American Graffiti & Photo Essay

One of my favorite classes in college was Library & Information Sciences 303: Writing Across Media. For the following assignment, we were to imagine ourselves as activists and create images that would ask society a specific question. In true rebel-making style, our task was to design and spray paint our own stencil graffiti and pair the concept with a photo essay. All in the name of academia, we presented these to our peers and published our experience of the study online. The project got me to express a strong feeling that I had left unspoken until then and to find my voice in art forms I had yet to consider exploring for myself.

January 26th, 2011

Rationale

I want to question what an American looks like. Not a white American, or an American who has immigrated (a discussion of its own) but a multi-racial American who was born in and lives between the worlds of their parents, growing up alongside white Americans who unlike their white peers, never have to convince those around them that they are indeed American. Thinking of the “American Beauty” or “girl next door” our imaginations tend to default to a white woman with western European features, though a mixed-race woman who may embody such qualities is more immediately thought of as “exotic” even if she is the girl next door you grew up with shooting hoops.

So like, what are you?

My stencil graffiti displays a racially ambiguous woman on a backdrop of stars and stripes, “American” scrawled above her. To continue the theme of who an American is, my photo essay is a series of headshots of several American women who identify as mixed-race.

Before I decided on the graffiti statement, I considered using photos of famous mixed-raced actors instead of unknown portraits so that viewers might recognize and reflect on them from a perspective they might not have had before. However, I think it would be more powerful to focus on everyday Americans. I hope that in looking at their faces, people will see just how familiar yet different so-called “brown” can look.

You may have heard the phrase, “One day the whole world will be brown.” Some people find this statement reassuring. It’s a positive outlook towards there eventually being some true equality in the world. Others cringe at the thought, afraid we will end up looking all the same, or somehow lose their heritage (rather than say, gain another). I like to hope that most people realize they have the ultimate decision of who they have children with but in any case, what is so upsetting about people integrating and blending? If it is appearance that the opposition is concerned with (bit racist), they really have nothing to worry about. You need a background with like, a minimum of eight different nationalities to be Brazilian. Have you seen what Brazilians look like? They are all supermodels.

In high school, a teacher once compared the beauty of two different girls in one of my classes. She stated that the Amerasian student was the “Type of girl every guy wants to show off to his friends” while the Caucasian girl was the “One he could bring home to Mom” a classic beauty. She said it without malice and passed the notion off as compliments to both girls, throwing in a quick Angelina Jolie/Jennifer Aniston, bad girl/good girl likening without realizing she was widening the racial divide in the classroom, an audience of several young, highly impressionable minds. Unfortunately this comment reinforced the damaging notion that the girl to be shown-off was inherently other, dark, the object of sexual desire, while suggesting the white girl was by nature the standard, light, of moral substance. Obviously, I was the other girl and the only person of color in the room, as was usually the case. So usual that I didn’t stand up for myself. I didn’t have the words then.

I have the words now.

Though it’s not the experience of all people who are mixed-race, I’ve met enough young adults with multi-ethnic backgrounds to gather that we tend to have a harder time feeling like we belong than our peers who pass for/identify with a single race do, whether they are from the majority or a minority race. Personally, as a Korean-German-Irish hybrid myself, my Korean friends and family often remind me how “totally white” I am. They’re not hateful about it but their tone is often corrective or dismissive when I mention or relate to our shared Korean culture (not to say that I haven’t experienced blatant racism on the matter before, that also another topic of it’s own). At the same time, my white, black, Latin, etc. American friends who haven’t spent much time with other mixed-race Americans think of me as an Asian that’s been Americanized. They’ve assumed I was born abroad and was adopted or naturalized into the country. While they get that I’ve been raised in the same culture and society, it’s apparent I’m not exactly considered one of them. Neither race claims me and going as what I actually identify with, “biracial” hasn’t quite caught on. I’ve been told it’s widely agreed upon as a label reserved for black and white mixes only.

Recently attending a meeting at a Korean-American registered student organization, I learned the term, “banana friend” when an acquaintance introduced me to the group as being yellow on the outside, white on the inside like them. I don’t like bananas but it looks like the closest I’m going to get for now. I could have gotten down with being an “Oreo” though. Black and white mixes get all the best labels…

Ok, so there’s still no option for people like me to select multiple ethnicities on standardized test forms or any paperwork we have to fill out our whole lives long, does it matter? I’m over-simplifying the problem, but it matters. When representation and recognition are still so rare in society it’s like your kind doesn’t count, over time those experiences add up and it can feel like it’s you that doesn’t count.

