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 (discussions of their own) but a biracial or multiracial American who lives between the worlds of their parents; who are born into both and grow up alongside white Americans, yet unlike their white peers, find themselves having to explain to those around them, throughout their lives, that they are American. When thinking of the quintessential “American Beauty” or “girl next door”, we tend to imagine by default, a woman of western European descent. At the same time, a mixed-race woman who may embody all-American qualities is more often thought of as “exotic”, even if she was indeed the girl next door who you grew up with shooting hoops.

SO LIKE, WHAT ARE YOU?

My stencil graffiti displays (what I hope translates to) a racially ambiguous woman on a backdrop of stars and stripes, the word, “American” scrawled above her. To continue the theme of questioning what an American looks like, my photo essay is a series of head shots of several American women who identify as mixed-race.

Before I decided on the graffiti statement, I was first inspired with the photo essay concept. Originally, 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 “brown” can look.

You may have heard the phrase, “One day the whole world will be brown.” Some people find this statement reassuring interpreting it as a positive assurance that eventually there will be equality among the races of the world. Others cringe at the thought and lament of how depressing it would be for people to end up looking all the same. I’ve heard some complain that this somehow suggests an inevitable loss of their heritage; not gaining another or more culture. While I like to hope that most people realize they have the ultimate right of deciding who they have children with (not to mention evolution requires a lot of time), in any case, what is so upsetting about integrating and blending? If looks are what the opposition is concerned with (bit racist), these people really have nothing to worry about. You need a background of like eight different ethnicities to be Brazilian and have you seen what Brazilians look like? They are all supermodels.

Appearances are one thing, an underlying sense of being “less than” is another. In one of my classes in high school, an English teacher once got sidetracked and compared the beauty of two different young women. She stated that the Amerasian student was, “The type of girl every guy wants to show off to his friends…” while the Caucasian student was, “The one he wanted to bring home to Mom.”—a classic beauty. My teacher said this without malice and passed her sentiments off as compliments to both students. She threw in a quick Angelina Jolie/Jennifer Aniston, bad girl/good girl likening to boot however, without realizing she was widening the racial divide in the classroom (an audience of several young, highly impressionable minds). Whether or not the teacher was aware of the damage she was doing, this comment reinforced the notion that the girl-to-show-off was inherently other, dark, and an object of desire, while suggesting the white girl was, by nature, the standard, light/fair, and of moral substance. Obviously, I was the other girl (not to mention the only person of color ,as was usually the case) in the classroom. 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 and gotten to know enough young adults who come from diverse backgrounds to gather that we seem to have more challenges than our peers who pass for/identify with a single race, do. 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 like some Korean bullies have been, but their tone is often corrective or dismissive when I mention or relate to our shared Korean culture. At the same time, I have white, black, and Latin American acquaintances and friends who have disclosed one way or another that they think of me as an “Americanized” Asian, meaning they assume I was born abroad and was adopted or naturalized into the country (which also tells me they’ve simply not spent much time with other mixed-race Americans). While they get that I’ve been raised in the same culture and society, it’s apparent to me that I’m not exactly considered one of them. Neither race claims me as their own and going with 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.

I recently attended a meeting at a Korean-American RSO (registered student organization) and learned the term, “banana friend” when a member 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 get down with being an Oreo friend 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 does matter. When representation and recognition are still so rare that 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, taking my first Scantron test, I got stuck filling out my demographic info before starting on my first test question. My first grade teacher advised me to select “White” when I wasn’t sure how to proceed. She explained that was the best answer since my dad is white. That common reason has never made sense to me, but I had his last name, so I thought of its precedence in that way. Though I got used to it, before every subsequent test thereafter, it always felt like a blatant denial of my and my mother’s Asian identity (and in the early years, put me in a distracted head space before getting to the real questions of the test). Some days, as I started to learn more about racism, I thought it just made for bad data and sometimes chose to fail the math section for the Asians that day, just to stir things up. The now sporadically available, “Other” box is a funny option to me. It makes me smile at the thought of all the worlds unique mixed kids filling it in, “I guess” in their heads. How helpful is this for statistical purposes anyway? Wherever the results go, there’s no telling who is what combination of other. 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 surprisingly Native American to a select few (those people are my favorite people). Some people often feel the need to stress to me how I look completely like one, totally not like the other, and definitely not like both. I’ve learned that people from these two different schools of thought have apparently never met the other. Never mind that I didn’t asked for their opinion, but sometimes I like to politely blow their minds by sharing, “Cool, other people have told me they think the opposite, the other way around.” Their reactions to this interesting fact are sometimes confused, loud, or argumentative. I’ve been told that can’t possibly be true, and if it is true, then that person who told me that is ignorant or just lying. Which, why would they think the other idea has to be a lie? Is qualifying as white so esteemed that they must have given it to me as (too high of) a compliment? Some people, after hearing the news simply 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 debate with each other instead of argue their cases at me. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Technically, I’m a thirteenth generation American on my white dad’s side and a second on my Asian mom’s side, so if you want to measure my claim to American-ness in a really strange way, I suppose I average out to about the 7th generation (that’s just math). In all seriousness, 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 “mutt” like we often hear Americans say with pride, 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 each subject’s names within the portraits: placing their first name above and their last name below their head shots. The women in the photos all have first names that “sound” American, so I thought it would be interesting to include their maybe not-so-American sounding last names in the photo too. Some viewers might also be surprised to see a woman who to them looks foreign, then see she has a very American-sounding family name. For example, Hannah would be seen as Hannah above and Shariatmadan below, and Maria above, with 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 background, both being of Korean and Western European descent, 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 among the women (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 darkened 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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