Monday, January 27, 2020

Who Am I?



A little while ago there were some powerful stories circulating on Instagram about the experiences of people of color in the costuming community. As a person of mixed race myself, I felt both saddened and strengthened to read about these experiences and know what I wasn't alone. I didn't share my own experiences at the time because it can be painful and emotionally exhausting to do so, and I applaud those who had the strength to share.

Yesterday I posted a video on my Facebook that interviewed mixed-race people to talk about their experiences. In the ongoing discussion about race in America, mixed race people's voices are just beginning to be heard. The people interviewed spoke to the ambiguous place that mixed race people occupy, never feeling fully a part of any culture and continually being "othered" by white people and people of color.

My identity as a person of mixed race is something that I have struggled with my entire life, and I am still on a journey of understanding and acceptance. Even though this blog is almost entirely for sharing my historical clothing research and recreation, there's no denying that my racial identity is a huge part of me as a person, an historian, an artist, and a maker. So read on if you'd like. If you're just here for pretty pictures, I'm hoping to have a new costume post very soon and you can check back later.

My grandmother, Michiko Watanabe, came to America in the 1950s after she married my grandfather, Arthur Stickel, an American sailor from Columbus, Ohio. He was stationed in Japan during the Korean War and my grandmother worked in a cafe in a train station. My grandpa's brother had survived the Bataan Death March, but was killed when the US sank an un-marked Japanese ship carrying POW's. It still amazes me that my grandpa's family embraced my Japanese grandmother the way they did, even though their son/brother had been a prisoner of the Japanese and died in their custody. When my grandma came to America, she stopped speaking Japanese except when talking to her family back in Japan. She learned to cook German-American food. She converted to Catholicism. She loved baseball. She took a job as an alterations seamstress in a department store in Columbus. She became, as much as possible, an American.

My grandpa loved musicals and movies and one of his favorite things was introducing me to his favorites. I'll never forget when he showed me the 1957 movie "Sayonara", about an American Air Force pilot in the Korean War who falls in love with a Japanese woman. He told me, "This is the story of your Oma and me." He also told me that the Navy chaplain who married them warned them to avoid the southern United States, since they would most certainly not be welcomed there as a married couple.


I was told that because of illness, my grandma couldn't have children. My grandparents adopted my mother, born of Chinese-American parents, in Los Angeles, where they relocated. My uncle, of Chinese and French descent, was also adopted. My mom and uncle weren't raised knowing anything about their Chinese culture, nor did my grandma teach them how to speak Japanese or cook them Japanese food. None of that stopped the racist teasing that my mom faced in school, because of course, she still looked Asian.


Both my mom and dad worked when I was growing up, but my grandparents lived around the corner from us and they were our after-school carers. I am so grateful to have had the close relationship I had with them. I absolutely took it for granted as a kid, which is one of my biggest regrets in life. I only know as much as I have shared with you thus far about their story, and I know there is so much more. My grandma sewed every Halloween costume, recital costume, and First Communion dress for me and my sister. She taught me the basics of sewing and absolutely laid the foundation for my passion and career. I owe so much to her. Still, I learned almost nothing about her culture. My culture? Even though I'm half-Chinese, I think I identify more with Japanese culture because of my grandmother, who at least was a living link to my "family" in Japan. She did teach me how to count to five in Japanese and say "Moshi moshi" when answering the telephone. But I was still a half-Chinese daughter of a Chinese-American woman adopted by a Japanese immigrant. What did that mean? Who was I?

I distinctly remember being ashamed of my tan skin and squinty eyes as a kid. I resented blonde characters on TV and in movies and always rooted for the brunette in a show because they were more like me even though they were white. I was in grade school when I experienced deep anxiety about my skin color, because of an off-hand comment that a friend said to me about it. My paternal grandmother tried to comfort me by telling me about her attempts to get a tan artificially and just turning orange. It still didn't help. My family often visited Hawaii when I was growing up, and while I felt most "normal" among the majority non-white population there, I still covered my skin in hats and rash guards at the beach because I didn't want to get any "darker" than I already was. I wanted to be white. And I'm going to be completely honest here--there are still times where I wish I was, especially when it comes to living history and historical clothing. I'm always surprised when people assume I'm white, especially in historical clothing, but deep down inside a tiny part of me is relieved.


