Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mixed Roots Recap

June 11-12, 2011
Japanese American National Museum
Los Angeles, CA
Mixed Messages- Mixed Race/ Interracial Represenation in TV, Film, & News Media workshop - Me, Jennifer Noble, Monique Fields, Heidi Durrow, Susan Straight

This was the first year I've been able to attend the Mixed Roots festival founded by Fanshen Cox and Heidi Durrow in 2008. If you want the main festival recap scroll down a bit...first I want to recap on my own workshop...I hope you'll indulge me.

Thoughts on Mainstream Media and Mixed Representation:
I was honored to be invited by Ebony journalist and Honeysmoke blogger Monique Fields to participate in a workshop on mainstream media. We were asked to look, in particular, at Ebony's first biracial issue in May 2011 and the New York Times' ongoing series on Race Remixed by Susan Saulny. Since our panel ran out of time and I didn't get to cover much from the notes I prepared, I thought I'd pass along my responses here. This was the original question Monique posed to us:

Q “what, if anything, it means that mainstream media are writing about multiracial Americans, whether there are any concerns about how mixed-race Americans are portrayed in mainstream media and what the panelists would suggest to reporters and editors as they continue to write about the mixed experience.”

My Short Answer: Susan Saulny’s NY Time’s “Race Remixed” series and the Ebony’s May coverage about biracial identity were very validating but they are just a start. We need more coverage like this but also in depth coverage that goes beyond the US Census and personal narratives that exemplify racial progress and pitfalls.

Growing up in the Sesame Street era of the 1970s and 80s I saw a lot of multicultural images in popular culture and the media but not interracial or explicitly mixed race. By the late 1990s, we had Tiger Woods and serial killer Andrew Cunanan squarely in the center of mainstream media coverage so there were images out there, besides the tragic mulatto stereotype, but now we were either racial saviors or demons.

I think this vacuum of representation is one of the motivating factors in me wanting to create artworks, classes, conferences etc. that reflect not only my own story but a larger narrative and history of what it means to be mixed race in the US and beyond.

And my long answers....
Types of Media: Before I could answer Monique's question to us, I had to think about my relationship to “mainstream media.” I'm certainly not an expert on media but I'm a consumer like everybody else. I consume mostly mainstream “prestige media” like NPR, CNN, and the New York Times or I look to mainstream media for mindless entertainment: cooking shows on FoodNetwork, silly animal/reality TV shows like "Hogs gone Wild" on Discovery Channel, or Sponge Bob....I should preface this by the fact that my 6 year-old influences a lot of what I watch. But Anderson Cooper and Mr. Crabs isn’t where I look for news about mixed race – it’s really more through social networking – word of mouth/sharing articles with like-minded folks either through non-profit orgs, academic networks or social networks, blogs, podcasts. Like a lot of people, I’m a niche consumer and I probably know a lot about a very narrow topic. If you really want mixed race news, go to Steven F. Riley's blog www.mixedracestudies.org or Heidi Durrow and Fanshen Cox' podcast mixedchickschat or listen in on the panels or watch videos from CMRS 2010 on ITunesU.

Even as I say this, I'm reminded of a paper that I heard Kent Ono deliver at the Association for Asian American Studies conference on the invisibility of mixed race on TV and how we are both everywhere and yet remain invisible. He was analyzing the reality TV show Jon and Kate plus 8. Also, remember Mary Beltran's keynote at Critical Mixed Race Studies 2010 "Everywhere and Nowhere"?

Usefulness of Media Coverage: Mainstream media is a powerful form of external validation. For example, the NY Times article on the increase of multiracials who are just now entering college, "Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above", was useful to me in a concrete way this past month as I was able to advocate in my University to include multiracials in a draft of a strategic plan for diversity that we are currently finalizing.

I also found the demographic shift of multiracials in the South, "Black and White and Married in the Deep South", informative and this will help guide my work on the board of MAVIN for a community mapping project we are working on with Census 2010 data where we plan to look at key cities across the US to analyze where multiracial populations exist and are growing and what and where existing resources are. We are in the process of assessing which southern city to pick.

