Two Sides, One Person: An Essay in Four Parts

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Source: http://www.mnh.si.edu/exhibits/race/

Part 1: Power

“Schindler is a really good name to have; it has a lot of power,” a friend once told me. “You’re really lucky.”

Whispered between her words, I heard: You should be grateful.

A New York Times article by Michael Luo highlights the weight that our names carry: after struggling to secure job interviews, Tahani Tompkins presented herself as T.S. Tompkins to employers. Buzzfeed featured a similar story—once José Zamora rewrote his name as Joe Zamora, his inbox was flooded with callbacks. This is what Zuo calls “whitening the résumé.”

The name on my résumé is JoAnna Schindler. Schindler is German. That is to say, white—or, as my friend called it, “powerful.”

Miyoko, my middle name, is Japanese. I have always loved Miyoko—the way it rises and falls, the way it twinkles. I’ve always valued and protected the family history woven into its letters. However, reflecting upon my friend’s comment, I asked myself: should I not feel lucky to carry Miyoko in my name? Is it not powerful?

 *   *   *

Part 2: Failed Expectations

  1. My mom took me to her hairstylist. Maybe, we’d thought, she could finally tame the wild beast that was my hair. Once I sat down in the chair, the stylist tugged on one of my many brown curls with wide eyes. “I wasn’t expecting this,” she said.
  1. I was in high school. My friend, an anime-enthusiast, listed a few Japanese phrases that she’d learned from a series. My silence disturbed her. “You don’t know anything?” she said. “Geez, I’m more Japanese than you are.” And for a moment, I agreed.
  1. “You don’t look anything like your parents,” a friend once said. I took it as an insult.
  1. My roommate for summer camp was also hapa. It was move-in day. She and her mother spoke to one another in Japanese as she unpacked, and I listened to the conversation as I would classical music: I heard lines of fluttering sounds, not words. The mother turned to me and asked if I spoke the language. No, I didn’t. “Didn’t your mom teach you?” she asked. It felt like an accusation. I felt the need to defend my mother with something, anything, but she turned away. Disappointed.

*   *   *

Part 3: Shapeshifting

As a person of mixed race (especially one who supposedly “looks ambiguous”), I have the “power” to shapeshift between identities and communities. To some, I am German, white—no questions asked, no curiosity. To others, I am German and Japanese: I am confusing, and suddenly, my parents’ origins are examined, along with my mother tongue. To some, my German-ness is a threat that I didn’t make. To others, my Japanese-ness is comforting; it helps me fit into certain spaces where whiteness is not welcome. To some, my German-ness is “power” that I didn’t earn. To others, my Japanese-ness is not legitimate enough; I do not have the looks or the language to back it up. Because, apparently, I need to back it up.

But I find a way to fit in, even if it means highlighting one side more than the other.

*   *   *

Part 4: The Line in Between

Once, as a team, we at WSP had a conversation about feminism. I remember thinking, finally, after a stream of discussions about political topics that I felt too ignorant to comment on, this was a conversation that I felt a part of, as a sort of “insider.” While my racial identity often confuses me, I approach my gender with certainty. Or so I thought.

Women of color and white women experience womanhood and feminism differently, my peers pointed out.

The binary was inescapable, it seemed.

I realized then that I didn’t know where I stood. If feminism can’t be discussed collectively, where did I belong in this conversation? As a biracial person, am I a woman of color?

While I had thoroughly explored my feelings in terms of my racial identity before, I hadn’t quite thought of it this way. I am German and Japanese—and so I guess that I’d assumed that I was both a white person and a person of color. In addition to the occasional check-box survey, are there times when I can’t be both? Although I’ve encountered my fair share of micro-aggressions, they have all pointed to my deficit; that is, I am not Japanese enough. Thus, in regards to feminism, can I really identify with the experience of women of color? Among feminists, am I a white woman?

Disregarding the racial binary is offensive, they say. Race and gender are not mutually exclusive, so we cannot treat them as such. At the same time, by emphasizing it—or rather, enforcing it—there are those of us who are forced to choose a side among our own selves.

Perhaps that’s something that I’ve already done. Shapeshifting between identities and communities may grant me a passing sense of belonging, but it also fragments my sense of self. How can I expect women of color and white women to unite so harmoniously if I cannot do the same within myself? By polarizing my identity into “halves”—as if I have two separate personas—I may just be reinforcing this binary. I may just be perpetuating it as “inevitable” or even “necessary.”

I am a white woman and a woman of color. White women and women of color, as communities, have distinct experiences. However, I’d like to think that it is possible for these differences to be acknowledged and respected within a larger community of women. Communities do not have to be homogenous—nor do individuals themselves. Homogeneity and unity are not synonymous.

Women, as a community, as a people, are diverse—and my identity embodies this diversity. I hope that by embracing all of myself, as one whole self, I can also illuminate the potential for unity.

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