In Mixed Company: Multiracial academics, advocates and artists gather for Hapa Japan Conference

Christine Iijima Hall photo by Ren Burress

As a graduate student in UCLA’s psychology department during the late 1970s, Christine Iijima Hall absorbed scathing criticism about her dissertation. Fellow academics dismissed her project as “a ridiculous piece of research,” she said, and newspapers declined to publicize her need for study participants based on the belief that she was covering a “stupid topic.” Few people, apparently, saw any worth in exploring the identity formation of individuals from mixed black and Japanese backgrounds.

Coming from such a background herself, Hall remained undeterred in pursuing the subject. In part, she was motivated to counteract existing literature that painted a disturbing portrait of those like her — in essence, that “we were insane, that there was something wrong with us, we never knew what we wanted, and we killed ourselves.” The studies that yielded these alarming conclusions were flawed, she explained, because they tended to focus on institutionalized patients instead of average folks. By delving into the everyday mixed race experience, she knew she could reveal a more compelling story deserving of attention.

In her effort to reframe an issue so widely ignored and narrowly interpreted, Hall ended up producing one of the pioneering works of an emerging discipline. At that time “‘multiracial’ was not a word yet,” she recalled, but thanks in no small measure to her perseverance, the field of multiracial studies exists today.

Scholars in the field recently had the chance to reflect on the past, present and future of their discipline when they came together April 8 and 9 for the Hapa Japan Conference. Held primarily on the campus of UC Berkeley and hosted by the university’s Center for Japanese Studies, it showcased a range of both foundational and current projects concerning multiraciality. As Hall pointed out while revisiting her dissertation for a session called “A Changing Japanese-American Community,” the conference also served as “a reunion for many of us who have done mixed race research.”

Indeed, a warm air of camaraderie suffused the intellectual exchange of theories and data. In between sessions, presenter Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu attested, “It’s a very exciting feeling to be with people who were part of the beginning of much of this kind of study.” Like Hall, he completed one of the earlier psychology dissertations that more conscientiously analyzed the lives of mixed race individuals. (At the conference, however, he turned the spotlight on his own life for the session “The Celtic Samurai: Storytelling of a Transnational/Transracial Family Life.”) Addressing the bond he shared with his academic contemporaries, he said, “We have a very deep connection, even though many of us haven’t seen each other for years.”

Their connection became so deep because, when they first started out, they were few in number and faced mutual obstacles. The old guard of higher education had little respect for their ethnic studies orientation, while the practitioners of ethnic studies eyed them as inauthentic or compromised. At a 1987 Association for Asian American Studies conference, for instance, Murphy-Shigematsu appeared alongside scholars Cynthia Nakashima and George Kitahara Kich for a panel discussion on mixed race; Nakashima recalled, “At that time we were being warned that we might be really mistreated.”

No one needed to harbor such worries at the Hapa Japan Conference. “This is like something we would have fantasized about, beyond our wildest dreams, to have two full days together,” gushed Nakashima. She presented a paper entitled “The New Nikkei: Towards a Modern Meaning of ‘Japanese American’” during the same session as Hall, who had decades ago served as an inspiration to her.

“It’s just crazy to think that this could happen, and we’ve come this far, and it’s been this long,” Nakashima marveled.

While the conference furnished plenty of nostalgia, participants did not attend solely to reminisce about history — they also sought to continue making it.

Presenter Mitzi Uehara Carter observed that the collaborative energy generated by the event had opened up an opportunity “to propel us to new scholarship.” After delivering a talk entitled “Nappy Routes and Tangled Tales of Blackness in Militarized Okinawa,” the anthropology graduate student commented, “I’ve read a lot of the scholars’ works, and to see them all in one place and to be able to engage with them in person is very intense… To have us all in this space, to engage with their work and build on it, is a very special feeling.”

Sharing in that feeling, Susan Lambe cited research conducted by Hall and Kich as informing her own study of ethnic socialization and cognition in multiracial youth. The doctoral candidate in clinical psychology journeyed all the way from the University of Massachusetts in Boston for the conference, which she found stimulating not just in an academic sense, but in a communal one as well. As director for the Boston chapter of Swirl, a national organization that addresses mixed heritage issues across a broad cultural spectrum, the Nikkei appreciated the chance to tighten her focus for a change and “come out to the West Coast — where there’s a critical mass of Japanese Americans and multiracial Japanese Americans — and participate in something like this that’s more specific.”