In elementary school, my teachers advised me to select “White” on my tests, explaining that was the best answer since my dad is white. That never made any sense to me but I had his last name, so I justified it that way. Still, it always felt wrong denying my mother’s and my Asian identity (and in the early days, put me in a distracted headspace before getting to the real questions of the test). Later, I thought it just made for bad data and sometimes chose to fail the math section for the Asians that day. The now sporadically available, “Other” box is a funny option. It makes me smile at the thought of all the worlds completely different mixes filling it, “I guess”. How helpful is this demographic for statistics anyway? Wherever the results go, there’s no telling who’s white and Native American, or African and Pacific-Islander, etc. Is this confounding data serving anyone? It’s 2011, let’s make this multiple choice question actually multiple-choice.

race-box-e1547319396812.jpg

Throughout my life, I’ve heard I look completely Asian to some people and completely white to others (and Native American to a select few. Those people are my favorite). Some people often feel the need to emphasize to me how I look like one and not the other and definitely not both. I’ve learned that these people have apparently never met someone of the opposing opinion. Nevermind that no one asked them, but sometimes I like to politely blow their minds by sharing the interesting fact, “Cool, other people have told me the opposite.” Their reactions to this news are sometimes confused, loud, or argumentative. I’ve been told that can’t possibly be true and if it is true, the person who told me that is, “ignorant” or “lying”. Some people reassure me that they didn’t mean it in a bad way (?) or stress that I shouldn’t be ashamed of my roots (??). For my next experiment, I would just like to put these two groups of people in a room to argue with each other instead of at me. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Technically, I’m a 13th generation American on my white side and the 2nd on my Asian side, so if you want to measure my claim to Americaness in a really strange way, I suppose I average out to about the 7th generation. That’s just math. I’m just as American as the next Daughter of the Revolution, so what makes me so automatically less American than my English, Irish, French, Italian, German, or Polish peers?

If being American means being a so-called “mutt” like we often hear Americans say, why is it that only white mutts seem to qualify?

 

Reflection

After taking everyone’s photo, I’m happy with presenting anonymous women over high-profile celebrities. Movie stars are almost too symbolic, icons that are less relatable and often thought of as the characters they play in film. I like the effect of featuring unknown American women because their fresh faces help make the message real.

Not Quite White

  • I am German, Irish, and Korean.
  • Maria is French, Indian, Chinese, and Vietnamese.
  • Hannah is half British and half Iranian.
  • Lauren is half African-Jewish and Japanese.
  • Maria S. is German, Irish, French, and Korean.
  • Emma is half Swedish and half Turkish.

I wonder about the effect of displaying their names within the portraits, placing their first name above and their last name below their headshots. The women in the photos all have first names that can pass as American, so I thought it would be interesting to insert their maybe not-so-American last names in the photo too. Some viewers might also be surprised to see a woman who to them looks like a minority, then see she has a very American-sounding family name. For example, Hannah would be seen as Hannah,  above and Shariatmadan, below. Maria as Maria, above and Simpson, below. However, the point was to let the photos speak for themselves and convey the meaning on their own. So I think using just their image is still strong. This way it communicates, “These Are Americans.” I like the simplicity.

There are a couple subjects who share similar backgrounds, which I appreciated the opportunity to include. It shows how different a multi-racial person can look from other multi-racial people of the same ethnicities. Maria and I share the closest ethnic ties, both being half Korean and half Western European, though like my brother and I, we don’t look much alike.

The photos are set to be displayed in random order every time the page is loaded or refreshed. I considered using some sort or order amongst the girls (by race, geographic location, similar racial backgrounds) but I didn’t think that would have any effect or make much sense. I think it is appropriate to have the images change placement, this way no one viewer sees the same order and if someone wants to show the blog to someone else, they see the girls in a new order than before. I know it is a stretch, but I’m looking to pull any and all thought from the viewer on the project. I would consider a viewer simply noticing a change in order from their last visit as successful because even in the smallest way, they may look at the individuals differently beyond the first impression, kind of like we do in real life.

If I could change anything, I would like to have featured nine to twelve or more portraits. I think it would be more effective to show more mixed women. If anyone wants to contribute, please let me know! I’m not going to be checking birth certificates or DNA results but I’d like to work with as many women as possible for the sake of this project. We just need to find a brick wall to shoot in front of and before you know it, you’re an activist.

My only question was if my graffiti makes the statement I want it to. I struggled with choosing the right text to combine with it: American, American Woman, American Beauty…I also wasn’t sure if the image of the racially ambiguous woman would be recognized as such. In my initial presentation to the class, during the workshop, several students indicated that the darkend features, almond eye, and fuller lips did suggest a race other than Caucasian. One student suggested using the title, “American Beauty” as he first assumed was my intended statement. He explained he thought this could question what the woman in all the pop-culture references to American beauties looks like. However, another student said this would make it more of a discussion of, “What is beauty?” over, “What is American?” and she makes a good point. Though it brings up an interesting thought, for this project I don’t want it to make it a discussion on what qualifies as beautiful. It was helpful to have gotten feedback from my peers on the subject who were able to understand my concerns and provide insight into how my project is received by others.

What do you think?

3 Comments

    1. Yogi Roadie

      Wow, that is an amazing discovery! Thanks for sharing the article, O.G. –Super interesting to read and think about where we come from and where we’re going. My guesses are “aliens” and “finding our way back to the stars” ;)

      Like

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