My love of history and historical clothing has always been with me, even when I was little. I loved the period pieces my grandpa showed me, such as "The King and I." But I wanted to be Anna, not Lady Thiang or Tuptim. As I learned more about historical clothing and began to make things for myself and go to events, the micro-aggressions began trickling in. A reenacting friend asked me if I had ever considered portraying a Chinese woman during the Civil War (there were incredibly few, if any, Chinese women in America during the Civil War, by the way. And I shouldn't have to justify my existence to take part in a hobby). When I joined the Queen's Court at the Renaissance Faire, another courtier bemoaned "They're (the Asians) taking over!" (I was one of three Asians in the cast at the time). I could list a dozen other examples, but that's not really the point. And also, it's painful to relive them.


These instances related to historical clothing and living history are only a small part of the "regular" microaggressions that mixed-race people encounter on a daily basis. I have come to understand that most of the microaggressive comments and questions white people say to mixed-race people come from a place of curiosity or admiration (not quite the word I'm looking for but I can't come up with anything better) and not from malice. Undoubtedly the most common one is "What are you?". And you know what really hurts about this question? Think about the last time you saw a really cool looking dog out for a walk. You ask the owner if you can give the good boy or girl some pats. And then you ask "What kind of dog is it?" Well, asking "What are you?" feels like you're asking me what kind of dog am I. That I'm a mutt, a mongrel, and you want to know what purebred dogs make up this unique mix. It's not a compliment. It's not a conversation starter. You've made me feel like an animal. This analogy also works for another common comment I've received, that mixed-race people have better genes than.... purebred (?) people. My own health issues aside, it's also not a compliment. Neither is it comforting to be told that since so many Americans have multiple European nationalities in their heritage, that it's somehow the same as having mixed non-white ethnic heritage and "we're all one big melting pot!" It completely ignores the often painful experiences of mixed-race people and the centuries of racism that have shaped this country.

Perhaps what is most frustrating for me is the notion that the "gift" of being "exotic" or having a "unique" look that comes from being mixed-race somehow erases or makes up for the pain and confusion that also come from being mixed-race. It all comes down to what has been termed "othering", that is, making a person or group of people feel like they don't belong, that they're alien, that they're "not one of us." I'm here to tell you that whether you're a little kid or a grown adult, being "othered" hurts, especially when you already have no idea where you belong.

I know my friends and family love me regardless of my racial background. I know that my skills have value regardless of my racial background. But I still have to endure the microaggressions, stereotypes, and flat-out racism that come with my Asian-ness. And what's more, I don't have any connection to my Asian culture (again, would that be Chinese or Japanese?) in which to find comfort or identity. It's not uncommon for mixed-race people, even those who aren't partially white and instead are from different non-white cultures, to feel like they aren't fully accepted into the cultures that make them up. White people will never see me as white (and they shouldn't--I'm not white) but I'm not culturally Asian either, so how can I identify as Asian?

There is so much more I could say about this, but I've already said a lot. If you've made it this far, thank you for taking the time to read this. I'm not looking for compliments or to be told race and ethnicity shouldn't or don't matter and I should just love myself for who I am. The reality is that in our society today, those things do matter and they do affect our identity. My sincerest hope is that you, dear reader, will have learned something and will in the future stop to consider your words before you say or write them. Just because I've experienced hurtful and thoughtless words doesn't mean I am perfect and always say the right thing, because I don't and I'm human just like everyone else. What we need more than ever right now is to listen to each other, to affirm that what that person is feeling is valid, and to promise and endeavor to be better in the future.


30 comments:

Chelsea said...

Thank you for writing this.

tanya2s said...

Ah, the ever-present "what are you?" followed closely by "you don't even have an accent!" Growing up in California, I think I was insulated from the worst of the well-meaning racism, and even now (living in the Boston area) I think I unconsciously have a skewed estimation of the Asian population in the US because Asians are so prevalent where I've always lived. In that population I'm nothing special-- I "forget" that I'm half-Asian because (aside from presenting as racially ambiguous) there are so many Asians and half-Asians in the area. And then I go elsewhere and it's very, very different...

couture.ellen said...