Lambe was not the only person to travel a great distance for the occasion. Another East Coaster, Ken Tanabe, arrived from New York City as an emissary for Loving Day, the annual June 12 celebration he created to commemorate the anniversary of the national legalization of interracial marriage. Filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns traversed the Canadian border to screen his new documentary, “One Big Hapa Family,” while Natalie Maya Willer and Marcia Yumi Lise crossed the Pacific Ocean to publicize their interview compilation, “The Hafu Project.” Edward Sumoto made that same long trip in order to “look for hints, meet people, get ideas, and see how you guys can help me” with Mixed Roots Japan, a multiracial community network that he coordinates out of Kobe.

Jero and Duncan Williams courtesy of Center for Japanese Studies

Jero and Duncan Williams photo courtesy of Center for Japanese Studies

The conference’s guest of honor was yet another visitor from Japan. Jerome White Jr. — the famous enka singer better known by his stage name, Jero — received the Berkeley Japan New Vision Award as part of the program on April 8. Established by the Center for Japanese Studies to pay tribute to those who transform the way people perceive Japan, the award went to White in recognition of his accomplishments as a musician of mixed African and Japanese ancestry who has introduced a fresh face and cosmopolitan style into the realm of a traditional art form.

“I’m very, very humbled to accept such a prestigious award,” the 29-year-old declared in his acceptance speech. “Everyone supporting me, not only in Japan but back here in the States, just gives me more confidence for the future and allows me to continue to sing and do what I love.”

Later that evening, White demonstrated his talent in a short concert on campus. An enthusiastic capacity crowd in Wheeler Auditorium welcomed him with rapt attention and raucous cheers. The following night, a more intimate gathering witnessed his surprise appearance at the conference’s final session in San Francisco Japantown’s NEW PEOPLE building. For just a few minutes, the singer dropped by a launch party for the Hapa Japan Database (a searchable listing of some 1,500 multiracial people of Japanese descent, online at hapajapan.com).

After offering a few parting words to the group, White joined in a final photograph with several giddy party-goers also of mixed African and Japanese ancestry. The rising popstar could not have been aware that one of the women posing with him held a stature greater than his own — at least within the context of the conference. He probably didn’t even know Christine Iijima Hall’s name, much less her groundbreaking work on behalf of multiracial people like the both of them. But in that moment, as they stood together and smiled for the camera, they seemed like family.

Comments

  1. This article is a complete insult to the many people who worked very hard to bring the term “multiracial” to mainstream America, and Ms. Hall was not one of them. She is apparently trying to take credit for research, advocacy, and policy decisions she had no hand in at all. In fact, the hapa community was against the terms multiracial, biracial, mixed, etc. Shame on Ms. Hall and Nichi Bei for very poor journalism, non-existant fact-checking, and perpetuating an outright lie.

  2. cindy nakashima says

    Wow, Project Race, I’m really surprised to read your comment! Christine Hall wrote one of the very very first dissertations on the subject of mixed race people and is considered a major pioneer in the field of Mixed Race Studies, so the idea that she’s taking credit for research and advocacy that she didn’t do is absurd. As for your assertion about what the “hapa community” was against, I think that you might be confusing the discussions about terminology with the discussions about U.S. Census categories: It is true that institutions representing the “hapa community” did reject the idea of a stand-alone Multiracial census category when that policy was being debated, but there has never been a movement against the terms Multiracial, Biracial or Mixed in the Mixed Race Asian American communities. In fact, each and all of these words have been and still are used frequently in our writing and in vernacular. While your organization definitely did a lot to bring the term “Multiracial” to the mainstream, that movement has a much longer and broader history than it seems like you are remembering.

  3. Dr. Hall was writing and creating in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Project Race began in 1991. Furthermore, the hapa community’s project about their cultures and identity is not well-served by divisiveness and negativity. And Cindy Nakashima is spot-on in her recapitulation of hapa issues.

  4. Paul Spickard says

    Bravo Cindy! Well said indeed. Christine Hall is one of the founders of the field of multiracial studies and a person to whom we who work in the field have always looked with gratitude for her pathbreaking leadership. Anyone who suggests otherwise is sadly misinformed.

  5. Reginald Daniel says

    Quite frankly, Christine Hall’s dissertation was the first piece of scholarship, not to mention the first time, I recall someone using the term “multiracial” to refer to mixed race individuals. I say as much in my book More Than Black? She, George Kitahara Kitch, and Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu were the few beacons of light in an otherwise very unenlightened era in terms of the topic of multiraciality. Kudos Christine!

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