Q So what would I suggest to reporters and editors as they continue to write about the mixed experience?
I really appreciate is how papers such as the New York Times have been tapping folks that we know and respect in the movement such as Louie Gong from MAVIN and 8th Generation as experts to consult with during national racial flash points such as when back in October 2010 a Republican candidate for the Senate in Nevada, Sharon Angle, told a group of Latino students that she did not know if they were all Latino because “some of you look a little more Asian to me.” I hope we can see more of our community, academic and cultural leaders tapped as experts on a routine basis....there's always going to be a mixed point of view or lens to issues and they don't always have to be about race.

Further Research - Books I'd like to recommend on mixed race media:
Making Multiracials: State, Family, and Market in the Redrawing of the Color Line by Kymberly McClain Da Costa (Stanford, 2007)
Mixed Race Hollywood by Mary Beltran and Camilla Fojas (NYU Press, 2008)
Souls of Mixed Folks: Race, Politics, and Aesthetics in the New Millennium by Michele Elam (Stanford, 2011)

I’ve also been thinking about what needs to be done in terms of cultural work within the mixed race movement. This may or may not relate to mainstream media but I just want to put it out here what I'm thinking about for my own work:
  •  building sustainability and professionalization – by this I mean building fund raising networks, creating opportunities for publications and venues for exhibitions and shows. It seems like a lot of times we are not only creating the cultural programming but having to build the entire delivery system as well. You can only do that for so long without getting burned out.

  • Go beyond US racial politics and build international networks of folks working on mixed race cultural production. For example, I want to connect more with mixed Okinawan artists in the diaspora and I'm looking forward to showing with fellow mixed Okinawan American artist Emily Momohara in the near future and reading blogs such as Grits and Sushi by Mitzi Uehara-Carter. I’m also curious to learn more about Australia’s "lost (or rather stolen) generation" that is coming of age and reclaiming their hybrid indigenous roots. At a recent symposium on the Future of Asian Art that I participated in at NYU, Dean Chan talked about the work of Brisbane indigenous artist Vernon Ah Kee (who is also of Chinese descent). Ah Kee does these big charcoal portrait drawings based on anthropological photos taken by Norman Tinsdale, at the behest of the Australian government, of what they thought was going to be a dying race. These images include Ah Kee’s own grandparents. Ah Kee states in a video clip on YouTube, “There should be a representation in art of Aboriginal people that is full of depth, sophistry, complexity, and sadness, and sorrow. All these things that everybody else is allowed to be but black fellows aren’t.” I think the same thing pertains to images of mixed race people in art.

  • I want to use a mixed lens to drill down into Asian American art history– A colleague at DePaul, Scott Paeth, was talking to me yesterday about being a fox vs a hedgehog with research - covering vast territory or burrowing down. My tendency is to be a fox but I think it's time in the mixed race movement and in Asian American art to be a hedgehog. In teaching a class on Mixed Race Art and Identity since 2009 at DePaul, I realized that there was a lot of work that could be done on just looking at one aspect of this vast and emerging topic so for the past few years, I’ve been working with Wei Ming Dariotis, Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies San Francisco State University, on a multi-author volume and traveling contemporary art exhibition called War Baby/Love Child: Mixed Race Asian American Art which examines how mixed race Asians are addressing and negotiating their identities through their art. The project also seeks to begin to document the complex historical forces that have defined the hapa experience, namely US Wars in Asia and the legacy of the Civil Rights era. Our experiences as hapas are not necessarily singularly unique. There are patterns and currents in our communal history 

Mixed Roots Festival Recap:
After the excitement of the 2010 Critical Mixed Race Studies conference in Chicago that I co-organized back in November, I was curious to see in person what's been happening this year across the US in the mixed race movement. I heard the buzz but missed going to the UC Berkeley Institute of East Asian Studies Hapa Japan Conference and  Harvard's Half-Asian People's Association So...What Are you, Anyway?

What is unique about Mixed Roots is that they bring together authors, filmmakers, performers, artists, community, general public, and academics from multiple backgrounds. For the most part I saw representation from the biracial community and hapa folks but there was some representation from multiracial Latino and Native communities as well. I'd like to see more variety in representation but there are historical and colonial reasons why biracials and mixed Asians dominate this discourse.

