Beyond Blackness and Whiteness: Activists of Mixed Race Speak Out

Posted in Articles, Media Archive, United States on 2016-08-02 19:45Z by Steven

Beyond Blackness and Whiteness: Activists of Mixed Race Speak Out

The Los Angeles Review of Books
2016-08-02

Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn

SHORTLY BEFORE Alton Sterling’s and Philando Castile’s names became viral hashtags on social media, the latest flare-up in the ongoing conversation about race and racial justice in the United States had been sparked by actor Jesse Williams’s speech at the BET Awards. Some went so far as to call his speech “racist,” with more than 26,000 signatories petitioning to have the Grey’s Anatomy star ousted from the show; a choicely worded tweet from Shonda Rhimes promptly shut down that noise. Others asserted that, as a man of mixed race, Williams should refrain from speaking on issues of blackness, to which author Shannon Luders-Manuel responded in her essay “Can Biracial Activists Speak to Black Issues?” for The Establishment:

Blackness cannot be taken away from us. Biraciality cannot be taken away from us. They exist as tangibly as our skin, made from Europe and Africa. We are the colonizer and the colonized. We are the oppressor and the oppressed. We bleed for our brothers and sisters. We carry on our backs the weight of what one half of us did to the other. We slip easily into white spheres, taking notes and taking names while nodding our European heads.

As one of the fastest growing demographics in the country, mixed Americans are broadening the discourse on race, identity, and the American experience. Can having a biracial or mixed identity provide a vantage of both privilege and oppression? I posed this question to Heidi Durrow, author and founder of the Mixed Remixed Festival in Los Angeles; comedian, writer, and activist Tehran Von Ghasri; and Aaron Samuels, co-founder and COO of Blavity. Their perspectives were as varied as their personal stories, and, for some, fraught with mixed emotions.

Read the entire article here.

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Racecraft: Stories of Racial Passing

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2014-12-12 21:35Z by Steven

Racecraft: Stories of Racial Passing

Los Angeles Review of Books
2014-12-05

Lucy McKeon, Writer and Photographer
New York, New York

THE VERY NOTION of racial “passing” implies a test. Those who believed clear racial categorization was possible might test for race by measuring physical traits to indicate “blood purity”: slight physical traits that could be identified, such as the half-moon of a nail bed or the whites of ones eyes. In apartheid South Africa, the “pencil test” was devised: categorizing people based on whether a pencil would remain or fall from their hair. Physical markers were used to fix and control whole futures.

“White people were so stupid about such things,” says Irene, the narrator of Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929). “They usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth.”

To pass the faulty test of white scrutiny is not difficult; Larsen’s Passing, and other 18th to 20th century fiction and 20th century film, work to demonstrate that categorization by race relies on arbitrary rules and unsound logic — proving, in other words, the falsely naturalized or socially constructed nature of “race” itself. As Stanford historian Allyson Hobbs reminds us in her recent cultural history A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life, the gains and losses of racial passing — when someone from one racial group “passes,” or is accepted, as another — were historically contingent, like “race” itself. Indeed, one’s semblance could rarely be taken as trustworthy evidence. “Skin color and physical appearance were usually the least reliable factors,” writes Hobbs, “whereas one’s associations and relationships were more predictive” of who was deemed white and who was not. If white people can’t actually tell who is white and who isn’t, whiteness is exposed as simply the external perception of being white — the privilege, power, and civic membership afforded to someone recognized as such. This is white supremacy in practice.

Michael Yudell’s Race Unmasked examines the history of the concept of biological race — in large part tied to the history of genetics, which “at its founding was inseparable from eugenics theories” — in order to show that race is “neither a static biological certainty nor a reflection of our genes. Instead, race is a historical and cultural phenomenon.” We’ve known this, of course. But Yudell’s recent book provides scientific documentation of the process of “racecraft,” a term coined by Karen Fields and Barbara Fields in their 2012 book by the same name: the “mental terrain” where our deep and pervasive belief in race as meaningful is conjured, then ritualized into reality. “Race” comes to explain social effects like poverty, as witchcraft might explain failing crops. What’s real is not “race,” but the ideology of racism: the belief in “race” as a tool with which to rationalize cause and consequence.

In this way, while both fictive and biographical representations of passing demonstrate the absurdity of “race,” they also emphasize the very real effects of racial categorization. From the point of view of those passing, Hobbs writes,

race was neither strictly a social construction nor a biological fact. The line between black and white was by no means imaginary; crossing it had profound, life-changing consequences. Race was quite real to those who lived with it, not because of skin color or essentialist notions about biology, but because it was social and experiential, because it involved one’s closest relationships and one’s most intimate communities.

