I probably should have posted this one sooner, but I had bigger thoughts about other things, so they went up instead. In any event, I hope this provides some retrospective context about my feelings on labels.
My first personal encounter with the concept of being “of color” occurred in college. Prior to then, I’d heard the term and vaguely had the idea some people associated it with people like me, but it had never been brought to bear in a conversation I was part of. People used words like, “Asian,” “Asian American,” “Japanese,” and “Japanese American.”
Then, early in my freshman year, a white person asked, “As a student of color, do you – ?” I don’t remember the rest of the question. Even now, the jarring impact of the words, “student of color” is what resonates with me most about that remark. I remember answering the question and also letting the person know I didn’t identify with the term, “student of color” and preferred not to be referred to as such. The person never used it again, but I kept thinking about it.
Fast forward almost eight years – yikes, it’s been almost four years since I left school! – and at last, I think I have the vocabulary to articulate why being called a “student of color” bothered me so much.
As a kid growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, there was never a time when I wasn’t exposed to a mix of Asian and non-Asian cultures. I grew up with books, songs, and movies in Japanese and English, and though my few friends (at the time) were mostly white, my relatives and our family friends were mostly Asian – and within that group, mostly Japanese. My parents took my sister and me to Japan every summer to visit our relatives there, where an odd reverse effect took place.
In the US, I didn’t look like most of the people in my class, but I knew how to (mostly) talk and act like them. In Japan, I blended in with the street crowds, but quickly realized my relatives didn’t expect me to know how to act Japanese. What I learned in those years – without knowing how to articulate it – was the complexity of being diaspora Japanese. I could and did identify with both places, but also felt rejected by each of them in different ways. Still, I never stopped seeing myself as Japanese – I just accepted I would be different from the people across the Pacific, and different too from others in the US who called themselves Japanese or Japanese American.*
Maybe this all meant I was a super self-centered kid with tunnel vision (FYI, that hasn’t changed), but in all that time, I never considered identifying as anything other than Japanese. My parents never spoke of our family using terms like “Asian,” “Asian American,” “people of color,” or “nonwhite.” We knew we were Japanese and nothing more had to be said.
During these same years, I was encountering my fair share of racism and microaggressions, from white and nonwhite people alike. I was hurt and thought, “they’re racist,” but I didn’t really understand what this meant or what the larger implications were. I was also participating in my share of racism and microaggressions with little to no effort to check myself, and I didn’t think much about the institution of whiteness until I got to college.**
Then came the day when “student of color” was thrown at me. I was completely unprepared and my gut response was denial. I wasn’t a “student of color,” I was Japanese (or maybe “Japanese American”). How dare this (white) person stick a label on me that I never claimed for myself? And, moreover, why did it have to be a label signifying difference – “of color” – but not ACCURATE difference – in my case, “Japanese.” I had always been a stickler for accuracy, especially when it came to identifying people, maybe because I knew how much it hurt when people misidentified me as some other type of Asian. I rejected the “of color” label and made clear to all my college friends I wasn’t to be called by this term. Thus passed the remainder of my four years.
A few months ago, when I started following online communities of marginalized writers, the term popped up again, this time as, “people of color,” or “POC.” At first I was annoyed – were people uncaring enough to be referred to by a term that really didn’t mean anything? “People of color” – that was the same as “nonwhite,” right? And didn’t “Japanese,” “Black,” or “Oglala Lakota” signify just as much nonwhiteness – while also retaining the respect of specificity? But then I realized – if marginalized writers want to effect change in the US publishing industry, we will have to work together, and probably with some privileged white folks, too. “People of color” means nothing and everything – because in a fight where the opponent is the institution of whiteness, our side needs a name, too, a name bigger than any one person or culture or ethnicity – and that name is POC. People of color is a term of solidarity – or perhaps it has been coopted as such, if white folks originally invented it to uphold white supremacy. In this sense, I absolutely support its usage.
But. It’s been clear from some of the responses to marginalized voices that certain folks see us as a monolith. That one POC can be switched out for another with impunity. That having one or two “Asian” authors on the list is enough – no more, because how can the third or fourth or fifth or hundredth Asian author possibly have a unique story unlike the stories of the first two?
I can’t resolve the gatekeeping issue by myself, but I can take steps on a personal level to force recognition from the privileged folks who interact with me. Below is a short checklist that may help:
- I self-identify as Japanese. You may refer to me as Japanese.
- You may also refer to me as Japanese American. I prefer Japanese, but JA is ok.
- You may refer to me as Asian or Asian American if you are discussing these communities. I refuse to stand as the sole representative for either one, but I self-identify as a member of both.
- I self-identify as a member of the POC communities advocating for marginalized voices in the US publishing industry. I do not self-identify as a Person of Color. If for some reason you can’t use Japanese or JA when referring to me, you may use “nonwhite.”
In my own eyes, I am first and foremost Japanese. All other race/ethnic labels listed above are ones I identify with in relation to those communities, but not ones I identify with as an individual. I will not stand as the sole representative for ANY of the labels listed above. Japanese, Japanese Americans, Asians, Asian Americans, POC, and nonwhite people are not a monolith – not together, not separately.
Regarding my preference for the term “nonwhite” over “POC,” the reason is simple: some white folks get uncomfortable when whiteness gets mentioned. “People of color” is essentially saying nonwhite – without using the word “white.” I respect and support the argument that omitting the word “white” helps decenter whiteness from the discussion by removing it as an option, but in my experience, the number of white people who get uncomfortable about open discussions of whiteness is greater than the number of white people who will understand the politicized absence of the word “white” from “people of color.” Since white people are the ones with the worst track record of depicting Japan/Japanese culture, one of my personal goals as an advocate for marginalized voices is to push as many of those white people as possible beyond their comfort zones and, in doing so, confront them with their own culpability in continuing to privilege their voices over nonwhite voices.
I realize my experiences with white people reacting to whiteness may not reflect other people’s experiences, which is why I will continue to use both “POC” and “nonwhite” in discussions of the collective, but “nonwhite” in relation to myself.
Phew, that was a lot of words about words, wasn’t it? Thanks for reading and, as always, check out the Resources page for additional/differing opinions (and less wordy opinions).
*The next post will discuss my thoughts on “Japanese American” identity.
**I’ll have a different post about how my experiences in education shaped my understanding of racism and its partners-in-crime, colonialism and imperialism.