First Movement: The Intersection

People of multiethnic backgrounds are accustomed to existing at the intersections of multiple worlds and multiple identities, holding and juggling those spaces in tension.[1] We become adept at navigating in and out and through numerous ethnoracial and ethnocultural contexts. The more one enters and exits these contexts, and the more one critically examines racial hierarchy and essentialism and their impact on the dynamics between racial groups, the more pronounced one’s experience of multiraciality and multiethnicity becomes. An understanding of critical race theory coupled with the experience of existing within the interstices of life—surviving and thriving in a world dominated by binary thought and then being inspired to rise above the surface “unfragmented”—are vital for multiethnic people who seek to live out the fullness of their humanity. It requires a creativity that is prompted by the mere existence of the intersection in the road, as well as the time taken to reflect upon the ramifications of that intersection.

As a Blackapina, a woman of African-American and Filipino-American descent, I regularly reflect upon how truly I am embracing both sides of my heritage and how well I am serving the populations on both sides of my bloodline.   Existing in this in-between space of ethnicities and critically examining this intersectionality informs and strengthens my ability to recognize the complexities and nuances that characterize life’s mosaic. We, as multiethnic people, have the potential to navigate this world of complexity and nuance. We have the potential to create unconventional solutions for the intersections of life and inspire deep, reflective transformation. Living in the intersection forces us to deal with the multiple paths that come together; if those paths never meet, if the crossroads don’t exist, there is almost no reason, no opportunity for creative outcomes to arise.

So what does it mean to be at the crossroads? It means to stand at any intersection, any meeting of multiple paths, and ask the question: So what do I do now? It is to welcome transition.

Binary thinking would suggest selecting one of two paths. Perhaps a more nuanced way of thinking that informs the experience of many multiethnic people would suggest entertaining or exploring the possibility of taking multiple paths simultaneously. It means daring ourselves to believe that it is possible to walk multiple paths at the same time, embracing the transition, defying the conventional, the orthodox, the hegemonic and actively walking all of those paths—becoming a living, breathing mosaic. And as one bravely walks the multiple paths, one can clear the way, knocking down all obstacles that obstruct the flow of understanding, of compassion, of cooperation. This strengthens the ability of humanity to cocreate a world predicated on our capacity to remain in dialogue and allow our ideas to build upon each other as opposed to being combative in nature.   Consequently, any collaboration amongst human beings should reflect this spirit of interdependence, manifesting in a force that brings healing wherever there is brokenness.[2]

Second Movement: Multiple Contexts

Having a Filipino-American mother and an African-American father, I juggled both of my ethnic backgrounds throughout my childhood and adolescence. Momma was from the barangay of Labangon in Cebu and left a clerical job to come to the United States—the country she considered the “land of milk and honey.” Da’y (Daddy for short) was from Shreveport, LA and hopped freight trains to California—one of approximately six million African-Americans who fled the oppression of the South during what came to be known as the Great Migration.[3] My biracial experience began with the very basic influences of food and language, eating Momma’s biko and bijon and Da’y’s hoe cakes and hot cakes, hearing Da’y sound “country” and Momma speak Cebuano.

It was 1989 when Momma died and Da’y was put in a convalescent hospital; I was 15 years old. Three years later, Da’y died, and I officially became an orphan, continuing to juggle my dual heritage along with the meaning of life in the absence of parental love. I was tossed around from one social worker to the next, telling my story over and over again, becoming attached to no one. Though the most immediate lifelines to my history were gone, my sense of self was informed by the memories my parents left behind, the Filipino relatives I moved in with, the holidays spent with my African-American relatives, and close high school and college friends. In the public sphere—school, church, work, commerce, etc.—I learned what was acceptable and unacceptable according to Eurocentric standards. Though my family was from a poor, working class background, I quickly learned how to operate effectively within a social environment that was predominantly white, middle-class, and Christian-centered. While I received messages about how certain ways of speaking and behaving commanded respect from those who lay at the intersection of these social categories, I had to also remain socially fluent within predominantly Filipino and African-American environments, as well.

Death. New family. New school. More death. These were my adolescent years. And out of all of this, I was trying to figure out who I was and what purpose I had. I was a fairly quiet and private person to begin with, but losing Momma and Da’y drove me into a deeper silence where lethargy coiled around my spirit, making hope seem hilarious.   I always planned for the worst so I could be prepared for disappointment. I cried and cried until I had no tears left; it wasn’t as though the pain stopped—a raw ache always lingered, but tears only brought me partial relief, and I was sick of crying. I developed a callousness toward life, promising myself I’d never get hurt again. Little did I know that when you shut off one emotion, you end up shutting off others; so as I became numb to pain, I became numb to joy and all my laughs were hollow.