Steven F. Riley's introduction to his workshop with G. Reginald Daniel, "Don't Pass on Context", gave me a lot to think about. Riley pointed out three main areas that we have been bypassing in the mixed race movement: 1) The persistence of inequality 2) Race is a social construct 3) Historical context. Within this, he had a considered critique of the construction of Loving vs. Virginia being a starting point for mixed activism and representation and the myth of the biracial baby boom. He also talked about white supremacy and how this was the cornerstone for anti-miscegenation laws and how miscegenation laws created race in this country. As he closed he said, "We are not becoming a multiracial society, we are and have been so for centuries." Also, I should point out the Mr. Riley probably knows more about any mixed anything than anyone else in the room. And what does he read? He gave a shout out to Nicole Nfonoyim's blog: http://mixedreamers.blogspot.com/
Don't Pass on Context: The Importance of Academic Discourses in Contemporary Discussion on the Multiracial Experience - Steven F. Riley is pictured to the left and G. Reginald Daniel to the right

Coming to Jesus - I was talking to a friend after the festival and they said they ran into a student who had traveled across the country from some small town in the middle of nowhere to come to Mixed Roots and that she, like so many others, had her "come to Jesus moment." As I work in critical mixed race and the deeper I get into academia and art, it's easy to become cynical and view the act of using documentary and straight narrative to tell your story as simplistic...too easy. I'm all for abstraction and experimental forms but I have to remember where I came from and how powerful and important it was developmentally to be able to see myself in others...to know that I wasn't alone. And I came from a loving and accepting family and community (albeit rural and mostly "white" and we did have one cross burning and my childhood is not without enduring a few racial slurs and a shot gun or two). I can only imagine what it must be like for others who have faced rejection and prejudice and isolation. Even today, I feel down right ecstatic about having an expanding network of friends who I consider kin. I may have converted to Judaism but I still have "come to Jesus" moments myself but I wonder what happens the morning after? I'm also reminded of Frank Chin's critique of the autobiographical impulse in early Asian American literature and the parallels to the Christian concept of the confession and all the baggage that comes with that. This can't just be about self and identity and recognition? The analogy to getting saved is like coming out. It's a relief after years of passing, covering, or being hyper visible or invisible. I know folks have been working on multiracial issues communally in the US for 20-30 years (e.g. MASC and Biracial Family Network) but as part of the 2nd generation of activists post-2000 Census, what are our next challenges?

Me with UCLA students and friends

Why does it matter for us to come together as a community? Maybe Athena Mari Asklipiadis from Mixed Marrow has the answer? Is it about access and improving quality of health care? If race is a social construct, what does mixed race mean in terms of medicine?

Mixed Marrow began in 2009 in response for the need for a multiethnic-specific outreach due to the lack of public knowledge and registered donors.

Mixed Marrow is dedicated to finding bone marrow and blood cell donors to patients of multiethnic descent. Our outreach concentrates on this minority due to the desperate need for registered donors as well as the lack of public knowledge regarding this topic.

We are dedicated to educating the multiethnic community through multimedia tools such as internet, video, and photography and hosting drives to register donors.
 I came to the mixed race movement through meeting other artists, writers, filmmakers, and performers involved in the Asian American art scene nationally who just happened to be mixed and who were increasingly coming out as mixed on stage. I made a conscious decision to investigate this more through my 2002-2005 Hapa Soap Opera series and my 2006 Loving series. Only since attending a mixed race leadership retreat in 2008 have I started to understand the larger and more established community component to the movement such as MASC who has been around since 1986! I'm clearly part of a mixed 2.0 generation.
Me with multigenerational members of MASC - Farzana Nayani and son, Nancy Brown, Jennifer Noble, Thomas Lopez
Paul Spickard and MASC founder Nancy Brown
Paul Spickard was one of the 2011 Loving Prize Honorees for his pioneering scholarship "on issues concerning the Mixed experience."
Toasting Mixed Roots 2011
Festival founders Fanshen Cox and Heidi Durrow
Opening night reception
Kip Fulbeck honoring Paul Spickard or rather telling tales out of school!
Kip and Paul hugging
Filmmakers Jessica Chen Drammeh and Marcelitte Failla

