Mixed Like Me
Jennifer Beals, a biracial actress, persuaded the creators of the television show, "The L Word" (in which she plays a leading role), to make her character biracial, possibly the first biracial character on TV since Spock in Star Trek. (And as important as an art loving, biracial, lesbian in power suits has become to me, I wouldn't want to diminish the territory that Spock defined.)
Jennifer made the case that "if we do not tell these stories it gives the impression that the stories are not worth telling". Yes, in terms of the dominant culture, it sure feels that way. But if it was just about what was worth telling it would have been done already. Television is a voracious medium of novelty, anything to keep you from changing channels. I think Jennifer knew that the stakes were higher than that because to tell a story about being biracial means talking about race (and that is exactly what The L Word proceeded to do).
On the liberal end of the spectrum (which is the only end that will really allow me to exist) the story of a mixed identity is a non-starter. We ignore it in a race blind way as if that is the proper liberal thing to do. I mean, what is the story here? Making a choice? Either race is fine. End of story. You are, after all, the product of a mixed marriage, the very proof that people of different races can love each other and make a family together.
And therein lies the paradox in which I find myself. It is as if I signed a pact, at birth, to represent the liberal ideal of two races coming together in the best of human possibilities. It just makes you want to burst into a chorus of "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony". (And, yes, I did totally love that Coke ad as a teenager because of what it represented, until I realized, much later, that Coke was, well, the evil empire of globalization, intent on converting every last human into a soda consuming entity, blah, blah, blah, and the world into plastic bottles, blah, stealing water rights, polluting rivers, blah, blah, and I will still drink it out of nostalgia, but only in Thailand, because it still comes in glass bottles there.)
The first time I tried to write about my racial experiences in the US as a foreign national, I included all the weird assumptions, false stereotypes, annoying sexual fetishes and two incidents of confrontational opinion making by white people that might be characterized as racist. My all white, women's writing group responded with such a chorus of emotional reactions that I was dumbfounded.
"Is this an anti-white polemic?" asked the first to comment. Well no, that was not my intention. Does a poem about experiencing race related incidents necessarily mean I'm anti-white?
"Did your roommate really say that? Surely, she didn't mean it that way?" I had been in this group for ten years and now they were questioning my observations as a writer?
And finally the reframing. "That wasn't about race; he was just being a jerk."
I couldn't figure out why it was not okay with them for me to describe my experiences with race. This was the same group that had listened, with complete open-minded respect, to my explicit tale of a love triangle with two other women. Weren't stories about race a part of the American literary heritage? Somehow I had betrayed them at a base level. I had broken the pact of my birthright by bringing up race. I was angry. After all, it's not as if I can pass for white—or can I?
The first time I learned that a white person could actually talk to just the white side of me and ignore all traces of my bicultural, biracial background, we were in the middle of a conversation about reincarnation.
"Surely you don't believe in reincarnation?" she said, which immediately made me want to upset her whole apple cart of normalcy.
"Well I do come from a country where 99% of the population believes in reincarnation," I said referring to my home in Thailand.
"Oh, but I think of you as British," she answered. Dang. She had me there. I was up against the ropes of my own identity construct. I had no ready comeback. My English accent had neatly eliminated my Asian heritage, my olive skin, my Thai eyes. This is the balancing act of a multi-cultural existence. The balance point is determined by the one looking at you. If they insist on looking from so oblique and extreme a point of view, they can make my alien-to-them side vanish, just like that. It is their concession to me. One I had cultivated.
I had chosen to balance my Asian face with my British mother's tongue. I made this choice to keep my English accent, in fifth grade, to inform my American classmates that, though I be foreign, I did have a country. One they knew about-England. They had never heard of Thailand and I was tired of trying to tell them where it was, because this being 1968, the only way I found to tell them was by talking about Vietnam. (And to be associated with a war zone of American imperialism was a whole 'nother frightening can of worms that my ten-year-old self could hardly comprehend, which was exactly why I would spend the rest my life trying to comprehend it.)
Recently, by the grace of the Google goddess, a long lost friend found my blog and contacted me. Veronica and I have known each other since 6th grade. We were the only non-white kids in our class. She was/is the only close black friend I've had. When we drifted apart I sorely missed her perspective for it was she who taught me how to balance race in America, how to make space for yourself without rejecting the dominant culture. She told me, when we met for breakfast, that she couldn't understand why, when she went to college, all the black kids would sit together at the cafeteria separate from the white kids. You're asking me, I was thinking?