Samantha-
As Chelsea wrote- "Thank you for writing this." It's beautiful, eloquent piece.
Most "Americans" are of mixed hertiage; my relatives are German, Swiss, French, Irish, Mennonite and Jewish. I'm lucky to live in majority white area and be white. If I lived in another country I might face the discrimination Samantha faces. We all need to think and act better.










Seemingly a seamstress said...

Thank you so much for writing this! I love hearing about other people’s stories! Especially stories about grandparents. You reminded me that I too take my grandparents for granted too much. They live right next door to me. And my grandma gave me my love of sewing too! I need to learn more about them. Your story was also a bit of a mirror for me too, and it is also sad for me to see how often our differences are not celebrated. And yes, I agree, it’s the micro-agressions/micro-racisms/well-meaning-but-not-well-thought-out comments that can hurt the most. My mom is Hawaiian and my dad is white and I was the only “ethnic” one in my friend groups until recently. I came out looking Hawaiian but my sister came out looking white and we were raised white because of my dad’s racism, and also the belief that it’s just safer to “be” white. My grandma is Hawaiian-Filipino and my grandpa (step-grandpa?) is white.

tanyamaile said...

Oh.... That dreaded "What are you?" question. I have yet to have a witty response to it, but have always found it offensive. I like to think that in 2020 that we wouldn't have to hear it, but it still arises and I can always tell when someone is about to ask it. Your story really resonates with me as a multi-ethnic person. I was raised with my white side of my family and while never feeling like an outsider, I was always aware that I didn't really look like anyone else. I did get to be with my Polynesian family and experience that side of my culture and being around people who look like me, so I'm fortunate for that. It's sometimes hard to be both, but I look at it as two sides to the same coin which is me.

Yeka Marie said...

Thank you for this. My children are mixed race, and I am white. I have many concerns about them being "othered." I'm hoping that at least here at home, I can do my part to fight that othering.

Elaine said...

Thanks for this insight. I will keep it in mind in future. I'm not mixed race, but have been made to feel "othered" for other reasons. I am very invested in doing my best to keep that from happening to anyone.
Thank the good Lord he made us all beautiful and special. In Him we can learn to be more loving and considerate with each other.

Michael said...

Thank you so much for this, as someone who is mixed with a Korean mother who tried very hard to assimilate herself and her children I feel that disconnect so much.

atillman said...

Samantha- when I read experiences like yours and your family’s, I am reminded what it really means to be American. I am astounded by how flippant people can be and not realize the level of their short sightedness. I am adopted, so I don’t know “what I am” and I often wonder about it. But I know that I am my parents’ child, and that’s what matters. I grew up in the south, raised by two people born and raised in the south, and people are always asking where I’m from, because I don’t “sound southern.” My dad commented once on how I speak like him, and I brought up that I don’t sound southern, and he said people told him that too. I expect people are just being curious, and it doesn’t occur to them that they are being offensive. I’m sorry that you’ve encountered this so many times, but I sincerely hope that articles like the one you wrote above will help people to stop and think about their words before they say them, and that eventually our society will be filled with only acceptance and no more exclusion. God bless.

Rachelle said...

Thank you for this, it's given me a perspective I didn't have until now. I'm lucky to be white and not have had to deal with this, but I know I have white privilege even here in New Zealand it still exists! Our family is mostly Anglo Saxon in its roots, the same goes for my husband. My SIL has Maori roots, but was lucky enough to not look Maori; what sort of society do we have when we still judge based on that? And it's not just skin colour that gets judged either, I get lots of funny looks related to my son, judging me because he can't stay still or quiet in public (he's autistic). When you get down to it though, we have improved over the years, but we still have a long way to go. Stories like yours will help in that journey as they do give us the chance to see how our behaviour affects other people. Once again, thank you!

Termione said...

My goodness! What a rich heritage you have— and so much more to discover.
Your sewing skills are a credit to your grandmother— I’m always blown away by how absolutely perfectly you skip into each time period you conjure up with your needle and thread.
I’m sorry people have been unkind to you.
Thank you for sharing your family with us.

Kathy O. said...

