Colour of your skin vs. The content of your character

I am a creature of shame. Shame has manifested in my life in all forms. Shame of my body, shame of my emotions, shame of my expression. There's also the shame in the characteristics of race, something like many elements I had no control over and yet has come to unfold in my life in a very private strife. It's a strife that does not lend itself to a dramatic realization, only a drawn out progress. Although, that progress has more to do with me that it does with the factor of my race. The same can be said with most things in my life. 

I grew up in Steveston: a residential suburb of Richmond, BC. You would think that a neighborhood that was rich in Japanese Canadian culture and also home to a Japanese Canadian community centre would allow me to find a home in my roots. It would, had I been willing to travel down that path. I was not at that time ready, as I have come to understand. Much like coming to terms with being transgender, I held myself back from a development that would have left me a broken human being had I started any earlier. I continually learn to forgive myself more for that and understand that I am ready now. What more, I can come to the history and culture in a way that I never could before. What I do now and not what I did is what truly matters now.  

Yet now that I am ready I look at all that lies ahead of me in understanding my roots. What do we, as young people who do not share even the same exact racial identities as our parents go? Many of us in this generation have grown up in households where English was the dominant language. Where interracial couples were what we woke up to everyday. Where we were essentially provided membership to two worlds, but never feeling at home in either. These are barriers all to common that I hear about. When children of interracial couples try to find their roots, especially in a climate like Canada where the presence of cisgender, heterosexual, white people are still considered a standard, we can feel lost and alien. I know that having a father who is of European descent and a mother of Asian decent gave me consistent crisis in my identity that I learned not to share because my parents and family members didn't seem to share those feelings. I thought that was just me and there was something wrong with feeling that way. (By the way, I go through so many identity crises that I should make a career out of it.) Slowly but surely I came to discover that other people of colour were also from mixed backgrounds outside my family, and that we shared a great deal of struggles within our own souls for not fitting in perfectly to any branch of our racial identity. I have talked to friends who felt they weren't black enough. I know people who have told me they were ashamed to admit that they share aboriginal blood . Not because they are ashamed to be aboriginal but because they pass as a white person so effectively that they have lived with that privilege while their bothers and sisters have not. When you're not enough of anything, sometimes you can feel too much of nothing.


So when I talk to people in my family about race, the only ones I can reliably talk to are my cousins, as we share the same anxieties of not being enough of anything, and still being enough of something to be labeled as “other”. That act of othering is still a barrier that people of colour face even if they're mixed. And when they're not then there's the opposite problem of not being taken seriously when you say you share the same blood ties as another. For instance, if I were to go around to people and introduce myself as a European Canadian, that wouldn't exactly fly. When being judged by appearances we always judge people on the basis of things that we are not. So when I meet someone with lighter skin, they see my darker skin. When I meet someone with lighter hair, they see my dark hair, and so on and so-forth. So if I were ever to describe myself as a European Canadian, that would technically be correct. But let's face facts: Do you think it would be taken seriously? Take a look at my pictures. I don't the first thing that comes to mind is European. When I try to explain myself as a person descended from Irish/German roots, I would get a subdued response. When I mention my Japanese Canadian heritage, people (mostly white) light up and say, “I knew it! That makes sense.” I don't know why you think you've unlocked a secret here, or that that one piece of knowledge provides you with a discernible amount of information to make your own judgments about me. I have not met one person, not one, who sees me as a European Canadian. At least not yet. Even people of direct Japanese decent always gravitate toward my Nikkei heritage. Granted, we have something to share and talk about in a genuine fashion. However, I never feel Japanese when I'm with them. Not fully.


Japanese Canadian is just that, a person who is descended from Japanese people and is ultimately Canadian. That's also a barrier that people of colour face. I get described as if my family hasn't been living in Canada for four generations. It boggles my mind when I think of how long it takes or how much assimilation it takes to be seen as Canadian always eludes me. For instance: I still think of people that I'm talking with on the phone as white when I hear them speak in a specific accent. It's a terrible habit, and it goes to show to at least me how ingrained white patriarchy is in North American psychology. On the phone, I have a typical West coast Canadian accent. I learned to speak like that because that's how everyone else around me spoke when I was growing up and I wanted to fit in. I would imagine most people take me as white when they speak to me on the phone, regardless of their own ethnicity. I don't blame them, I understand where that preconception comes from. There were, and sadly still are, very few Japanese Canadian people that I interacted with when I was growing up. Yes, the Lower Mainland has the highest percentage of Japanese Canadians in the country. But the ratio of those people compared to my white acquaintances is eclipsing. I saw that in a subversive way, that Japanese Canadians may have been treated as equals when I was growing up, but we were not the same as white people. And we were not seen the same as other white Canadians. Not in the least. If you want proof of that: When was the last time someone who appears white put a prefix on themselves? Such as Russian-Canadian, Welsh-Canadian, Greek-Canadian, Swedish-Canadian? Why is it always the people of colour that must endure and take ownership of those labels when white people don't do the same? I can assure you that I have never heard my father refer to himself as a European-Canadian. Why does my mom have to put a prefix on herself, or have a prefix put on her? Why am I then subjected to describe myself in further detail on a form that asks if I identify as a person of colour? I can only take this to mean that white people do not see themselves as settles or occupiers or colonialists or descended from another land...they see themselves as Canadian. How nice. Is it any wonder I feel out of touch with my ethnicity? And is it any wonder that I'm still ashamed of having those thoughts pop up in my head when they come? It's not something I'm proud of. The more I recognize that habit the more I can learn to let it go. I have learned we all have a part of our minds that leap to judgment. A coach of mine asked me if even in the face of seeing those judgments in yourself, that you can learn to let them go and be present with someone? A tall order to ask, and one that I learned to preform for my volunteer roles. Yet that judgment will always be an obstacle if I allow it to have power and never give it space. The more I can learn to be forgiving of myself for something so ingrained in me that it's almost impossible to escape. I do feel that it is possible to accept, and that might be more worthwhile.


