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wood cat
Kate kate_nepveu
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Kip Fulbeck lecture on the Hapa Project, Union College, January 31, 2008

Thursday we went to a lecture by Kip Fulbeck, artist and creator of the Hapa Project, which is a series of photos of people who identify as of part-Asian or Pacific Island descent, accompanied by their own descriptions of their heritage and their handwritten responses to the question, "What are you?"

Note on terminology: Fulbeck's website defines "hapa" thusly:

ha•pa (hä’pä) adj. 1. Slang. of mixed ethnic heritage with partial roots in Asian and/or Pacific Islander ancestry. n. 2. Slang. a person of such ancestry. [der./Hawaiian: hapa haole. (half white)]

When subsequently looking around the Internet, I learned that this use of "hapa" is offensive to Hawaiians. "Hapa haole" does not just mean "half white," but "half/part white and half/part Hawaiian." ("Hapa" by itself means "fraction" or "part." There is a whole series of expressions for "part [ethnicity].") Therefore, using "hapa" to refer only to part Asian ancestry is erasing Hawaiians from their own language. For more information, see "Hapa: The Word of Power," by Wei Ming Dariotis; The REAL Hapa: The Hawaiian Hapa; and Wikipedia. I will refer instead to Asian-Americans of mixed ancestry or heritage (I prefer "ancestry" to "heritage" because I find it more neutral; however, the project refers to "heritage").

By far the most interesting part of this evening was the project, looking at selections from it in the accompanying exhibit and listening to Fulbeck discuss others during his lecture. There are samples online, which I recommend, and over a hundred prints in his book Part Asian, 100% Hapa. The project has three components: the portraits, the handwritten responses, and the descriptions of the participants' heritage.

The portraits: the wide variety of physical appearances fascinated me, and reminded me of a couple of things. First, in three weeks in Japan, I noticed that there was a wider range of skin colors and facial types and features than I had expected: which is just to say that even knowing that it's not true that "they all look alike," I could still be surprised at how much people of a single ancestry didn't look alike. (This being Japan, I believe the possibility that I was looking at people of mixed ancestry was very low, especially in the older generations.) And then when you add mixed ancestry, as in the pictures, the idea of stereotypical ancestry-related appearances breaks down even further or perhaps completely.

Second, the wide variety was another good reminder of how people of a multi-racial future are not inevitably all going to be the same color, because the biological and genetic processes that determine one's appearance are more complicated than just taking the average of one's parents' appearances. (Most of you have seen this already, but the easiest other example I have to hand is Toby Buckell's post on being multi-racial and Caribbean.)

On a similar note, one of my guilty pleasures is J.D. Robb's In Death series, which is set fifty years in the future but with very little rigorous thought to the worldbuilding. Something I've noticed is that Eve Dallas, the POV character, regularly identifies someone as mixed-race based on visual cues only; and I think this isn't realistic. Some large proportion of multi-racial people could be visually placed in multiple racial or ethnic categories depending on the viewer; and so even if Eve was super-extra-awesome at spotting six generations of ancestry from a glance or whatever, I think it would make more sense for her, as a police officer, to think in terms of less-ambiguous visual descriptions. Actually, what I'd really like in an SF police procedural is a set of standard skin tone descriptions, that communicate both light/dark on an absolute scale and the different tones on the lighter end. Someone create that and I'll start using it in everyday life.

The handwritten responses: as previously mentioned, these were to the question "What are you?" During the lecture, Fulbeck commented that the kids' responses (some of which are online) were interesting because they hadn't yet learned to think in racial defaults. I don't think that's true: I think they just hadn't yet learned to hear the question as one about race the way non-white adults have. It's also, of course, a hugely offensive question—I submit there is no good reason to ask anyone "what are you" outside of a costume party—and the responses reflected both of these to various degrees.

(I suspect, but do not know, that transsexual and transgender people also get this question. Anyone else?)

The participants' descriptions of their own heritage: the only thing I have to say here is that one participant listed just "Filipino," and in the accompanying response, pointed out that the history of the Phillipines means that there's a lot of Spanish ancestry in the population, among many other things.

As for the rest of the talk, I found it overly long and occasionally facile, especially in showing the video "Sex, Love, & Kung Fu" (viewable online) at the opening, but I also had a headache. I did think some about Fulbeck's descriptions of people feeling isolated by not seeing people who looked like them, and wondered why I never felt that way; I came up with no useful conclusions, however. On the whole, interesting project, and I recommend seeing it in an exhibition or browsing the book.

Edit: I meant to talk about the parts of the lecture addressing the selection process for the project and forgot. On being asked, Fulbeck said that to get picked, it helped to write something interesting and to be male (because 75% of the participants, all volunteers, were female) and not of Japanese ancestry (because some large percentage of the participants were). He was also asked about whether he was concerned about people fetishizing the portraits. He said yes; he had to cut the number of portraits by half, and as he, his editor, and someone else were going through the portraits with sticky dots, his editor stopped and said, "I have a confession. I haven't picked any hot girls." And it turned out they were all doing the same thing (so they went back and put a few in). Anyway, aware of the issue, but he said he didn't really know how to stop people. Which is okay as an answer, though a better one, IMO, would have been to say that he was attempting to portray people as people, which is one way to avoid fetishizing; but then he said shucks, no-one's ever fetishized me, I don't know how it feels. And then I was annoyed on gender grounds, especially since he'd made a few Mars-Venus comments previously.