When I was around people I could trust—people who knew how to be gentle with me, but also recognized my strengths and knew how much I hated pity—I was vibrant, playful, and vocal.   Some of these angels were relatives like my cousin Alison Rodriguez on my Filipino side, her husband Martin, and their two children, JoAnna and Chris. Alison became a lifeline to my Filipino family and implicitly reminded me that indeed there was a time when Momma did exist. Martin became a symbol of what it meant to let go of the past as he embraced members of our family who initially didn’t accept him because he was Mexican. Eventually, his family in Cuernavaca became my family and introduced a third culture into my upbringing.   I felt a special connection to JoAnna and Chris partly because they were biracial like me. I assumed the responsibility of being the best tia I could be, which included nurturing their Mexipina(o) identity.

Most of the angels in my life were friends, teachers, and mentors—or a combination.   In my adulthood, a period in life when I thought I wouldn’t need parents, I found a new mother and father amidst this group of angels.   It took me over 20 years before I was able to embrace new parents and not feel as though I was betraying my birth parents.     Many adults struggle to express their new “grown-up” needs to parents who had always known them, but perhaps never completely understood or accepted them. I have somehow been spared this experience; instead, I am able to choose the new parents of my adulthood not only according to how well they suit my emotional and spiritual needs, but also based on how well we relate to one another.   Today, I am blessed with their love and blessed with opportunities to share my love with them.

My new father, Tom Shepardson, is my former high school history teacher. He is white of Italian, English, Scottish, German, Austrian, Dutch and Native-American ancestry. His gentleness and patience have been priceless. Observing his comfort with being an introvert allowed me to accept my own introvert side. His ability to listen to me and affirm me throughout my adolescent and adult life is the reason why I believe I am a sane and loving person today. I consider Tom, his wife Diana, and their three children Katie, Anna, and Louis to be blood.

Vangie Canonizado Buell, a Filipino-African-American woman and mother to many (including three loving daughters of her own) has become my mom, auntie, confidant, mentor, and the lola to my daughter. We share a common ethnic mix and complex family history. This woman is an activist and a “connector,” taking great pleasure in introducing good people to good people.[4] She is a patient, good listener, with a keen awareness about the various systems of oppression and privilege that exist in the United States. I can rest in her spirit and find inspiration there—a feeling I thought I’d never experience again.

Mama Vangie and Dad have never met, yet they have me in common. My new parents have been a constant source of support and guidance. Their warmth and wisdom have sustained and strengthened me. They’ve always believed in my integrity, generosity, intellect, and strength of character, and never doubted that my African-American and Filipino-American heritages were integral to my beauty as a human being.

 

Third Movement: The Blend

Being both African-American and Filipino-American means having the benefit of drawing from the richness of both ethnicities and bearing the responsibility of sharing both ethnicities with all I come in contact with.   It means understanding and living out the complex interplay between culture, race, and ethnicity on a daily basis. Throughout my life, I was constantly searching for a word or label that would communicate my pride in both sides. Identifying as only African-American or Filipino-American never felt right because it just wasn’t true. College and scholarship applications told me, “Please choose one,” but categories like African-American and Asian/Pacific Islander felt too constraining. Friends, family, and strangers frequently asked me, “Are you more Filipino than Black or more Black than Filipino,” questions that reflect a dangerous polarization and discomfort with nuance. Such binary thinking dictates how many of us operating in a Western context tend to approach people and ideas; we are conditioned to choose between or identify with one of two extremes—black and white, rich and poor, good and evil—suggesting that one couldn’t possibly: 1) identify with more than one thing at the same time,          2) embrace a perspective or state of being somewhere in between, or 3) have multiple options to choose from other than the two presented.

Though such things were limiting, I never felt so frustrated by racial categories or questions reflecting binary thought that I longed to identify as “just human.” This didn’t fully capture what I was about either, especially since being both Black and Filipina shaped my human experience. My humanity was not something that could be extracted from its ethnic milieu. I was one who valued the unique histories of both sides and wanted to celebrate how being African-American and Filipina-American have shaped my human experience.