The heart of the festival, of course, are the films and readings. I never get tired of seeing Jessica Chen Drammeh's film Anomaly. I was struck by how her film not only tells our story but how it has been an instrument in building community in and of itself. She took a unique approach to production - she would shoot a little and then do a work in progress screening and host a fundraiser and then with that money, shoot a little more and repeat the process. What ended up happening is that in the many years it is taking to finish this film, she both captured individual narratives over time but also the emergence of the 2.0 mixed race movement. I only got to see the Mixed Roots 2011 Short Film screenings (which also included Marcelitte Failla's Uncovering Color and Kamala Todd's Cedar & Bamboo) but I heard quite a bit of buzz around Victoria Mahoney's Yelling at the Sky and I'd seen Jeff Chiba Stearns One Big Hapa Family at the Asian American Film Festival in Chicago earlier this year (my daughter decided to identify as "quapa" after seeing his movie). It's an inspiring and accessible film that covers Canadian mixed Asian history and raises critical questions as to who and why we marry others outside of our racial group. His film is spot on for many of the issues I see in my own Japanese American community and experience (out marriage, assimilation into whiteness, finding your own roots, legacy of WWII and internment and internalized racism, changing what it means to be Japanese American or Canadian today, seeing Japanese identity as expansive rather than disappearing etc.)

Danzy Senna reading from her new book of short stories - You are Free
Sarah Culberson, author of A Princess Found, telling her story

There was a lot of talent and heart felt stories on stage. Musician/story teller Jason Luckett stole the Unplugged special event for me. He's got an amazing and confident yet slightly goofy stage presence and I kept thinking he sounded a little like Jack Johnson. The 2nd Story performers were all on point. I have to give a big shout out to Kimberlee Soo for her hilarious story of coming of age as a transracial Asian adoptee with a blond bombshell big sister and to Khanisha Foster for her powerful story of growing up as a light skinned daughter of a very black Black Panther and what it was like as an adult to teach the story of Martin Luther King to a group of elementary students who saw her as Latina.

It's almost impossible to say what was best about Mixed Roots 2011 but if I had to pick, I'd say Danzy Senna and Sarah Culberson. Danzy because she's just a damn good writer. I remember not being able to put down her novel Caucasia. She read 8 pages from "What's the Matter with Helga and Dave?" from her new book of short stories, You are Free, and I was hooked again! So form really does matter after all. While I may have my "come to Jesus" moment at conferences and festivals, what's going to stay with me as deep inspiration is those stories, movies, and music that is of quality, that is complex, that is innovative, that is unique. Form matters. Sarah Culberson's story just had us all in tears. She grew up as a confused biracial girl in a white family in West Virginia and as an adult, hired a private investigator to track down her birth parents. Her mother had died 11 years earlier but she did end up finding her father and learning she was actually the daughter of an African chief! It's a powerful (and funny) story but what she leaves us with is not just a feel good story with an amazing true life fairy tale ending but a provocation to action. Sarah's father is a chief in Sierra Leone and she is working to help rebuild her father's community, which was torn apart from 11 years of civil war. Through her work with the Kposowa Foundation Sarah is raising funds to "rebuild a boarding school, provide drinking water, provide economically sustainable opportunities, and improve the general quality of life for the people of Sierra, Leone, West Africa." To learn more about her story, watch Sarah Culberson's interview on CNN.

Mixed Roots Midwest anyone? 

postscript to my post from earlier this morning

.....An artist friend of mine that I met in Chicago, Gwenn-Aël LYNN, just brought a project of his to my attention and I think he raises some challenging points to think about in terms of the concept of roots. Gwenn wrote to me about his project Roots...[a speaking garden] that, "it's a project I did in Paris this past fall: it investigates the metaphor of roots as pertaining to one's origins: how relevant is that metaphor when one identifies with several identities, with being uprooted, replanted? or as having no roots at all? What happens in the face of migration on a global scale?"

I also just got out of a faculty seminar I'm co-facilitating on the topic of "Distance & Belonging" and one of the things that keeps coming up is that to be part of a group, a tribe, you inevitably leave someone out. Thinking more about the connections between telling your story and "coming out" and the Christian notion of the confessional, I'm also struck by how "getting saved" (or coming out as mixed) also implies that you might be leaving one community for another....this becomes particularly problematic in terms of solidarity for people of color.


  1. So awesome. I WISH i could have been there. So much good work being done so much to say...

  2. Thanks so much for documenting this important event with your insightful comments, Laura. I wish I could have been there.