Finding your cultural identity is so tricky being of mixed race! I live in Southwest Missouri so there is not much in the way of diversity here. I am half Okinawan (Japanese sort of) and half white. I felt many of the things you did as a child. I just wanted to fit in. As I’ve gotten older I’ve grown to relate to my mothers culture more than my white side. My mom immigrated from Japan but she never assimilated. She is just a Japanese person who happens to live in America. My mom would face heavy ridicule from my father if she talked about her culture to me. So we didn’t really talk about it much. I sought out knowledge of my mothers culture on my own as an adult.
I hope you can find acceptance or a level of comfort with your identity! I am now proud of who I am. My feeling about people making ignorant comments I.e. what are you? Is it is just ignorance. If they don’t like that you are mixed...well bye...you aren’t missing out on anything by not having that person around. Good luck, thank you for sharing your story, and know there are lots of us out there that understand.

Rachel said...

This post is golden. Thank you for taking the time to write it. I'm always interested in heritage/genetics as I love cultural anthropology and history. As a white person of European roots I continually wonder how to be expressive of my interest and sensitive/aware. I appreciate the openness with which you shared. Thank you!

Adriana said...

Thank you so much for writing this! You've said so well what it is like to be mixed. I am half-Latina, which, being from the Southwest, it is not unusual, but I live in a very Anglo town. I don't look definitively white or Hispanic and the "What are you?" question and the exhasperation that comes with that is something I struggled with so much as a teenager. I am so very lucky that the friends I have in Historical Costuming haven't questioned when I wanted to make something that wouldn't "fit" with how I look and are instead, so encouraging. It has been hard learning to not hold myself to some standard of how I feel I "should" look, but I'm learning that all I can be is who God made me to be -myself- and that is more than good enough.

Anonymous said...

This is a lovely piece and I really appreciate you sharing your perspective, history, and experiences. As a white woman it's something I will never understand, but with people like you sharing I can become a better ally and better person.

Karura said...

From my Mexican perspective I can tell you how not knowing "what you are" can affect a full country, being ashamed or totally cutted out of one part of your heritage, not knowing where one part of your ancestry begun and not looking like the other. It can puzzle an entiry nation, make it go in denial and cause it to be completely xenophobic, racist and elitis. Dark brown against clear brown is an everyday struggle in my mixed race land. I'm glad more and more "mestizas", "criollas" and "mulatas" are making their voices go loud.
Speaking of "human breeds" mestiza, criolla and and mulata, are actual labels to determine how withe one can be according to one's parents and place of birth. Yeey colonial period for giving us human breeds, but you know what? Fuq it, I'm Mestiza and I can love every part of my heritage and learn from them.

Atlanta Historic Dance said...

Thank you so much for writing this. I had a lot of these same experiences growing up. I also felt like I was growing up in a sea of blond people and I was the weird looking friend. I'm so happy for the age of the internet. The next generation can just click and find a group of people who look just like them. It would have made a world of difference to me finding other people who looked like me. Especially women. It would have helped me to see what I would grow up to look like.

I felt so insecure about starting historical costuming because I felt like I didn't look the part. I was actually relieved to learn that there were Chinese people who participated in the Civil War because that made me feel that I belonged in the hobby. If anyone told me I didn't, I could tell them that we were there. Ken Burns said so. How sad that it even had to be something I worried about. With age comes wisdom and acceptance I guess. Thank you again and happy costuming.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences so those of us who have not faced these challenges can learn from them!

Emily Hall said...

I want to thank you for an honest perspective! Thank you so much for sharing your story. Especially if sharing it made you feel exposed, or scared, I want to thank you for your bravery and honesty. I am not mixed-race so my stories of being othered aren’t the same. But as the only darker-skinned and -haired white girl in a family of blonde haired, fair-skinned, blue-eyed people I can relate only in the sense that I get asked about my heritage so often, as if people are hoping to solve my different-ness from my family for me *facepalm*, or if I’m a half-sibling, was adopted, etc. I have been asked “what are you” as well and I totally agree that is the worst feeling. People seem to be looking for what in my genetics brings my darker coloring (compared to my family) into my genetic makeup. That affects you to a very deep level, because then you start searching for an answer to that question and can’t even decide on your own identity. Or at least that is my reaction to the question. But because I have 2 white parents, I can only imagine how much more difficult it is for people of mixed-race, and I have a lot of respect for people of mixed-race, and for people of color, and their experiences although I know that I will never fully understand.