"I guess I'm just bicultural," she said after describing the parties she gave where friends of all colors would hang together at her house. But her black friends only had black friends over. Race was not an easy border to cross from either side, I could see. She hadn't expected it to be that way. Her parents had raised her in that Martin Luther King vision of race without borders. It had not prepared her for what she would encounter after our sheltered private school experience.
"I had no idea how much my parents liked you," she told me, when we met again for lunch at Taxis. She had told them of our reunion. As kids we had spent many a Saturday ice-skating at the local rink. I had made her parents laugh with my imitations of Flip Wilson, my twelve-year-old's version of race without borders.
I asked Veronica what the deal was with Barak Obama. Was the black community really concerned that he wasn't black enough? "He's black to me," she said, "he's married to a black woman, his children are black; if I saw him walking down the street I would see a black man".
"So what was all that about him not being accepted by the black community?" I asked.
"Sometimes when white people write stuff on the behalf of black people they don't get it right", she explained. Hah. Just another divisive diversion of the dominant culture, we concluded. But for a moment there it had seemed as if we might have some insight into the role of biracial people. But nobody had bothered to celebrate the gift of perspective that a biracial politician would bring to a culturally diverse nation.
"Do you think he has a chance?" I asked about Barak Obama running for president.
"Amanda", she said, in a don't-be-naive tone, "this is America".
"Oh yeah, right," I concurred, "Not that kind of chance." We were silent a minute over the regressive politics of our time. A waitperson came up to ask if we needed anything. That was the second waitperson who had come by and this was a no service restaurant. She smiled at us in a genuine way and I reflected a moment on what Veronica and I looked like together—an Asian woman with a black woman. It was so rare this pairing. Never am I am more invisible than when I pass black women in the street. In Oakland where the Asian community borders on the black community, the races ignore each other; a palpable schism hangs in the air.
When I was in Brazil with my now ex-lover, a young Brazilian couple came up to her and asked her if there was much racism in America. "No," she had said. I walked over to her just as they left. "What did they want to know?" I asked her. She told me and when I heard what her answer had been, I was outraged. "You said no? Heck, if they wanted to know about racism why were they asking a white person?" I exclaimed. She shrugged. But they would not have asked me because I was not the dominant race; in fact I looked Brazilian. Brazil is filled with mixed races—Japanese, German, black, all sorts of mixes. They may have just been asking her because they wanted a white North American to affirm for them the American dream. The one where immigrants of all nations and races can come to America and be accepted into the upwardly mobile success train.
The waitresses at Taxi's were also from south of the border, Mexico most likely. I suddenly had the feeling that Veronica and I were representing a tableaux that was magnetic in its attraction to those who longed for such affirmation; that in this Promised Land, there was a surrendering of racial differences; that we did mix it up and represent a nation of harmonious collaboration. White people, too, wanted this from me. I was blessed in that sense.
I had spent much of my life in a vacuum of cultural isolation, not quite fitting anywhere, whether it be the gay community, the Asian community, the immigrant community, the women's community or the bohemian community. I was constantly having to explain myself and feeling that my friends would never begin to understand where I was coming from. At any moment I might have to defend one group from another. I identified with subcultures I didn't even belong to.
As I worked to integrate all the different parts of me by telling my own story, I found that I had been dealt a remarkable hand. I had so many avenues by which people could enter into my world. I was a human jukebox of special interests groups. Just punch up one of my many eclectic topics. Sometimes, on a good day, I can play three or four.
A white man gave me a ride to my car the other day, after a moving job. He was dressed on the conservative side, but he reached for my hand to shake and I looked for an opening. By the end of the ride I knew his brother was marrying an Indian woman, his sister was a bike messenger and he himself was gay (though he never said so). I was hitting home runs with every topic. (My colleague on the job told me I had utterly charmed him and if he gave me a job I was to cut her in on it.)
Jennifer Beals, in her acceptance speech for an award from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, spoke of how the culture we live in gives us the narratives for our own lives-through media mostly. There were few such narratives for me when I came to this country. I had to look really hard, going back to the Native American "two spirited people" to piece together a place and a purpose for a gender bending, border crossing lesbian. And now the story has gotten bigger than I ever imagined it could be and, oddly enough, more want to be part of it than not.