Passing, in other words, demonstrates how “race” is both socially constructed and, as experienced, extremely meaningful.

Hobbs focuses on the experience of great loss in her cultural history of passing. As she points out, “Historians and literary scholars have paid far more attention to what was gained by passing as white than to what was lost by rejecting a black racial identity.” But “racial passing is an exile, sometimes chosen, sometimes not.”…

Read the entire article here.

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David Palumbo-Liu interviews Ruth Ozeki

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Interviews, United States, Women on 2014-09-17 21:51Z by Steven

David Palumbo-Liu interviews Ruth Ozeki

Los Angeles Review of Books
2014-09-16

David Palumbo-Liu, Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor; Professor of Comparative Literature and English
Stanford University

Where We Are for the Time Being with Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki is a novelist, filmmaker, and a Zen Buddhist priest. She is the author of three novels: My Year of Meats (1998), All Over Creation (2003), and A Tale for the Time Being (2013). Her website and other web sources portray a diverse and fascinating set of life experiences and a considerable skill set: she worked on cult SF classic Robot Holocaust and has done straightforward commercial film work, started a language school in Japan, worked as a bar hostess there, made award-winning films herself (Body of Correspondence, Halving the Bones), done extensive study of Zen, and worked as a Zen teacher. Among other things.

In 2013 A Tale for the Time Being was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize as well as for a National Book Critics Award; it won the Kitschies Red Tentacle Award for Best Novel, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction. The reviews in the United Kingdom tended to stress that, as The Independent had it, “her novels are witty, intelligent, and passionate.” The reaction of the American press was more boisterous: The Chicago Tribune noted “their shrewd, playful humor, luscious sexiness, and kinetic pizazz.”

Her work is all that, and much more. Her books are deeply involved in issues of science, technology, gender, and attend both to deep history and to the contemporary. They are concerned with our minds and bodies, but even more particularly with our spirit, and with our commitment to the future. I spoke with Ruth Ozeki at Stanford in 2013 and then corresponded with her during the book tour that followed, and am delighted that My Year of Meats was selected as one of the three books all incoming frosh will read at Stanford this autumn. Now in its 11th year, the texts for this year’s Three Books program address the theme of “Science”: Physics for Future Presidents by Richard Muller, My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki, and Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss. I cannot think of a better humanistic author to feature for this series.

DAVID PALUMBO-LIU: Ruth Ozeki — thanks for sitting down with me as you return from doing extensive travel and readings of A Tale for the Time Being. You have given a huge number of interviews, so I’d like to make this relatively targeted. First, in all your work you are especially interested in the complex interweaving of narrative voices. This latest work is the one in which your Buddhism shows up the most explicitly. How does a Buddhist sense of Self (or non-Self) work to help shape this novel, especially in terms of constructing your different narrators? Who are these “people”? What kind of character “development” or “intregity” should we find?

RUTH OZEKI: This notion of self (Self?) is a great place to start, and immediately I find myself resisting the capitalization of the word, which in itself is significant. The capital S seems to imply a fixed and singular entity, a God-like Self, whereas my sense of self is a more shifting (shifty?) and pluralistic entity, an interdependent collectivity of lowercase gods, demigods, and demons…

…Even in My Year of Meats, my first novel, I was playing with fictionalized autobiography. One of the narrators of that book, Jane, is a mixed-race documentary filmmaker who lives in New York. I, too, am a mixed-race documentary filmmaker who lived in New York. I knew readers would assume that Jane equaled Ruth, so I made Jane six feet tall and dyed her hair green, so readers could tell us apart.

I bring this up because I think my mixed-race identity is why I experience myself, and the world, pluralistically. I’m a racially hybridized, genetically pluralistic entity, who has never lived in any one place or culture. As Jane says, “being half, I’m neither here nor there.” Or maybe that was me who said that.

Anyway, I certainly don’t think I’m unique in this regard. All of us are racially, religiously, and/or culturally pluralistic, and increasingly so. As human beings, we’re all trying to integrate and make sense of our pluralistic elements, aren’t we? To find some kind of wholeness?…

Read the entire interview here.

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The Public Life of Poetry: An Interview with Natasha Trethewey

Posted in Articles, Interviews, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2013-06-12 20:35Z by Steven

The Public Life of Poetry: An Interview with Natasha Trethewey

Los Angeles Review of Books
2013-06-11

Jennifer Chang

1. THE STORY OF NATASHA TRETHEWEY’s life as a poet began with her mother’s death. Until then, though her father is a poet, poetry had not figured in her future plans. She was a 19-year-old college student at the University of Georgia when her mother died a tragic, untimely death.

