How Our Conversations Around Mixed-Race Identity Have Evolved in the 21st Century

A project illustrates how the explosion of the internet has allowed for a more involved, varied, and purposeful construction of one’s identity.

Harper (Japanese / Swedish / Norwegian / Irish / German / English) (courtesy Japanese American National Museum)

LOS ANGELES — In 2001, artist Kip Fulbeck began traveling the United States to photograph people of mixed-race backgrounds — specifically those who, like himself, identified as partially of Asian and/or Pacific Islander descent. He took over 1,200 portraits on that journey, and also had each subject contribute brief handwritten notes, each answering the question, “What are you?”.

In 2006, a selection of Fulbeck’s pictures were showcased in an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum, kip fulbeck: part asian, 100% hapa (later turned into a book of the same name). This was the beginning of the Hapa Project, an ongoing multimedia exploration of multiethnic Asian identity. The latest entry in the project is Fulbeck’s new exhibition at JANM:, an update to his original series which revisits its subjects.

The exhibition space for (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The second series replicates the format of the first one. Once again, Fulbeck photographs each subject and has them write down a response to “What are you?”. Once again, the exhibit has a space in which visitors can have their own pictures taken, write their own responses to the question, and have them stuck to the wall. It is in the juxtaposition between past and present that finds fresh meaning. The context in which Americans think about the question “What are you?” is quite different now than it was in the early 2000s.

Curtiss (Japanese / African American) (courtesy Japanese American National Museum)

In just 15 years, the explosion of the internet has allowed for more involved, varied, and purposeful construction of one’s identity than at any previous point in human history. With this has come greater interrogation of just what identity is and what it means, both on a cultural and personal level. The constant debates around the definitions and utility of identity politics are one obvious example, as is the discourse around minority representation in art and media.

Adjacent to the exhibition, visitors can have pictures taken of themselves and write their own thoughts about their identities. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Some of the new comments from Fulbeck’s subjects speak directly to the changed atmosphere. In 2006, a young woman’s note told how she dumped a recent boyfriend because he said he liked her because of her race. In 2018, she elaborates that the guy in question turned out to be a Neo-Nazi, and at the time she thought such a way of thinking was dying out. But now she’s seen that movement grow and “suddenly, it’s my war.” Similarly, a man who in the first series simply wrote “QUEER EURASIAN” in his note has this time around turned in a detailed musing which compares old bans on interracial marriage to recent fights for same-sex marriage equality.

While “what are you?” may seem like a reductive question, it is in fact one many mixed-race people have had to answer far too often. “Shouldn’t you be asking my name first?” was what one woman wrote in response. (In the update, she cheekily writes, “Hey! I’m Christine. Nice to meet you, too.”)

Jenn (Japanese / French / Cherokee / Irish) (courtesy Japanese American National Museum)

The framing and style of the photos — taken of the shoulders up, center framed, eyes facing forward, neutral expression — deliberately evokes photo IDs, tools often used to quickly categorize people. That the subjects get to speak for themselves deconstructs that pigeonholing, their individuality emphasized by the notes being rendered in their own handwriting. The photos are labeled with the various racial and ethnic groups each person identifies as belonging to. It brings to mind census or job application categories, but while everyone in this series might simply be put in “Asian” or “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander” on such forms, here they get to attest to a wide range of backgrounds. Pushing against the basic nature of ideas around identity reveals the limitations in our thought and institutions, and hopefully awakens us to an expanded understanding of the subject, not just as it pertains to race but to a mosaic of other qualities — gender, sexuality, class, ideology, spirituality, and much more.

The exhibition space for (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) 15 Years of the Hapa Project continues at the Japanese American National Museum (100 N Central Ave, Los Angeles) through October 28.

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