Mixed Race: WHO THE HELL AM I? by Michela Wiley

Photo by: Mika Wiley

Photo by: Mika Wiley

The following blog post is re-posted from the original after Mika Wiley moved domain hosts. The original article was posted on August 9th, 2016.

Okay, so today I’m going to try and explain a very long and complicated series of thoughts that have taken up pretty much ninety percent of how I think about my identity. Brace yourself for a long journey of confusion (welcome to my life), because this is an idea I’m still constantly coming back to and revising and editing and sitting up late at night thinking about.

I am mixed race. My mother is Asian and my father is white. So you would think that makes me half Asian, half white right? Well, it’s not that simple. See the way I think about it is. I’m not just mixed race but more like that, I’m mixed mixed race. I’m mixed race, my mother is mixed race, her parents were mixed race, and after that, it gets a little cloudy. You see, my mother was born in Singapore just a few years before it gained independence from colonial British rule. Because of colonization, a lot of my Asian roots were whitened. Part of colonial mentality was the idea that if the “superior” white population mixed with the “inferior” native population, the native genes would be improved over time and, perhaps, disappear and be replaced by whiteness. If you’re interested in some examples this site provides some good ones, as well as some explanations. The final genetic whitening was when my mother had me with my white father, and while genetics were definitely not part of either of their intentions to have me, it adds another layer of whiteness. Now, why does all this whiteness matter? It’s because for a long time in my life I’ve felt conflicted about how “Asian” I am, or how “Asian” I’m allowed to identify, and by extension to what extent I’m allowed to identify with the POC community.

I grew up across the Pacific Ocean from Singapore, meaning my family and culture there. I could count the number of times I’ve been back to visit, at least that I remember, on one hand. The only connections I had to Singapore when growing up were through my mother, and two of my older sisters, both of whom I spent pretty limited time with once they moved out and went to college. It hasn’t been until I could fly on my own that I’ve been able to see them a lot more. My ideas of being connected to my Asian culture were Christmas Mulligatawny instead of Christmas ham (actually we include slices of ham, but that’s beside the point), occasional visits to the Singapore-Malaysian restaurants we could find in the Bay Area, and learning how to integrate Singlish properly into my everyday speech. Honestly, that connection was enough for a long time, but then people started saying weird things to me in middle school, like how I wasn’t a “real” Asian because my family wasn’t from East Asia (because, racially, that’s how Asians are regarded), and then when I hit high school it got even weirder.

See, because I’m so racially ambiguous, and I say this because I realize for many of you it was a puzzle to figure it out when you met me (I’ve literally heard it all and I’ll include a list at the end of this post), freshman year of high school I was bombarded with all these new questions I had never heard before, because in my K-8 elementary school so many of those kids grew up with me and either knew already or couldn’t be bothered. I went to a predominately white high school, like really white (sorry Urban, but also not sorry because it’s true), so even little old semi-white passing me (depending on the context) stuck out. And I say stuck out because so many times over the course of four years (although exponentially less by the fourth year because you could bet I would chew you out for asking me by senior year), I was asked, “What are you?” or “Where are you from?”, which I know is white people talk for, “Huh, you don’t look like me, which I’ve come to understand is the social construct of the American norm, which means you must be foreign in some way”. Now, to be fair, it wasn’t ONLY white people who asked me, but in my experience, ninety-nine percent of the time it has been white people who ask me. So, if it wasn’t clear before high school, it became very clear that I wasn’t being seen as white. Even more so, I realized, pretty much at the front of sophomore year, that the main crew of people I hung out with was all brown people, which was the community I ended up feeling the most comfortable in (honestly a miracle because high school is so uncomfortable, especially those first two years).

However, this comfort really only extended so far. I can’t remember if I started going to Students of Color my freshman year at Urban, but I know I definitely was going my sophomore year. Going to SOC seemed to, at first, solidify more of my understanding of my own POC identity, because suddenly it meant something more than just being part Asian. Growing with SOC felt like growing with a family, that I have come to love deeply and felt the need to protect and fight for even though I don’t go to Urban anymore (I check up on them to this day, so I’m watching you Urban). By extension, being a part of SOC opened up a lot my activist identity, because the uniting concept of “POC” that crosses races and ethnicities and cultures made me feel like their fight is my fight (I know a lot of people feel conflicted by the term POC, because not all POC are the same or experience the same struggles, but that’s another conversation for another post, but I will say that fighting for another race’s rights that you do not belong to makes you an ALLY, and that being under the umbrella term of POC does not automatically grant you access to complete understanding and ability to speak for other people besides yourself). ANYWAYS, while I felt a part of a family I also felt distanced by it. Because some of my POC friends would tease me too, you know, that I’m not “brown” enough either because of how light my skin is, or because of the true genetic makeup of my blood which was more parts white than Asian, or music choices I liked, or I was even told that being into theatre and doing musical theatre was very “white” of me (which is dumb because I have a lot of POC friends who enjoy and are part of both of those things and musical theatre was also, you know, heavily influenced by black artists).

