This past Friday and Saturday evening, a group of Morehouse, Spelman and Stanford students gathered in Roble theatre to host a production that shed light on the perspectives of a very specific demographic: Black Asians. The project “Black and Yellow” was started by producer and exchange student Canon Empire on the Morehouse campus. Since its debut, it has garnered public attention for its critical examination of the mixed-race experience for both individuals and communities. But it highlighted a dialogue that is sorely lacking on campus — the conversation between gendered, cultural and racial spaces. We may be familiar with the perspectives of individual groups, but in order for those to be productive, we can’t consider them in isolation. More than anything else, “Black and Yellow” represents a concrete step towards these cross-community conversations, and it’s hopefully just the beginning.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from the production. The email introduced the event as a collection of narratives and monologues designed to explore the perspectives of this Black Asian (or “blasian”) demographic. Coming from a household of mixed cultures, I thought the event would be an interesting opportunity to compare and contrast experiences. But perhaps the most incredible part of the performance was how applicable the messages and questions were not only to that particular racial intersection, but to anyone that’s been forced to grapple with the idea of constructing identity in a world that is constantly trying to define you.
From the outset, it was incredible how personal the producer and cast made the show feel to its audience. The nontraditional start of breathing exercises and extremely candid monologues made the production feel more like an intimate conversation than a space only for the speakers themselves. The cast wove together a series of completely unique, but somehow shared, experiences that explored cultures and identities that didn’t always naturally overlap. They strung together anecdotes with poignant questions about life between boundaries: Can an individual define themselves, or must their identity shift with their community? Why is there a constant push from communities to categorize based on difference or “otherness” rather than similarities?
The resounding answer was that we are invariably the product of our environments. We are continually influenced by the people around us, and their perspectives, and cannot help but adjust the way we define ourselves based on those experiences. But each of us plays a part in encouraging and applying those labels to other people, and the monologues effectively highlighted how inadequate those labels are in defining individuality. Though all the individuals speaking seemed to fall under the “blasian” label, their stories varied immensely. Some focused on language as a part of their heritage they felt was missing, others talked about cultural and religious divides within their own family. But every story boiled down to a question of authenticity. If you live in between labels (as most of us do), are you ever enough to “qualify” for a category? Can the kind of hair you have, or the language you’ve had (or never known) really decide how [insert label here] you are?
These questions aren’t exclusive to multiracial or even minority groups. To a certain extent, everyone is forced to address them at some point. If you run but aren’t part of the varsity track team, are you really an athlete? If you speak a language or identify with another culture more than your own, can you really claim it? At the heart of the conversation was a very real criticism of the arbitrary nature of labels and the role they more often play in highlighting the “missing” parts of our identities rather than in filling in the gaps.
In an article entitled “Who am I?” Andrew Dobson argues that most of our self identity is defined more behaviorally than categorically. While people might overlay labels as an afterthought to contextualize themselves, most of us actually have a much more amorphous view of who we are. He claims that “Self identity is composed of relatively permanent self-assessments, such as personality attributes, knowledge of one’s skills and abilities, one’s occupation and hobbies, and awareness of one’s physical attributes.” In the context of this holistic definition, it is interesting to consider how many of the speakers pondered parts of themselves they felt were incomplete — languages they wished they had learned, pigments that didn’t quite fit in either category or conflicts between their Black and Asian roots that made the two groups seem too contradictory to really coexist without choosing sides.
The series presented a tangled web of narratives that seemed to leave its audience with more questions than answers about what it really means to live in between categories. Communities play such a vital role in defining us that identity often becomes a power struggle between self-perception and external labeling. But in spite of this challenge, the stories left their audience with a profound sense of agency. I was inspired to see the unity that arose from the continual differentiation these individuals face. Even though most of them are still trying to figure out for themselves who they are, it was incredibly empowering to see that even in a pro-label society, we have the right to choose. As one speaker said, “You can’t tell me if I’m enough of anything. I’m enough of me.”
If you’re interested in seeing Black and Yellow, check out the group’s official website. The spoken word video production will be available May/June 2015 and the documentary will be released in September/October. Anyone with interest in joining the project, on- or off-screen, can contact the producer directly.
Contact Anja Young at ayoung3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.