Tonight after dinner my wife convinced me to go see Kip Fulbeck speak at Castilleja School. Castilleja has a pretty outrageously good speaker series (seeing Tom “The World is Flat” Friedman there was an especially memorable experience), and Fulbeck didn’t disappoint. Like me, Fulbeck is part Asian (Chinese in his case, Korean in mine), part European, and he was born when anti-miscegenation laws were still on the books. Some of his work explores the role of race and ethnicity in the construction of identity.
A lot of what he talked about was the Hapa Project:
Once a derogatory label derived from the Hawaiian word for “half,” Hapa has since been embraced as a term of pride by many whose mixed racial heritage includes Asian or Pacific Island descent. Kip Fulbeck began The Hapa Project as a forum for Hapas to answer the question “What are you?” in their own words and be pictured in simple head-on portraits. Traveling throughout the country, he photographed over 1200 people from all walks of life – from babies to adults, construction workers to rock stars, gangbangers to pro surfers, schoolteachers to porn stars, engineers to comic book artists.
For me, one of the most interesting things about the project was just how varied people’s explanations of themselves tend to be: the sample pages give you a sense of this. (Also, 10% of the people in the book listed “Norwegian” in their ancestry. This is a weird statistical blip.)
What’s striking to me about this is that in my lifetime we’ve already gone from what I think of as the Old Math of race, which recognized only whole numbers– you had to be one thing or the other, but not both; and to be half of something and half of something else was to be something less than a full person– to a New Math that’s comfortable with fractions and fuzzy numbers. I think, however, there’s another shift brewing: we may be moving from a world in which we check multiple boxes or quantify our backgrounds, to one in which telling stories is the native way of explaining who we are.
After all, we live in a world in which the relationship between ethnicity and geography is pretty mixed up. I have two friends whose parents are Norwegian and Jewish, but the details of their biographies (growing up in Minnesota versus New York, for starters) are quite different. And that’s a relatively easy case. Someone with, say, Chinese and African ancestry might be a fifth-generation Trinidadian; have one parent who went to work as an engineer in Ghana during the heady revolutionary days of the 1960s, or leave Africa to study in China; or have parents from Vancouver and L.A. You just don’t know these days.
Numbers can’t quite capture that complexity, nor can parsing the percentages ever more finely bring a better description of who you are. You need to capture that motion, the multiple travels and relocations and dislocations that end up with you. Math doesn’t capture that; stories can.