Having said all that, I do find it hilarious that when I was growing up, whenever the topic of race would come up, white individuals would say to me, “It doesn't matter to me what race, religion, sexuality, gender, political affiliation, income, education level, age, language you speak, how you don't matter!” I always felt uncomfortable with that and I never understood why. Then I made the conclusion, “Wait, what else is there to a person? That's like, everything!” I think what people try and mean when they say that is, “I don't judge you for the things that make you different from me. We are and always will be one humanity.” I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt on that one. Because the truth is that it matters to me. It matters to me what MY race, religion, sexuality, gender, political affiliation, occupation, income, education level, age, language I speak is because...well...that's me! It took me a long time to build up the courage to even say the words that, “I am transgender.” And it still is difficult to say, “I am a person of colour.” because I don't know what that exactly means to me yet. I know that there's a part of it that holds truth to who I am. As with all the other components of who I am they are changing and developing in ways I need to constantly learn from. Learning about those things have made my life more fulfilling. Understanding them has made it easier for me to be around others. They do matter to me very much because they feed my drive as a human being. What more, they're the things I'm most interested to learn about in another human being. I think, perhaps, it may be more useful to say, “Whatever makes you different from me will not hold me back from understanding you. And I accept you for who you are.”


Even though I'm from a mixed background, I'm seen as Japanese Canadian primarily and not my European side. As well, when I look back at the oppression and racist policies my grandparents had to endure, I keep very much in mind that if I were alive at that time I would be treated exactly like them. That bears repeating: I would be treated exactly like them. I would get labeled as an alien enemy, I would have my basic rights taken away, I would be monitored constantly and invasively, I would be restricted to curfew, I would have my property and livelihood taken away in a blink of an eye, I would be forced to live in an environment akin to a prison, I would be forced into labour I did not want to do, I would be called racist slurs like Nip, and after all that I would not be allowed to return to the place of my birth and have to build my life from scratch. I would also live in fear that this culture of distrust against people like me would continue forever. That's what I would have to endure, if I were living in Vancouver during 1942. They wouldn't care about who I was, just how I looked.


I look at my side of the family who was able to slip under the radar of wartime Canada and live a quiet life with other white Canadians. I often reflect on how they themselves were Irish and German. Ironic that the German descended Canadians were never subjected to the same treatment as Japanese Canadians. I have not read any books on the matter, my family has never talked about it, so I am to assume they were seen as safe because they were seen as white. And that's all that mattered. I feel bitter when I think about that because I would not have been treated like the Fasers or the Rolheizsers were, I would be treated like the Imais and the Isomuras were. So no, I don't consider myself to be sharing both sides of my family equally, because I was not nor ever will be judged equally by a society that treated my loved ones so poorly. I don't consider myself to be sharing both sides of my family equally if I would be judged then as now by just one branch of my family. Life is not fair, and neither is how humanity acts when we are faced with difference. Fairness doesn't keep people “safe” against ambiguous threats. Prejudice does.

Surprisingly because of that realisation, I've begun to see the value in investing into your own identity. That essentially has to do with me coming out as transgender. Investing in your identity can mean many things, and the most important thing it can mean is to be at peace with yourself. I've been lucky enough to have heroes, resources and experiences that have informed the component of me that is trans. However, that only goes so far as I realise that there is more territory to my identity that I have not explored. That territory is my ethnic background. The one I have been shying away from when I touched it's outer layers. Peering in I could see in a faded cloud all the heartache, loss and isolation my ancestors had experienced. Then as I grew older I could feel it. When I became mature enough to embody human suffering when faced with it, the imperative to understand became compelling. Life changed for me when the feelings of being transgender went from being a feeling to my feelings. Likewise, those feelings of diaspora, confusion and loss have gone from a feeling to my feelings. That is, as they say, where the rubber meets the road. Being with new friends has allowed me to align myself in that way. Learning from Jeff Chiba Sterns from his documentary (One Big Happa Family), I saw that I was not alone in my confusion. When I went to New Denver to visit the Japanese Canadian museum, I learned that I was not alone in feeling diaspora. When I joined the Japanese Canadian Young Leaders, I learned that I was not alone in my adversity in the face of internalized exclusion. After a lifetime of others telling me who I was, feeling like I didn't belong, it became more and more refreshing to come to others who met that same personal challenge. After sharing all that I was bolstered enough to go out and find what being yonsei means to me. I allow other Japanese Canadians to inform my growth, but not to drive my personal growth for me.


I would not have been ready for any of this when I was younger. Understanding that, it makes it all the more clear that not only am I ready but I also have the power to influence my community as I grow into my own. I have seen it in members already well established in the Japanese Canadian community as admirable young leaders. I hope that as time goes on I can see that in myself too.


So yes, race always hit a nerve for me when I was younger. It hits and even bigger nerve now. The difference being is that I do not shy away from any ownership over expressing that I am Japanese Canadian. When people see my name and say, “Oh, Akira! That's Japanese, isn't it?” I reply, “Damn straight.” I have that sense of ownership because, similar to my gender, I learned that I am the one who ultimately has authority. I'm not going to continue letting myself get bogged down in being enough of something. I'm not going to allow others to set the agenda for my own identity. I know what feels right and wrong in my own spirit, and that's all I need. For a long time I didn't feel that I was Japanese enough, and that I'll never be seen as white. I learned through much struggle that I can be seen as myself.