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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.

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missysedai

2008-02-03 06:53 pm (UTC) (Link)

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
gigantic
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.

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