Q&A: Cathy Tashiro on Mixed Race Before the Concept of Mixed-Race Identity Existed

Wingate Packard August 7, 2013 0
Q&A: Cathy Tashiro on Mixed Race Before the Concept of Mixed-Race Identity Existed

Photo caption:  Cathy Tashiro, author of “Standing on Both Feet: Voices of Older Mixed Race Americans,” Paradigm Publishers, 2012.

Memories of Anti-miscegenation and Issues of Racial Identity

Cathy Tashiro, an associate professor emerita at the Tacoma-campus nursing program at the University of Washington, has released a much-needed academic reflection, “Standing on Both Feet: Voices of Older Mixed Race Americans,” that explores questions of identity for older mixed-race Americans. She examines the experiences of African-American/white and Asian-American/white adults, whose lives have been deeply affected by social change in the last 50 years.

When the parents of the mixed-race individuals in Tashiro’s study got together, interracial marriage was prohibited in many states, with anti-miscegenation laws on the books until 1967. This meant that their families experienced severe difficulties with housing, employment, harassment and other discrimination.

Tashiro briefly reviews the historical heritage that led to the defining of American identity as white, and the “essentializing of previously diverse groups into ‘races.’”  She then explores, through extensive interviews, how mixed-race people who are half white — and yet almost always identified by others as people of color — challenge issues of racial identity. She observes how such factors as how a person looks, legal definitions of race, social class, economic status and opportunity, and the point in history at which they came of age all influence identity. There is much to ponder in these stories of older mixed-race Americans and their experience with the social construction of race and racism. International Examiner (IE) spoke with Tashiro about the specific experience of being an older mixed-race American.

IE: What motivated you to write about older mixed-race Americans?

When I first heard the term “mixed race” I was in my 40s. It was exciting to hear it acknowledged. I audited a class at UC Berkeley (University of California, Berkeley) in the early 1990s called “People of Mixed Blood,” possibly the first university class ever taught on mixed-race issues. It was exhilarating, but it left me with a sense of dissonance because nobody else in the class was my age. Mixed-race issues were being addressed primarily in relation to younger people, especially adolescents and young adults. Identity is more complicated than how people self-identify on surveys. I’m half Japanese and half white, [and grew up] not being able to conceive of wholeness. I was old enough to have experienced different times, before the concept of mixed-race identity existed.

I wanted to stimulate a deeper critique of race in this country. Mixed-race people provide an excellent point of entry to a critical re-examination of ideas about race. We experience the contradictions directly. There is a racial chimera, an illusion: in this country “race” means somebody who is not white. Then how do you think about someone who is half white and half not white?

IE: What surprised you most in your research?

I wasn’t expecting the difference in complexity in the way the older and younger cohorts in my study talked about identity. The older people talked about it very matter-of-factly. People my age who experienced the upheavals of the 1960s and the rise in ethnic pride talked about identity in much more multi-dimensional ways. I wasn’t exactly surprised, but I did learn a lot about the day-to-day experience of being African American in this country. Because the mixed-race African Americans I interviewed — though mixed — were identified by others as black, they provided a window into the racism black people in this country experience.

IE: In your book, you write about one mixed-race African-American woman whose mother was white, and how her feelings in a community of color were influenced by her mother’s attitudes.

The woman I call Grace in my book talked about how race was never discussed in her home. Ironically, she lived totally in the black community. Her mother, who was white, was well accepted in the black church that the family was part of, but sometimes displayed negative attitudes about black people. Her mother worked in a completely white environment, and kept her black family a total secret from her place of employment. No one at work knew she had a black family. You see the pain and injury that causes to the family.

IE: Can you talk about what it means to be “racialized”?

To be categorized externally. I have a background in community and population health. I’ve written papers about and been in discussion with health-care professionals where there is an unspoken assumption that race is real biologically. I like the term “racialized” groups to make clear that race is something that is imposed on people.  People who do critical research looking at health disparities should acknowledge that different health outcomes are not due to inherent biological differences between “races,” but rather to social factors like poverty, racism, inadequate access to education, etc.

IE: Your study involved older Americans, and their evolving sense of identity and the insights they came upon in your conversations with them. Are there lessons here for mental health counseling, or geriatric care for older mixed-race Americans?

Our health-care providers make a lot of assumptions based on perceptions of the racial group. There is a false sense of security that they know us by factors like last name and appearance. Cultural competency training sometimes gets it wrong. The training should not be a laundry list of features about different cultures. Providers need to get to know individuals and not make assumptions. They need to know about the great diversity within racial groups, and that includes people of mixed race, too.

IE: What observations or advice do you have for younger mixed-race people, and their communities and schools?

[Don’t] make assumptions based on appearance, name or affiliation. Acknowledge these things, but don’t make them exotic. At schools, the critical mass of mixed-race kids might want the chance to talk with each other. Try to promote activities that break up the way things have always been done. Encourage kids to bond over things other than race, like band, athletics, all kinds of diverse activities. Kids who are mixed race should not worry if they don’t identify a certain way at a given moment just because people expect them to.

There is a dialectical process of social change. The man I call Gus in my study, a mixed Filipino man in his 50s when I interviewed him, recalled walking down Fillmore Street in San Francisco in the 1960s when he was in his 20s. He saw a beautiful poster of a black man and a black woman, with the words “Black is Beautiful.” He called it “one of the single-most important turning points” in his life, for the way it shifted his self-perception, after growing up hearing “black” used as a derogatory word. It changed him, and he got involved in social movements. We are influenced by — and then we influence — prevailing social norms.

Cathy Tashiro will be reading from her book at the Wing Luke Museum of Asian Pacific American Experience on Saturday, August 17 at 4 p.m. Learn more at www.wingluke.org/events/theatre.htm.

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