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To “Stand On Both Feet”: Cathy Tashiro and The Dimensions of Mixed Race Identity

My friend, Cathy J. Tashiro

Here is another story about being mixed: My friend Cathy and I were chatting a bit after yoga class. A classmate came up to us:

“Your name, Tamiko—hmm, that sounds Japanese.”

“I am half Japanese, actually,” I said.

Cathy and I looked at each other.

“Actually, we’re both part Japanese,” Cathy told him.

He looked at me, puzzled.

“I don’t see any Japanese in you…”

He studied Cathy again: “But you look Japanese.”

Cathy and I looked at each other again. Cathy smiled at him.

“Yep, we’re both part Japanese.”

Somehow, he didn’t seem satisfied with her answer.

Cathy Tashiro and I have talked about growing up part Japanese American, but we also have a shared interest in multiracial studies. Cathy is the author of a book on mixed race African American and Asian Americans, called Standing on Both Feet: Voices of Older Mixed Race Americans. Several subjects in her study are half Japanese American—and it was my “Nikkei+” essay, Snapshots from a Nikkei/Filipina Album,” that led a mutual friend to introduce us.

Cathy is an associate professor emerita at the University of Washington in Tacoma, where we both live. Based in sociology, the book is the result of Cathy’s interviews with eighteen older people who have mixed Asian American/white and African American/white ancestry. In the Introduction, Cathy points out that while multiracial individuals are much more prominent today, including our current President, the option to have a multiracial identity, to “stand on both feet” (in the words of one of her interviewees) has not always existed. By focusing on older generations, the book fills an important gap in mixed race studies. I wanted to hear more about the writing of her book, and how it’s taken her to different places, including the MixedRemixed cultural festival in Los Angeles.

* * * * *

TN: In the book, you talk a bit about what brought you to the subject of older mixed-race Americans, including your autobiographical connections. Do you feel like you’ve been able to answer your initial questions about racialization and generations? What questions still remain for you?

CT: [My] remaining question—how does mixed race identity change over the course of an individual’s life? Some of the people I interviewed addressed that with regards to how they felt at the moment I interviewed them, compared with how they remembered how they felt in the past, but I would be interested to know how people would respond if they were questioned, say, every decade. I got their retrospective memories and thoughts in the present at one point in time, which isn’t the same as actually hearing from them at different points in the life course.

Also, for younger generations, what has changed? What has not? And the specifics of those questions, such as family and community.

TN: What was the process of writing the book like?

CT: I would divide that into two aspects:

The process of analyzing what people said was electrifying. Quite a journey of discovery, from which I was able to identify the five dimensions of mixed race identity [in the book, family, race, class, gender, age, and nationality]. This was new stuff at the time.

The process of writing the book was challenging, because I was trying to make what had started as a doctoral dissertation into something more accessible to the interested general reader. Decisions about what to leave in, what to leave out were agonizing. In general, I found myself editing more and more, so the book ended up being shorter than I expected. Just the practice of writing makes you a better writer, and the more I did it, the more I realized “less is more.”

TN: What has been the most surprising or rewarding thing that’s emerged for you out of writing this book? (either during the writing process or since its publication)

CT: My reacquaintance with a couple of the people I interviewed, and where they are now in their life journeys. As you know from the stories in the book, the people I interviewed were exceptionally thoughtful and reflective about race, and they remain extraordinary, evolving people.

TN: Interracial marriage has been a subject of discussion for a long time in research (and discussions) about the Japanese American community, and there are a couple of mixed-race Japanese Americans in your study. How do you think your book contributes to these conversations?

CT: I think it’s important that the stories of “Todd” and “Jane” remind us that mixed-race Japanese Americans and non-Japanese parents and spouses experienced internment. And when you look at the mixed Japanese American brothers “Joseph” and “Charles” you can see how differently identity is experienced even within the same family—which to me is a very important antidote to essentialist thinking about people of mixed race.

TN: Can you talk a bit about your experience at Mixed/Remixed, the multimedia cultural festival?

CT: It was great! You know, I always feel at home in a gathering of people of mixed race, but this was especially cool for me because of the vibrancy and youth of the organizers and participants. These young people are very media savvy (it is in LA!) and they had entertainment figures like Key & Peele, and the folks in the Cheerios commercial, spoken word performance—I was in heaven. And my buddy Roy Harrison, who is called Fred Johnson in the book, whose quote is the name of the book, was there with me on the “elders” panel, and I think he enjoyed being the elder statesman a lot.

Also, it was really interesting to hear discussions about how the children of these young people are so much more multiply mixed, that you could start fantasizing that race is going away. But again, this was LA and then there’s Ferguson. There are multiple experiences of mixed race based on geography, but also social status, gender, etc.

TN: What is your biggest concern about racial dialogues in our country, and what is your biggest hope (about the same)?

CT: Well, that’s the question, isn’t it.

My biggest concern about racial dialogues is that there aren’t any. OK, so maybe I exaggerate (a little), but there are very few, and when they occur, it’s usually in fairly elite contexts, such as on college campuses. Also, there’s a dearth of skilled people who really know how to lead dialogues about race, and if it’s done badly, it can be worse that nothing. There’s a huge perception gulf between whites and people of color about the impact and salience of race, and not much dialogue. As a result, we have the problem of implicit bias, which is largely unconscious. We need dialogues in safe spaces where we can acknowledge that we ALL have biases, but unless we’re aware of them, we’re at their mercy.

My biggest hope. Well, I guess my biggest hope is that with the rapidly changing demographics of this country, we might reach a point where there is no majority, which, speaking as someone who lived for many years in such an environment, creates a different feel to things. It’s kind of an equalizer, especially when it’s accompanied by real power-sharing among the different groups. I’m also encouraged to see formations like organizations of first [generation] college students across racial lines that include whites as well as people of color. There has been way too much dichotomizing of class and race, and let’s get real, they are related.


© 2015 Tamiko Nimura

author Cathy Tashiro hapa identity interviews japanese american Mixed Mixed/Remixed race standing on both feet