The participants' descriptions of their own heritage: the only thing I have to say here is that one participant listed just "Filipino," and in the accompanying response, pointed out that the history of the Phillipines means that there's a lot of Spanish ancestry in the population, among many other things.

To nitpick a bit, the response from that fellow said: "I am 100% Fillipino. I have Spanish in me" (or something very close to that). Fulbeck talked about the history part, but the original response didn't have any more than that.

The guy in question also has a neck tattoo (visible in the photo) saying "100% Filipino."

Thanks for the correction; I wasn't taking notes.

In the photos online, one young woman has responded "What am I? Shouldn't you be asking my name first?" I rather like that response.

Alexander has been asked on more than one occasion if he is adopted. His Syrian heritage is even more visible than Maus', and it is apparently rather disconcerting to some people to see a child of very obvious Middle Eastern heritage out with a lily white woman and addressing her as "Mom".

His blank stare, followed by "Why would you even ASK such a thing?" is glorious.

Are these strangers in the grocery store or equivalent? What makes them think it's any of their business?

Pretty much. He's been asked at the grocery store, at the mall, and a couple times on the bus. I can't fathom why anyone would feel the need to ask either.

Not long ago, while we were buying gifts, he glomped me in the bookstore while I was talking to a clerk. "Mom! Mama! Mommy! Pleeeeeeeeze can I have the new King of Hell? Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeze!" And while I laughed at his shenanigans, the clerk stared at him. "This is your Mom? You don't look anything alike! Are you adopted??"

Alex said "Yup. I followed her home from the Humane Society." And we left without buying a thing. It doesn't happen a lot, but it's irritating as hell when it does. People, I am reminded every single day that I have to deal with them, are STUPID.

I'm still working on formulating a canned reflex response to the "where are you *really* from?" question that would actually educate people politely--to replace my default reaction which is to freeze and leave, because sometimes I do want to educate well-meaning but ignorant people--even though it's not my obligation, or Alex's, of course!

But it's hard when I'm taken aback.

I suppose the question then becomes how to tell the well-meaning folk from the ones who were apparently born in a barn in Outer Redneckia. It's one thing for someone to ask about your lineage when you're discussing heritage/culture/race, and quite another for someone to ask completely out of the blue.

I think Alex handles it quite a bit better than I do - my first instinct is to ask what rock they've been hiding under. Toledo has a sizable Arab-American population spread throughout the city, and we're pretty much within rock-chucking distance of Dearborn, MI, which boasts a
Arab-American community, something like a third of the city's population. It just strikes me as common sense that there will be families of mixed race about. I'm always astonished when someone treats it as unusual. He lets loose with some flip remark in a tone of voice that implies "you idiot", and carries on with whatever.

Being taken aback is certainly an understandable reaction. It's such an intrusive line of questioning to begin with, I don't know how one would go about being polite about it.

I don't know whether "I'm from $place, like I said. Are you calling me a liar?" would be educational or not. Or, rather, whether it would be the right sort of educational. ($place because while I'm not sure where you said you were from--Vermont?--or whether you might now say Albany instead.)

Massachusetts, and probably not the kind of educational I would be after, for all that it might be satisfying.

Well, there's always the fun-if-not-diplomatic answer, "Oh, I'm from Hell."

Where I am actually a ring-tailed deer!

In Minnesota, especially in the Twin Cities area, no one looks twice at one of our Korean kids calling this white man or woman "Dad" or "Mom." (Not only has adoption of Korean children been common here for many years, but Minneapolis has one of the highest proportions of people who identify as "mixed race" in the country.) But we have run into one kind of funny assumption. I am over 5'9" and my younger daughter is about 5'3". She has a friend who has a white father and Chinese mother; she "looks" white. The friend is about my height, and her mother is about my daughter's height. When we are all standing together, I am assumed to be the friend's mother and her mother to be my daughter's mother.

What am I?

I'm a bipedal great ape.

Answering the question racially can also be touchy in some ways. Like many, perhaps most white Americans with Anglo or Scots-Irish names, I almost certainly have some Native American ancestry. But a lot of white people in the post-"Dances with Wolves" era make a big deal out of this, and like to think it makes them special somehow, without bothering to connect it in any way to the reality of Native Americans; it's all about romantic notions of the noble vanished Indian, imaginary Cherokee princesses and such, to the point that American Indians usually bristle when they hear this sort of thing. Culturally I'm white, I look like the whitest white guy there is and I get all the benefits of being white. So in any reasonable racial answer to the question I'd say I'm white, but I get a nagging feeling that this isn't completely right either; my mixed-race ancestors probably hid it because of simple racism.

