A Conversation with Eric Hamako
Steven F. Riley, Creator
This is the first in a series of interviews with scholars, writers, activists and others involved with the topic of multiracilism.
Scholar Eric Hamako is an Ed.D. candidate in the Social Justice Education concentration at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a long-time student- and community-organizer of mixed-race activities. Last October, Eric was appointed to a position on the United States Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee (NAC) on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations for a two-year term. The committee, as one of several National Advisory Committees, advises the Census Bureau on a wide range of variables that affect the cost, accuracy and implementation of the Census Bureau’s programs and surveys.
I had a chance to sit down with Eric the morning of November 2, 2012, during the 2012 Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference (CMRS) at DePaul University in an attempt to learn more about him, his scholarship and his activism and how they intersect. The day before, both Eric and I had presented papers at the conference. Eric also presented another paper on Saturday followed by a report on the census for the CMRS business meeting on Sunday! Thus our face-to-face time was quite pleasant, yet far too brief. Recently, I caught up with him to follow up on our CMRS chat.
Steve Riley: What inspired you to get involved with mixed-race community and student organizing?
Eric Hamako: In college, like many Mixed-identified folks, I sought out community in various ways with various groups. In some places, I wasn’t seen as belonging or didn’t feel welcomed. In others, I felt I had more opportunities; people saw potential in me and welcomed my contributions. In particular, toward the end of college, I heard about a student organizing a student chapter of Hapa Issues Forum. I attended the small meeting and, as I listened to others, I thought, “Well, I have some thoughts and suggestions for what this group should do…” And, opening my big mouth, people seemed supportive—so much so that they said, “That’s a good idea… you’re in charge of that.” Little did I realize, at the time, that this was the first meeting and that, by virtue of showing up and demonstrating some initiative, I had somewhat inadvertently joined the leadership core of the group. Mixed-Race organizing has, unlike some of my other work and volunteer experiences, been a place where I’ve felt that I could make a more substantial difference. I’ve worked in other positions where, if I was heard at all, my ideas weren’t given much merit and I wasn’t sure what difference I was making. But, with my Mixed-Race work, I’ve felt that I’ve had more sense of community and more sense that I could impact what’s going on. So, I’ve tried to nurture that in my own work, to provide opportunities for others to connect and make their marks, too.
SR: Can you describe the selection process for membership to the Census NAC?
EH: Over the past few years, a number of Multiracial student and community organizations have been networking and getting closer to one another. Through some of our collective work, we were informed by a Census representative that the Census Bureau was putting out a public call for nominations to a new iteration of the Census Bureau’s advisory committee system. Our loose network of Multiracial organizations’ leaders decided we’d nominate someone, in hopes that we’d have a representative on the committee interested in Multiracial issues. Through an internal nomination and vote, the group elected to nominate me for a position. The Census Bureau grandparented in fifteen members of the former advisory committees, the REACs (Racial and Ethnic Advisory Committees), and of the nominations received, selected an additional seventeen new advisory committee members, for a total of thirty-two members on our National Advisory Committee. The Census Bureau chose me as one of the seventeen new nominees. I don’t know much about the process the Census Bureau used to choose among the nominees, but it’s my sense that they were looking for members who would be knowledgeable in various subject-areas and had community connections to various marginalized and hard-to-count populations.
SR: Certainly there are others in the mixed-race community who might have served on the Census NAC. What do you bring as a representative that others may not?
EH: There definitely are other leaders who also have area-related knowledge, historical perspective, and strong connections to Multiracial organizations and networks. I feel fortunate to have been nominated by peers and selected by the Census Bureau. To help share the information I’m learning and to solicit the concerns and opinions of people interested in racial justice and Multiraciality, I’ve created a blog: Two Or More: Mixed thoughts about the Census NAC (http://censusnac.blogspot.com).
SR: Are the NAC meetings in-person?