This is where my problems reside. The problem and pain I have most received from being mixed race is feeling like I never “fit” anywhere. I wasn’t “white enough” to be white, nor “brown enough” to be brown. With all of my friends and all the spaces at Urban, my presence felt contextual or limited. And that hurt. It hurt to feel like I didn’t belong, especially since the high school experience is entirely shaped around the idea of where you belong. So I was dealing with belonging in terms of race and then that other high school BS, which seems dumb now, but was definitely important to me then.

But it hurt even more because I have felt like I don’t belong in my own family. When I’m around my two Asian sisters, or my family in Singapore, I am so aware of the fact that I’m not as Asian as them, and when I’m around my white family I am so aware of how brown I am compared to them. In my family photos, I either look whiter or browner than my family. I stick out. I look different. I feel as if I don’t properly belong to either side. More than this I feel my genetics are at war. Because of my white side, I’m a POC who benefits from white privilege. Because of my white side I look at history and realized half of my family colonized the other half, so who does that make me? Oppressor or oppressed? But then it makes me both, because I am both because both are my history that churns insides me, making me nauseous just thinking about it because sometimes late at night this psychological, racial warfare makes me feel like my white ancestors are looking down at me like their success of imperial conquest.

I’m the only kid in my set, all my other siblings come in sets of two, so I’ve never had another person who I felt could really understand and I’ve never really known who to talk to about this stuff, which I guess is why I’m vomiting all this out in a blog post.

Look, I’m not looking for people to blame because what I’ve come to realize is that the only person I can blame is myself. Sort of midway through my senior year, and throughout my first year at college, I realized that for way too long I let other people dictate or decide my identity for me. That this entire time I was so concerned with how I am allowed to identify based on other people’s parameters, which is, frankly, a load of bullshit. One day during my senior year of high school, I was sitting at the dining table with my mother and I asked her, “Hey ma, do you see yourself as Asian?” And she thought for a second and said plainly, “Yes. I was born in Asia, I grew up in Asia. I’m Asian.” And from that moment I thought to myself, Well that makes me half Asian. Because it does. And that’s pretty much it. I shouldn’t need to sit here and justify halves and quarters and eighths with you because it’s simply not your call. But I think the other problem is that for a while, especially during junior year, and the beginning of senior year, I spent too long rejecting my white side. I started to see myself as just a POC, which isn’t true. I’m half white. So much of the privilege that I have is because of that white heritage because my white family has been in this country for so long and had the ability to own land and start their own business. I know a lot of where the success comes from is due to slavery, and I know that some of my ancestors are straight up connected to slavery, i.e. an old Wiley that owned a rum distillery in New York, and if you know anything about rum it was part of the Triangular Trade, which was pure evil, although anything associated with slavery is pure evil. Because of that history, I feel I owe it to fight for civil rights, not only because I feel that is right straight down to my bones, but also because I have the responsibility of my white ancestors riding on my shoulders. Instead of turning that into bitterness and guilt, I’d rather it be a motivator to create change and right wrongs.

Although this realization seems simple, it took me a long, long, LONG time to figure out – and honestly, I’m still figuring it out. Because for so long being mixed race meant being lonely. Loneliness is the worst. It’s the feeling that I hate the most. I felt I didn’t have friends, or a family, or a culture, or any sort of unity that I fit into, and I’m writing this because I have a feeling I’m not the only one who has felt this way. I wanted to write this out in case one of you out there has felt this way and needs words or tools or a process to approach coming to terms with it. Because the worst thing I have done to myself was keeping this locked inside for so long, and so to those of you who might have too,

My inbox is always open.

THE LIST

  • Mexican
  • Puerto Rican
  • Cuban
  • Columbian
    • in general most people just assume Latina
  • Greek
  • Turkish
  • “Middle Eastern”
  • Italian
  • Brazilian
  • Native American
  • New Zealand (literally did not get this one, but OK)

In The Heights So White: How NYU Tisch is Preparing Actors of Color for the Real World by Michela Wiley

Photo: Joan Marcus

Photo: Joan Marcus

The following blog post is re-posted from the original after Mika Wiley moved domain hosts. The original article was posted on May 4th, 2016.

