The discussion of race in the United States has always been complex and often difficult. Yet in an overwhelmingly large percentage of families, it is not difficult to find some evidence of a multiracial influence.
LeiLani Nishime is assistant professor of communications at the University of Washington and author of Undercover Asian. She examines how multiracial Asian Americans are often overlooked even when presented in highly visible popular media such as movies, television shows, magazine articles and artwork. Nishime contrasts the phenomenon with examples when audiences can view multiracial Asians as multiracial. She told VOA’s Jim Stevenson her fascinating study began with simple discussions in the classroom.
NISHIME: I had students in class who wanted to hear about mixed race and so I taught one class on it; they liked it so much I turned it into a two-week unit, and they liked that so much I turned it into a class, and after that I thought, “well, maybe there is enough there to write a book about.” I mostly draw from pop culture and from visual culture specifically, so advertising, television, film, that sort of thing. That’s partly just because of my own background and training, I was trained in literary studies and I did most of my dissertation work on film. I’m also interested in popular cultural icons because I feel like they have something to say about our culture more generally.
STEVENSON: Tiger Woods is definitely one of the most recognized athletes around the world, and of course, with some of the things that happened in Tiger’s career in the past few years made him even more well-known, I guess. Tiger is an interesting case: his father is African American, his mother is Thai.
NISHIME: There are times where he identifies as African-American, some as Asian-American – he had made up this term, “Cablinasian,” for a while, that he calls himself. I think though, for most of his career, he actually tries not to identify racially at all. His publicity can paint him as something new, something outside of our usual racial categories.
STEVENSON: You mention the colorblindness aspect and how that can be potentially difficult for someone like Tiger Woods.
NISHIME: I think a lot of his advertising campaign really focused on him being this kind of new figure, this multiracial figure, a colorblind figure. But I think that eventually, there were too many expectations built up around it. So that when he got caught up in this scandal, it seems like a lot of that colorblindness was revealed for being very flimsy and not having very much staying power.
STEVENSON: Science fiction has been very well-known for integrating the races in various scenarios and storylines. You talk a little bit about race and science fiction in your book.
NISHIME: I love science fiction, so that was sort of a natural choice for me. Science fiction is this really interesting space where people are able to have a utopia, have this kind of ideal of the world they want to see. Often, I think that’s the overt story that we see on screen. Science fiction is still written by people that live in the same world we live in, so a lot of our unconscious beliefs about race still surface in those films that aren’t very, that aren’t on the surface, that you might not recognize right away.
STEVENSON: One of the interesting topics I found in your book was multiracial genetics and the problem of geography. So often, we tend to look at geographical areas for clues and answers to this discussion, but you say it’s really a poorly defined parameter.
NISHIME: The kind of sense that we have, that geography can explain so much for us, I think is partly because it seems like it exists outside of society or it exists outside of culture. A lot of those ways that we draw those boundaries between different continents or different geographical areas is really something that we’ve come up socially, rather than something that’s existing naturally in the world.
STEVENSON: It’s incredibly complex and very emotional.
NISHIME: Yes, I think that’s why it is incredibly different to talk about. How can it be anything but personal, and so people feel very personal about their own racial identity, about feeling like they’re going to say the wrong thing – I think that happens a lot. I think I would like people to think about mixed race people as the beginning of a conversation, because there is a sense that mixed race people are something new, and that they are a race of the future. I think a lot of times that shuts down conversation because we believe we don’t actually have to do anything to improve racial relations - that we’re inevitably heading towards this future where everyone is mixed. And I don’t think that’s true - I think recognizing how long mixed race people have been with us, and how enduring the racial groupings have been despite of all this mixing, can give us a way to have a more robust conversation.