EH: There are several different National Advisory Committees (NACs), including the NAC on Racial Ethnic and Other Populations. The NAC on which I serve is scheduled to meet in-person four times in two years, as well as holding at least two virtual meetings. These meetings are open to the public and provide comment periods, which I encourage people to use. Additionally, our NAC will have “working groups,” which are tasked with exploring and researching various subtopics, such as how to count hard-to-count populations; the impacts of using third-party databases to supplement Census Bureau data; and what might happen if the Census Bureau combined the “race question” and the “ethnicity question” into a single question. The working groups are also empowered to recruit experts from outside the NAC to contribute to the group’s work. So, for people interested in working with the NAC, you might think about how you could contribute to a working group’s work.
SR: Do you anticipate any changes affecting the Two or More Race (TOMR) option on the 2020 census?
EH: I think it’s important for everyone to know that neither racism nor race are stable or natural. Racism metastasizes and changes over time, changing the ways that race is thought about and implemented in the US. For the last few decades, the Census has been one way to try to observe and track the symptoms of racial inequalities. For example, we can use the data to determine whether a racial group is disproportionately imprisoned or denied access to equitable bank loans. Without such data, it’s difficult to demonstrate racist trends.
At the same time, the Census’ racial categories change from decade to decade; one reason for those changes has to do with the ways racism and race change over time. For example, the more a group is able to assert that it is a group and has valid claims to seek recognition and protection from racism, the more able it might be to seek recognition on the Census. The 1997 Directive No. 15 issued by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) allowed for the “Mark One Or More” (MOOM) format on the 2000 Census’ race question, resulting in the Two or More Races (TOMR) data we’ve seen from the 2000 and 2010 Census. At this point, I do not have reason to believe that the MOOM format will be significantly altered for the 2020 Census.
But, there are many important issues that are related and less visible. For example, in the lead-up to Directive No. 15, I think many people were talking about “What will the forms allow?” (i.e., “enumeration”) and far fewer people were talking about “How will people’s responses be counted up and reported out?” (i.e., “tabulation” and reporting). I encourage everyone to educate themselves about how the data is tabulated and reported. Different agencies and organizations tabulate and report in different ways—and that impacts how the data can be used and what we can learn about racial inequalities.
SR: What challenges (if any) do you anticipate with your NAC?
EH: I think several of the challenges are logistical, but the logistics of things also impact getting to know each other and working together. All of the committee members are working other jobs and have other responsibilities. We’re spread out across the country and meet in-person only a few times during our term; that makes getting to know each other and remotely coordinating our work more challenging. Thankfully, I think that many of us have had experience collaborating over long distances and the Census Bureau provides some technical support for bridging the distances (e.g., conference calls; a web-based space for communication and collaboration; financial support for travel to our in-person meetings). Another logistical or perhaps communication challenge is sharing information with and gathering concerns and opinions from various populations and communities. While I don’t claim to represent every Multiracial-identified person or every person concerned about Multiracial issues, I do hope to find ways to communicate with other people. For now, I’m counting on my connections to various Multiracial organizations and my attempts to reach out through those channels.
SR: The census in Canada does not collect data on race. Do you think that the U.S. should follow in its footsteps? Why or why not?
EH: Because I think the Census’s data about race is an important way to identify racial inequalities produced by systemic racism, I’m in favor of continuing to collect information about race, rather than discontinuing it. That said, collecting information about race via the Census is merely a way to track the symptoms of racism, rather than the systems through which racism operates. I think we need information about both.
Similarly—and perhaps controversially—I think that we often use a person’s racial self-identification (e.g., on the Census) as a loose way of inferring things about their experiences of racism. Some scholars have pointed out that this is somewhat sloppy and also reinforces the myth that “race” is real, when really race is just a product of racism. So, if what we really want to know is, “What’re your experiences of racism?” then we can and should ask additional questions, beyond just “What’s your racial identity?” or “What race are you?” Part of racism’s myth of race is the idea that members of a so-called racial group are all similar and thus different from everyone of other racial groups—but really, there’s tremendous diversity within so-called racial groups. And racism affects members of a racial group differently, based on racism’s interaction with things like sexism, heterosexism, classism, colorism, ableism, nationalism, and Christian Supremacy.