On April, 25 2016 NYU Tisch students received an email from the production office announcing the new StageWorks Season (Tisch Mainstage Shows), which included an audition notice for the first show of the season: In the Heights, by recent Hamilton success Lin Manuel-Miranda. Of course, when I received the email I couldn't help but groan out loud because I knew exactly what this meant: audition rooms full of white actors with tacky, racist accents all leaping up at a shot to play canonically Latin characters.

However, we would think that this wouldn't be a problem since casting directors would look at the script and immediately know who this story talks about and who should be representing it, right? Wrong. Just this past year, Tisch staged a production of Jonathan Larson's RENT, which included (you guessed it!), a white actor in a role they don't belong in the role of Mimi Marquez. Regardless of the amount of protest from students of color and allies, the show went ahead with the casting and erased Mimi's representation in RENT.

So, naturally, when the casting call went out for In the Heights, students of color were immediately on guard for another miscasting repeat. Groups like Radical Artists Aiming for Diversity sent emails to Dean Allyson Green and posted online notices asking white actors to please consider their responsibility to the entire Tisch community and not to accept any roles non-white.

Regardless of the outcry, many white Tisch actors continued to pursue these roles, and understanding that this would happen, students of color contacted Dean Green in order to bring attention to their outrage and fear. Dean Green wrote an email addressed to the entire Department, seemingly to clear up any misunderstandings, but included a tinge of justification for the audition and casting process:

"I also reached out to Tisch Drama alumnus Javier Munoz, who alternated with Lin Manuel Miranda for the lead role of Usnavi in In the Heights and is currently alternating with him in Hamilton. I discussed with Javier the current conversation in the department, and I asked him if he knew about Lin Manuel Miranda’s intent for casting. Javier told me that all should audition. He explained that while it’s wonderful to cast according to the Latinos/as characters, many who were not Latin were cast on Broadway. In that case, he said integrity should be maintained regarding accents and that our students should create authentic, fully fleshed out human beings."

Not only was this email very "All Live Matter"-toned, since it diminishes the problem of diversity and representation in theatre, but the main argument was: because it happened on Broadway, it's okay to happen at Tisch.

Broadway cannot be the standard that Tisch holds itself to. According to the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, in the 2014-2015 season of New York Theatre, only 30% of roles on New York Stages went to minority actors. The breakdown of this statistic being 17% African American, 9% Asian American, 3% Latino, and all other minorities (including disabled actors) at less than 1%. However, only 22% were Broadway actors -- therefore, 78% of actors on Broadway this past season were white. Though the statistics show a general upward trend from the past 2013-2014 season, which was only 24% on all New York stages, they also still shows a long way to go. Even at the Tony's they are already celebrating the great success of diversity in nominated shows like HamiltonEclipsed, and The Color Purple (especially considering the whole #OscarsSoWhite debacle in the recent past). However, as an aspiring actor and creator, the odds still aren't looking so great, especially considering that a lot these successful shows had roles that were meant specifically for people of color -- just like In the Heights. Even with the knowledge that shows like these can break the white-dominated mold, we are still plagued with whitewashing: Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games, or the entire cast of Exodus: Gods and Kings.  Looking out into the real world ahead of non-white actors, I see a place that already has so many odds stacked against us -- and now I don't have to look very far anymore because I can see exactly where this kind of sentiment is now fostered: my very own Tisch Drama Department.

Now, the In the Heights casting process is getting down to the wire, since the announcement will arrive this Friday, so this is a last ditch effort to show what I have noticed that Tisch, and the white actors who are complicit or complacent in this casting process, just simply doesn't get. The fact of the matter is: In the Heights is one of the rare times in which the Latin community can tell their story, be authentically represented, and/or black and brown bodies can be seen on stage. If you are a white actor who wants a part in the show: look around -- there are so many plays and opportunities that await you besides this one. White actors: the math is in your favor, that is part of your white privilege benefiting you once again. Rather than to continually take advantage of that, I ask you to be a part of a movement to start here, at Tisch, to fight for change in the theatre. We will be the next generation of actors, writers, directors, producers, etc., so we need to set the standard -- not allow the standards to set us. I know that some of you may feel victimized because you think we want to take your opportunities away; this business is competitive, but we can't let it make us selfish and ignorant.

I came to Tisch because they promised to best prepare us for what the real world was going to be. I just never realized they would stick so wholeheartedly to that promise: an industry in which people of color are not given equal and or adequate spaces or opportunities to have their voices heard.

“You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?" And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.” - Junot Díaz