The creator behind the Chasing Color Project shares her thoughts on community, starting honest and authentic conversations and how the use of particular phrases polices language.
I identify as Chinese-Filipino American. I was born in New Jersey, but most of my life was spent in Alabama. I tried the whole pre-med thing, then did a stint in comedy/television, and now I’m back in a health field, but specifically public health. I go to graduate school in New York!
I’m grateful for public health because it provided me with the lens and tools to dissect my identity. I think all it takes is a little understanding of one’s identity, the intersection of that identity, and the placement in society’s systemic mechanisms of oppression to make them interested in social justice issues. Naturally, I’m interested in Asian American issues, but preferably beyond media representation. Rather, I’m interested in issues like pan-Asian unification, unethical deportation of Southeast Asians, and Asian American identity. That said, I am very excited for the sequel of Crazy Rich Asians.
On the side, I run a photojournalism series called the Chasing Color Project. It focuses on the experiences of people of color in America. It was an excuse to meet other POC who want to talk about their experiences with race, explore the city, and work on my photography.
What absolutely excites you right now? — I’d say two things. Every morning I wake up in my New York apartment (and it’s not snowing or raining preferably) excites me. There’s always somewhere to run to, someone to meet, something to do or make. I’m all about the hustle. The other thing that excites me is the online mobilization of Asian American identity right now. Even though the group subtle asian traits is, and I cannot emphasize this enough, EXTREMELY problematic, I am thankful for the spin-off communities that it has inspired, from the Asian Creative Network to Subtle Queer Asian groups.
What kind of family did you grow up in? Were there any life lessons your parents passed down to you? — My blood-related family in America is pretty small. In immediate distances, it’s just my parents and me. But we grew up in a community of my parents’ friends from school so they all felt like legitimate uncles and aunties, and their kids legitimately feel like siblings or cousins. Often, I even just say they are. If my parents ever read this, I want them to know they did a fucking awesome job. I’m super proud of my parents, and I love them dearly. They never beat me, and they tried really hard to keep me close to our culture but also fit in at school. I think the biggest life lesson they gave me is the reminder that life is hard. Life is going to be harder because I’m an Asian person. Life is going to be even harder than that because I’m a woman. (And then later, I realized I identify as queer, so there’s that cherry on top.)
What is it like to be in between cultures and how have you navigated their different approaches to life? — Growing up, I compartmentalized my cultures-- American at school, and Asian at home. It took me a really long time that I’m Asian AND American no matter where I go. What does it mean to be American? Nowadays, I’m careful to note when I mean “American” and when I mean “white.” “American” should not default to “white.”
In regards to navigating different approaches, I think Hasan Minhaj says it best in his stand-up special Homecoming King. He talks about the cultural divide when telling his father he, a Muslim, wishes to marry a Hindu woman: “This is America. We can choose what we want to adhere from the motherland. Isn’t life like biryani, where you push the weird shit to the side? Why do we got to adhere to this weird shit from back over there?” I think assimilation is not an idea that should be aspired to. While I understand that immigrants had to assimilate to survive, but if you have the privilege of a diaspora identity, you should be proud of where you come from and who you are.
You’re a journey of thousands of miles, and someone down your line survived a violent, colonial history. Assimilation means to self-mutilate your culture to be palatable in predominantly Western society. Why? White people have already colonized your ancestral homeland, don’t let them colonize you too.
Can you give us an example of how being in between cultures has brought upon blessings? — This sounds like a cop-out, but every day is a blessing. I love the way my Asianness textures my Americanness. Like Sandra Oh said, “It’s an honor just to be Asian.” I’m glad I’m Asian because if I had to eat Thanksgiving turkey, which is essentially just a nasty, dry-ass, unfun chicken, I’d be very sad. Asians know that duck is the superior holiday bird to consume. Additionally, I love the sense of community that comes not just from being Asian, but also a person of color. It’s interesting to see how we can all come from different countries and still have similar experiences, especially in the race department, when we all have the same oppressors, ones that transcend nationality.
What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced being in between cultures? — A sense of belonging. Figuring out one’s identity. Compromise between the two. Racism. Dealing with a sense of duty and responsibility. Honoring those who have come before you. Not being Asian enough, but not being American enough either. Fitting in. Standing out. Being forced to compete with others like you for the diversity spot. Not seeing people who look like you in positions of success. Essentially all the baggage that comes with being diaspora, a descendant of recent immigrants, and all the baggage that comes with being a person of color in Western society.
Cultural identity and upbringing is a great way to start authentic and honest conversations. Why do you think most people engage or disengage with these topics? — Cultural identity and upbringing are great ways to start authentic and honest conversations because we are what has come before us. You cannot escape your past and where you are from, just like society and countries cannot hide the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, colonial histories they are built on.
We engage in these topics because we know we should. To disengage is to be cowards to who we really are. There are some pet peeves I have when engaging in conversations like these. For example, I hate the word “diversity.” Ava DuVernay described it as a “medicinal word that has no emotional resonance, and this is a really emotional issue.” I agree. It’s an annoying buzzword that tokenizes marginalized people. Especially in corporate environments, I have never seen “diversity” marketed well. If anything, “inclusion” is a better word to use. I also hate it when people say the phrase “politically correct” or “political correctness.” I think it polices language, but not in the sense that people should say whatever they want. But rather, to me, “political correctness” has replaced what we should be using instead-- respect. When you don’t want to use someone’s preferred pronouns, you’re not being “politically incorrect,” you’re being a (transphobic) asshole. Giving an asshole the option to be correct or not only enables them to be assholes.
What is a book tv show or podcast that you think people definitely need to get into and why? — Hands down the Autobiography of Malcolm X. While I’m usually a pretty fast reader, this book was really dense, and I found myself having to reread several passages to grasp ideas or take notes. It will really make you examine your racial identity, no matter your skin color. I feel bad because I remember growing up, they taught us in school that “Martin Luther King, Jr. was the peaceful advocate, and Malcolm X was the violent advocate.” To quote Lin-Manuel Miranda, “who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” To which Chinua Achibe responds “until the lions have their own historians, history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to your previous self? — Skim milk is not real milk, please stop drinking it.