In her telling, the young Trethewey felt the smallness of her loss measured against the immensity of the world and as if by an instinct of grief she remembered W. H. Auden’sMusée des Beaux Arts.” The poem salved her suffering, and while her story is profoundly personal, Trethewey’s turn to poetry in a time of desperate need illustrates our primal desire for consolation. “Musée des Beaux Arts” gave Trethewey both an accompaniment to her sorrow and words to make sense of her incalculable loss.

The poem remains a stalwart in Trethewey’s emotional life, and she returned to it again for solace shortly before I interviewed her on December 17, 2012. It was the Monday morning after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and the passing of poet Jake Adam York, Trethewey’s close friend who collapsed from a sudden stroke only the day before. I knew from my research preparing for the interview that York’s and Trethewey’s careers were interwoven; theirs was a conversation on poetry and the world between true friends that had over the years formed a fabric of bold intention. Both poets hail from the deep South — York from Gadsden, Alabama and Trethewey from Gulfport, Mississippi — and both have cultivated a poetics born from an intimacy with Southern history and a passionate sense of social justice.

Given their friendship, it’s hard not to see Trethewey’s work in conversation with York’s, and her poetics builds from a lineage whose stylistic range includes, among others, Yeats, Robert Penn Warren, and Gwendolyn Brooks, yet together allude to poetry’s collective efforts to, in Adorno’s words, “imagine a world in which things might be different.” Still, in the bracing reality of Monday morning, I made my phone call with greater trepidation knowing that I would be interfering on her grief and that, further, to talk of poems somehow made us more powerless and more silent after the Newtown massacre and Jake’s death. What was I doing calling the poet laureate, who was after all only a private citizen in mourning, to ask her about metaphorical language?…

Read the entire interview here.

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Sheila K. Johnson on Yokohama Yankee

Posted in Articles, Asian Diaspora, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive on 2013-04-30 03:27Z by Steven

Sheila K. Johnson on Yokohama Yankee

Los Angeles Review of Books
2013-03-13

Sheila K. Johnson, Anthropologist, Gerontologist, and Freelance Writer

Oh, To Be Japanese!

MANY FOREIGNERS have fallen in love with Japan — its physical beauty, its culture, its people. Most of these foreigners have been men, and some have married Japanese women or taken Japanese male lovers. A few have become naturalized Japanese citizens, but this can be a difficult process unless one happens to be Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904), a famous early visitor and explicator of things Japanese who was adopted into his wife’s family, or Donald Keene (born 1922), an equally famous contemporary Japanologist, who became a citizen as an act of solidarity with Japan in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and tsunami.

In his book Yokohama Yankee, Leslie Helm tells the story of his part-German, part-Japanese, part-American family from the arrival of his great-grandfather Julius Helm in Yokohama in 1869 to his own adoption of two Japanese children in 1992. Intertwined with this story he recounts the vicissitudes of Japan’s history during this time — two world wars, massive earthquakes in 1923 and 1995, and his own ambivalence about being part Japanese and yet always being regarded there as an outsider, a gaijin.   

It is important to the Helm family story to understand that, until 1987, only children born to a Japanese father and a foreign mother could become Japanese nationals. The American sociologist William Wetherall, who married a Japanese woman and had two children with her, challenged this law because he wanted his children to have Japanese citizenship. After a lengthy legal battle the law was changed by giving the mother’s rights legal status.

Wetherall insists that Japanese citizenship laws have never been racist — as early 20th century American laws denying US citizenship to “Orientals” assuredly were. He argues that Japanese laws were merely rooted in the patrilineal social structure and household registers. But, given that Japan was a virtually monoracial society and enforced the exclusion of Westerners from its shores until the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1854, being a Japanese citizen has been, for all intents and purposes, the same thing as being ethnically Japanese.

In 1869, Leslie Helm’s great-grandfather Julius arrived in Yokohama from Germany. He’d first traveled to the US and briefly tried farming in Montana before taking the transcontinental railroad to San Francisco and then a ship to Japan. Yokohama was just becoming a busy port with ships bringing machinery and manufactured goods from Europe and the US before heading back loaded with silks, tea, and porcelain. Julius Helm quickly saw an opportunity to create a stevedoring and portage company; he soon owned horses, carts, and warehouses, and became a prosperous man. By 1871, he’d sent for two of his brothers from Germany and made them partners, and in 1875 he married his Japanese housekeeper, Hiro, who bore him seven children…

Read the entire review here.

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