Re: What am I?

That all makes a good deal of sense to me, and I think sounds perfectly reasonable as an answer to an inquiry about your ancestry.

Re: What am I?

I'm there also.

My cousin researched an old family story, researched my mom's mother's family tree, and confirmed it to be true: an ancestor of my grandmother's was a Cherokee.
When the removal of Cherokees to Oklahoma was ordered, she and her betrothed, a Scot-Irish man, quickly changed the date of their planned wedding, so she wouldn't be taken away from him. This happened in western North Carolina (where most Cherokee lived alongside many whites).
My cousin found the husband's name in old records, but not that of the wife--yet. This makes some sense considering the racist character of the USA in the 19th century.

My recently deceased Mom and one of her sisters have/had slightly darker skin than their other siblings, and my brothers and I have almost nonexistent facial hair. Culturally, I'm a white guy.

Something I've noticed is that Eve Dallas, the POV character, regularly identifies someone as mixed-race based on visual cues only; and I think this isn't realistic.
I haven't read the books, so I don't know how it's treated in this particular situation. But I don't think it's unrealistic to say that sometimes people can identify others as mixed race. Certainly not always, and probably not regularly, because of all the variation in biological and genetic processes that you mention. But I do think it's possible to a degree, especially if you move in circles where there are a fair number of mixed race people. I know that I became a lot better at identifying people who were mixed Asian and white after living in Korea and going to school with a number of people with that background. Perhaps it's analogous to being able to, say, distinguish between people of different East Asian ancestries: sometimes it's impossible, and sometimes it's strangely easy.

I'm aware that my cultural defaults and lack of experience are coming into play, here, and that a lot of people would be much more accurate than I in visually identifying people's ancestry. But I wasn't just talking about realism of ability, but also of whether it would make sense for her to think that way _as a cop_ who puts a premium on useful descriptions of people.

You might be interested in my take on the question.

Thanks--I remember this essay from the summer, but it's good to have it here as a reference too.

I thought I'd mentioned it before! Memory fading....

Is the character portrayed as consistently correct when she labels people as mixed-race based on appearance? Because it's not unrealistic for someone to think they're much better at identifying that, or any other characteristic, than they are. And if her colleagues share some of her prejudices, or are just used to her descriptions, her saying "male, 5'9", 160 pounds, brown jacket, mixed race" would be useful in the same way that "male, 5'9", 160 pounds, brown jacket, white" is. And I know they use that sort of description.

Yes, she is; her observational skills are much-lauded and she is Super Cop.

Thanks for the thoughtful review. I found your comments on this
I learned that this use of "hapa" is offensive to Hawaiians
especially interesting since I just visited Oahu and Hawaii and have been thinking about the trip. On the one hand, there's a Hawaiian "cultural renaissance" going on, with arts and language; then on the other hand there's the commodification of that culture for the benefit of the mainland and Japanese tourists.

Most of the Hawaiian residents our office works with are of Japanese ancestry, interestingly.

OTOH is there any successful revival of a native culture that doesn't depend on an outside market for the products of the culture? Serious question, I don't know the answer to it; but of course there are better and worse ways of commodification regardless.

And yeah, that's one of the things that makes the linguistic displacement particularly painful.

That's an excellent point, and it occurs to me that I'm making judgements (sp?) about commodification based on my own aesthetic prejudices (like, rolling my eyes at the luaus that the fancy resort hotels put on for tourists, while approving the high-end gallery crafts). I guess a significant point is, how much control do the people of the culture in question have over the presentation? My (limited) understanding is that that aspect is improving.

IIRC the UK puts a middle "e" in judgment and the US does not.

What I always wonder about, when looking at crafts, is how much of the money gets back to the creators, and--what I think is related to your point--whether the creators really want to make eight zillion X and whether X is actually representative/important to that culture.

As someone with a mixed-race daughter, I suppose I've put strangely little thought into this whole issue. Maybe because it's complicated, but also because to me, she's uniquely her, and I don't really look at her with an eye towards identifying racial strains in her appearance. Perhaps in some sense that's a naive way to go about it, but there you are. Living in the Bay Area, I'm honestly not sure how or what effect her heritage--at least as expressed in a physical, phenotypical manifestation--will have on her growing up. I've always just assumed it would be neutral or positive, and I hope that's not being naive, either.


I hope not either, but it seems like something to put in the back of one's mind to think about how to respond when it does come up--because I'm sure it will. Even if you don't get "is she adopted?" when she's with whichever parent she resembles least, and it is a positive or neutral way.

(Deleted comment)
I'm almost glad that I didn't know to ask him at the lecture, then, because my head might have exploded and I would have fumed for the rest of the night.

Actually, it was afterword-guy who wrote that, Paul Spickard. But yes, very much headdesk.

:: (I suspect, but do not know, that transsexual and transgender people also get this question. Anyone else?) ::

Bi poly lesbian here. I get it.

Urgh. Thanks.


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