SR: I was impressed with one of your Facebook posts about the California Mumford Act of 1967, where the National Rifle Association (NRA) and conservative Republicans, led by assemblyman Don Mumford and governor Ronald Regan spearheaded gun-control legislation because of a fear of increased gun ownership by black people. How and why is it important to use an anti-racist social justice framework when engaging in your work?
EH: I can’t claim credit for the content of that post—only for reposting it along to folks; there’s some good stuff out there. As for my own work, I’m trying to find ways to improve the ways that we teach about racism and about monoracism (oppression of Multiraciality). As a student and an educator, I’ve found that much of the anti-racist curricula that’s currently available isn’t well-suited for addressing monoracism or for reaching Mixed-identified participants. So, I’m trying to work with colleagues to identify some of those shortcomings and to improve what and how we’re teaching about racism, about monoracism, and about the other “intersecting” or intertwined forms of oppression. I try to keep a multi-issue analysis in mind when I work and when I teach. For me, I aspire to a social justice analysis that sees how things like racism and sexism are not only “intersecting” but are intertwined and make up each other. And, further, I think Multiracial organizers can learn a lot from other social movements. I’ve been particularly interested in what Multiracial organizers can learn and share with people organizing for bisexual/pansexual liberation and transgender liberation. Certainly, we’re present in each other’s movements, but we’re also each situated as “in-between” and many of the stereotypes and aspects of oppression are similar, too.
SR: How and why is the examination of the “mixed-race metaphor” in science fiction and other genres important in the discussion of mixed-race?
EH: I believe that stories are powerful. Stories shape how we think about ourselves and others; how we think about social problems, their origins, and their solutions; and what we think is possible or desirable. Many negative stories have been told about Multiraciality and, while they continue to be told, now there are also more seductively positive-sounding stories, too. But I want to emphasize: racial stereotypes that sound positive are still racial stereotypes, are still racism, and often play into larger racist agendas.
In the past, we had more stories where Multiraciality was represented as negative, defective, confused or evil. And those stories are still being told (e.g., Voldemort in the Harry Potter franchise). But now we’re seeing more stories where a hybrid hero embodies more positive-sounding stereotypes and defeats the hybrid villain. So, the hybrid hero tells us positive-sounding stories, such as “Multiracial people are smarter, healthier, stronger, etc.” or “Multiracial people will be the end of racism!” But as sweet as those stories sound, as seductive as it might be for people to believe those lies, that’s all they are: racist lies. Multiracial people are neither racially inferior nor racially superior. No one and no group is inherently better or worse than another on a racial basis. And, I hope that we will strengthen our mental self-defense skills so that we’re prepared to fight back against racist stories; not just the obviously hateful racist stories, but also the seductive racist stories that try to say, “Hey, we used to say you were bad, but now we’re going to say you’re better… (better than those people).” I think that seeing the problems in stories is an important step to telling different stories, rather than retelling the same old stories.
SR: I found the Critical Mixed Race Studies (CMRS) conference to be an incredible learning experience and thoroughly invigorating. It was great to have the privilege to present a paper and it was also really wonderful to meet many of the scholars that I have posts for on my site. What did CMRS do for you and how might it influence your NAC activities?
EH: I’m so thankful to all the people who’ve made the first two CMRS conferences possible—to everyone who attended, but also to the people who organized the conference and made it happen. As an attendee and a presenter, CMRS continues to be a place where I can meet new people, reconnect with friends and colleagues, feel inspired and useful, and also, as an academic, to be exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking. As a representative to the NAC, CMRS provides me with opportunities to share information, gather ideas and opinions, and to connect broadly and deeply with people who’re concerned about Multiraciality, monoracism, and social justice. I’m looking forward to CMRS 2014!
©2013, Steven F. Riley