japanese. Foods and customs, of course, and songs and children’s games. Being respectful and humble, obedient of your elders and of the laws, and, most of all, being part of a close-knit family.
But being sansei had its connotations, even back before the war. “Us third-generation kids were always the dummies in Japanese school,” she told me once, “compared to the nisei kids, because they all spoke Japanese at home and we didn’t.”
When people ask me what I am—which has happened for my whole life, and will, I’m sure, continue to happen—I tell them that I’m three-quarters Japanese. I imagine that most people, hearing this, will interpret it to mean that I identify with my Asian ancestry. In truth, though, what it means is that in my whole life I have met exactly one person who is like me in terms of race, and that is my brother.
I don’t know what race and culture mean to other people. I don’t know if anyone ever feels comfortable or at home. What I do know is that I don’t belong. The condescension at the Japanese market when I need help reading a label, the side-eye from the community-college language teacher when I call myself nihonjin instead of amerikajin, the insistence that I’m a “twinky” or “banana”—that is, yellow on the outside, white on the inside—these have had no less impact on my perception of myself than the wrinkled noses at the nori in my lunch in elementary school, the angry shouts to go back where I came from in middle school, being beaten and spit on in high school by people calling me a chink.
My mother likes to tell a story from my kindergarten year, perhaps the moment I learned about race. I had come home upset, asking why the other kids made slanty eyes at me. She tried to explain that I looked different from them, comparing my features and theirs in our class photo. “No, I don’t. I look like that,” I insisted, pointing to a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy. “I look like that, and I look like that, and I look like that.” I pointed to them all.
It is exhausting, feeling defensive both when white people complain about minorities and when people of color complain about white people. Feeling uncomfortable even calling myself a “person of color” when I’ve never been harassed by police or kept down by government policies; when my wife, my step-parents, and almost all of my friends are white; when I listen to white music, read white books, watch white television and movies. To constantly be questioning what parts of my heritage are mine to claim, and which I must accept being beyond my reach. To know that, even now, I will always feel on the outside of any group, no matter how much welcome they extend to me, because part of me will never believe someone won’t take it back, the way someone always did when I tried to be white or Asian.
Was Rachel Dolezal entitled to take the identity she took? I don’t know her history, her culture, her circumstances, but I feel in my heart that what she did was wrong. And it frustrates me because it has provided so much opportunity for other people to dismiss and mock the alienation I have always felt.
Was I born the wrong race? No, I was born the way I am, and the way I look is part of how I feel. I wouldn’t want to claim whiteness even if I were allowed to, not if it meant turning my back on being Japanese. I’m both, even if in so many ways I’m neither.
I don’t know if inclusion and representation are important in the grand scheme of things. I don’t know if the pain and isolation I’ve felt ought to matter to anyone but me. But if the past few weeks have taught me anything, if I’ve learned anything in all the responses I’ve read to this stupid, messy racial controversy, it’s that I’m not the only one who feels the way I do. I don’t know if I have a community of my own, but I am not alone. And if you recognize any of my experiences in your own, you’re not alone either.