Ticking Other: A Diplomat for Diversity and Equality

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An excerpt from ‘The Good Immigrant’, subchapter ‘Shade’ by Salena Godden:

There is a dream, a grand idealism, that mixed-race people are the hope for change, the peacekeepers, we are the people with an other understanding, with an invested interest in everyone being treated equally as we have a foot and a loyalty in many camps with all shades. We are like love bombs planted in the minefield of black and white. It is as if our parents intended to make us, with courage, and on purpose, as vessels of empathy, bridge for the cultural divide and diplomats for diversity and equality.

As you grow older, as a mixed-race person, you become a chameleon, you are born with natural camouflage. When you travel everyone assumes you are some version of Latino or Spanish. In the first minutes of meeting you, people have to figure out what shade you are and this is your superpower, it buys you valuable time […]

You earn time to chameleon, to camouflage, to make your shade darker or lighter. To morph into what is required or expected. Whatever it takes to survive, whatever it takes to be heard, whatever it takes to get the job. It’s all positive discrimination. Right? No. Wrong. Very. Wrong.

I haven’t relied on tokenism or any positive discrimination […] I, have, however, always felt that I have to work ten times as hard and that my voice is mine, but that it is different. I continue to survive and thrive due to my own tenacity and the generous support of others, people who identify as being other: the warriors and outcasts, rebels and renegades, the revolutionaries, the circus, the outsiders and underdogs, the working-class heroes, the punks and the poets and the LGBTQ+ community too. We have learned to belong in the un-belonging. Spirited and colourful souls, of all shades.

We tick: Other.

This is the best articulation of what it is like to be of a mixed race, multicultural background that I have ever read. It is also a much better formulization of what I was trying to convey when interviewed regarding my ‘otherness’ for a friend’s blog. Let’s start a conversation…

_______________________________________________________________

From: GUSMAN, Johanna [mailto:gusmanj@who.int]
Sent: 21 April 2017 01:23
To: —-
Subject: Blog Interview Questions

Kudos to you for following through with this idea! I remember you speaking about it while I was still in Cairo. I am excited to see where you take this! So here goes:

What is your family’s heritage and/or culture?

My father is Filipino-Hawaiian, born and raised on island. My mother is of German descent (maiden name is Holtzclaw), with blonde hair and blue eyes. My brothers and I are first generation mainland, born and raised in the least Pacific place ever: the East Coast of the States. Whenever I am asked my ethnicity on forms, I always tick ‘other’ or with the more progressive questionnaires ‘mixed’.

How would you define your cultural identity? Do you base it on your nationality /country of origin/ your family’s heritage/anything else?

This question is tough for me because not only do I not have a traditionally specified cultural identity, I have also lived in many different countries among many different cultures (South Africa, Peru, Argentina, the Philippines, Samoa, Egypt, Switzerland and the U.K.) so I have also pushed against the national origin construct. Hawaiians have a wonderful term for this phenomena (because Hawaii is itself such a melting pot) called ‘hapa’, which means half and is usually used to refer to people of mixed-race background. Although once considered derogatory and often directed towards people of Asian heritage, this word has now been used to empower and reclaim the flexibility of culture and heritage. In an incredible medium called the Hapa Project, the well known artist and filmmaker Kip Fulbeck helped to bring this idea to mainstream art. One of my favorite statements from the project is this: ‘I am a person of color. I am not half-‘white’. I am not half-‘Asian’. I am whole ‘other’. Powerful, no?

Is it important to you to have a cultural identity?

Yes, I do believe it is important to have a cultural identity, but I think it is imperative to remember that just like other identities, it is fluid.

Do you remember the first time you became aware of your cultural identity, heritage or nationality?

Yes, I actually remember it vividly, perhaps because growing up in the United States means that much of the conversation about cultural identity also centers around multiracial identity. In the fourth grade, while sitting on the swings at the private Christian school that I attended, a girl in my class, upon seeing my father drop off a forgotten lunch and after having seen my mother at the book fair, told me it was ‘disgusting’ that my parents did not look like each other. This was in the 90s. And for sure she didn’t just come up with that adjective from her own observation–fourth graders usually classify each other based on lunch box styles, not racial constructs. I knew as the only ‘person of color’ in my class that this ‘disgusting’ fact was something all of the other families had discussed and something that my fellow classmates had subsequently absorbed.

Do you think people define themselves in relation to others around them?

Absolutely. In many ways, it is how we are socialized. And we internalize ideas from that socialization, much of which caters to those in power because that is part of the privilege of being in power: you get to define. You get to make the distinctions of yourself in relation to others, usually ranking yourself on top. In this conversation specifically, it’s the entire reason we still have questionnaires that require us to tick one box and one box only.

Have you ever felt unfairly treated because of stereotypes against your culture, nationality or ethnicity?

Yes. There are so many examples that I do not have the mental and emotional energy to answer this question in one setting. In any power struggle, the ones having to concede space to the other always longs for the archaic norms that gave and secured them that power in the first place, so unfair treatment based on stereotypes is par for the course in my life. But I will say this about culture, nationality, and ethnicity: They are all intersectional, meaning that systems of oppression that perpetuate unfair treatment based on these stereotypes are often blind to each other and used as a means of silencing a person’s specific experience. I think this is why I tend to be such an outspoken advocate for equality and inclusion—my specific experience is often silenced.

Have you experienced discrimination?

Based on my cultural identity? Absolutely. As it goes with many of these constructs, whenever you break the mold, it can be met with back lash. Within the multi-racial context, it is difficult because I have never been ‘white enough’ to be accepted on that side of my background and I have never been ‘brown enough’ to fully claim those aspects of my upbringing. So I have always occupied this sort of grey space where I have sometimes been made to feel the worse aspects of both. This is why I often find that hapas tend to be an inherently empathetic and accepting bunch. We have lived definitively marginalized existences. When it comes to my culture/heritage/ethnicity/race, it is not an ‘either or’ situation and my very existence as a human pushes people’s comfort with this.

What is your opinion on common classifications of cultures/ ethnicities?

The definitions of common classifications are often defined by the group in power, so it is always important to unpack the historical events that have led to those classifications in the first place. It is particularly meaningful to me because my parents fell in love in a time when interracial couples were not fully accepted, even within my own family. In fact, I grew up in the State that precipitated the infamous Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia (aptly named, right?), which was only decided in 1967, still within their lifetimes. I am the byproduct of why such a ruling was needed in the first place. It is no wonder that I work for the United Nations–I have directly benefited from the unity of at least two nations.

What is something you have learned from a culture that is different from your own?

Acceptance of the ‘other’ and that it is not superior or inferior, just different and that is wonderful. I am actually quite proud to be of a multicultural background despite the fact that I have had to face discrimination and that I have had to carry the burden of educating others of the non-binary nature of culture, ethnicity, heritage, race, or whatever social construct against which my existence pushes. In a way, it has been a privilege of my own because I have experienced the world from several perspectives, and lived more fully in that knowledge. It is a beautiful thing to be the product of two cultures mixing together. The sum is always greater than its parts.

I hope you can use this, whatever parts you like. It has just sort of spilled out of me tonight. Hence sending it at 1AM. But also, I am super jet lagged from MEXICO! So if some points need more clarification, just let me know 🙂

Much love,

Johanna

P.S. I fucking loved Mexico City and am currently in the works to find a way to move and/or chill there for longer!

 

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