My ramblings aside, I love your IG feed, and all your costumes, and I think you totally rock them at 110%. I especially love all your nods to the American Girl dolls. I think you are an amazing person with a story all your own. Sending good vibes your way.

Also if my comment is not ok in any way, please feel free to delete or let me know to delete. My intent is not to “one-up” or appropriate your experience AT ALL so if it seems that way I will gladly take it down. Just meaning to send love and acknowledgment.

Amy said...

Thank you for your bravery in writing this. Your story is a valuable reminder of what so many of us have the privilege to forget.

Sarah W said...

Thank you! I appreciate you sharing this <3

WriterMel said...

Thank you for this article. I think it will take a long time for the reenactment community to be genuinely accepting of anyone other than a white guy. I really appreciate your writing and I envy your sewing skills.

Peggy R said...

I am sorry you have experienced this pain. I am white, so I clearly have no idea how that feels. I can say that if you ever visit Chicago, be prepared. EVERYONE gets asked where they are from. It's a guaranteed question in this city. It doesn't matter if you are white, black or brown...it will happen. You will also be asked where and what side of the city you live in. This city is known as the most segregated city in America for a reason. Many pretend this is not so, but after having to live here for 22 years...it is so. Very sad for many people. Both my husband and I are Irish. He is from the Northside of the city and I was born on the Southside. Historically, the Northside Irish did not mix with the Southside Irish, so when we were married, people joked we should be made ambassadors for the City. It's ridiculous. When able we will move.

Tilly Bean said...

I just discovered your blog and found this post touching. I'm Canadian, white, raised in an incredibly diverse neighborhood with a predominantly Asian population. I didn't know what racism was until they had a lecturer come in and talk about it in the seventh grade, and I was mortified by it. My best friends were all mixed race and I never really questioned any of it. It took something like twenty years before I realized my one friend's mother was Hispanic and not Vietnamese like her father and half siblings! I guess because I'm ignorant but in the complete opposite way than one might expect, I just don't care "what" people are. It doesn't occur to me. The only thing that I saw with her family was that they were happy together, and to me that's all that really mattered.
I would certainly be curious about someone's accent, I love accents, they're usually a good conversation starter, but I could see how that might make one uncomfortable (although that's never the intention). People don't like to be centered out, and I guess I can sort of relate, I used to be terribly self conscious about how pale I am, and even as a white girl I constantly got called out for being "too white". I had to field questions as to why I'm so much whiter than the rest of my all Caucasian family. I could never explain why, I just am. So whether you're biracial or not, people will pick on you for being any kind of different because lots of people suck.

Monica H. said...

Thank you for writing this. I came over to your blog from the Jane Austen Summer Program Facebook page because of a post about you attending there this year. And as a mixed race woman who also loves historical clothing, reading this meant a lot to me. Feeling like I can’t identify with either side at times is familiar. And what does identifying even mean at times. Why does it box us in rather than make us feel more honest? Anyway, I’ve been on the fence of whether or not to attend more or less of JASP (I just moved to the area and so it’s perfectly close to me), but I think it would be good to go. Hope to be able to see your talk/workshop there!

Dixie said...

It must have been really hard for your grandmother to leave home and travel thousands of miles for a new family, new country, new culture. But love makes you brave. Sounds like your grandparents had a very loving relationship and were great parents to your mom. There are so many people in this country who are somewhat "divorced" from their personal history or culture for whatever reason (adoptees, refugees, descendants of the enslaved, border residents, etc), and it's difficult to piece together a lost culture while living in a land that is so dominated by western European culture that those who easily fit into it that culture see it as invisible or the default. North Americans (or at least the white ones) like to subdivide and label people. They like to know where they stand and how they measure up to everyone else. On the one hand that creates a lot of unnecessary division but on the other hand, like you said, race still matters in the US and if you can name a group you can legally acknowledge their struggles and more easily fight for progress (latinx activism for example). But our existing labels (legal or informal) are too limited and don't encompass all the possibilities of the American Identity. I have a friend who is Carribean-English. When she moved to the US she thought it was so weird that to get her drivers licsense she had to pick between being black or white. She was both. But there was no checkbox for that. We shouldn't make people choose between one part of their identity and another. And I'm sorry we've made you feel othered with overt and subtle racism. We can, and should do better. Thank you for sharing!

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