For many years I identified as half Black and half Filipino, figuring this was a way I could declare to the world that I was both.     However, identifying in terms of fractions reinforced a fragmented self-perception; it signified my silent insecurity about believing I was a diluted or counterfeit version of each ethnicity.   Since my Filipino features weren’t immediately noticeable to most people in Lancaster, CA, I became aware that phenotypically I looked Black and therefore regularly reminded others that I was also Filipino, being sure to use the few Cebuano words I knew. This was done partly to show pride in my Filipino side, but also to show myself off as not-your-average-Black-person—someone with an “interesting” twist. I discovered that I received more attention when people learned I was mixed—not necessarily always good attention. So as early as elementary school, long before I had the language for it, I had done what many had done to me: I exoticized myself.   I continued to do so until I became aware of some direct consequences of exoticization—not always feeling special and unique in a positive sense, but instead feeling freakish and less human.

During my late teens and early twenties, I noticed that I felt pressured to believe I had to turn on and off each side of my ethnic identity depending on who was around. I thought that in order to be accepted as Black within an all Black social environment, I had to “turn on” my Black side (whatever that meant) and leave behind or downplay my Filipino side; when I was in an all Filipino environment I felt that I had to “turn on” my Filipino-ness (whatever that meant) and downplay my Black side.[5] I felt like I was contextualizing; however, this wasn’t satisfying and I continued to search for a way to contextualize without denying my other half. I wanted to bring all of me wherever I went, and I wanted all of me to be accepted regardless of whose company I was in.

Making attempts to be in touch with both sides, learning about the history of both and remaining socially connected to each community, I eventually became comfortable saying I was 100% African-American and 100% Filipino-American and devised various combinations of these terms. I was and am fully both. Identifying as such seemed to be a defiant response to the questions, “Are you more Filipino than Black? More Black than Filipino?” Not only was I proud to be both, but I was also proud to be a woman. So, beginning in my late twenties, I found ways to embrace my womanhood as I bounced between several ways of identifying: Filipino-African-American woman. African-Filipino-American woman. Filipina-African-American. African-Filipina-American.   These names communicated the ideas of “together” and “distinct” at the same time.

Around this time, while working on my Master’s thesis on precolonial West African and Filipino tricksters at San Francisco State University, I came across Heirs of Prophecy, a fantasy novel by Lisa Smedman, whose main character, Larajin, was half elf and half human. I was fascinated with how she invoked the deities from both her human and elven sides. This caused me to stop thinking of being biracial as a deficit or an impurity. I began to wonder if instead I had the potential to be emotionally and spiritually stronger and more capable of facing life’s challenges because I could call upon the assistance and guidance of deities on both sides of my ethnic heritage. From that point on, I’ve expanded the circle of deities that I address and thank during prayer, calling out to God, Eshu, Oshun, Yemaya, Bathala, Apolaki, Lakapati, and Diyan Masalanta. Consequently, I have learned more about the multidimensionality of the Divine, gaining greater clarity about the multiple ways the Divine manifests itself on Earth.

In early 2007, the possibility of identifying as “Blackapino” or “Blackapina” crossed my mind.   The term floated around in my head for a bit, but didn’t seem to get concretized for quite some time. I didn’t have the courage to use it, but I couldn’t completely articulate why. In retrospect, I know some of this had to do with my discomfort with blending terms, as if the process of blending would corrupt the ethnic essence of each side. This was an indication that I was still afraid of being viewed as a diluted version of a Filipina or African-American.   I was also hesitant to use the term because to untutored ears it evoked only laughter and was never taken seriously; hidden in the laughter, I could almost hear people say, “Aw, that’s cute and catchy. But is that real? Is that a real, lived experience?”

Folded into this transition were memories of a number of scholars who researched and published articles on multiracial identity. Such scholars either used blended terms or used concepts that involved blending. I remember the early writing of Rudy Guevarra, Jr. in which he explored the experiences of multiethnic people of Mexican and Filipino descent, becoming the first to use the term “Mexipinos” in a published work.[6]   From his clothing line, Multiracial Apparel, I bought some shirts for my niece and nephew that read, “Mexipino” and “Mexipina.”[7] Shortly following the release of my memoir in 2005, I met Matthew M. Andrews, the first to conduct research focusing on multiracial identity specifically amongst those of both African-American and Filipino-American descent.[8]

A few years later, during the summer of 2007, I delivered a presentation at the Loving Decision Conference on precolonial West African and Filipino tricksters being empowering, decolonizing role models for biracial people of African-American and Filipino-American descent. There, I had the pleasure of listening to Rebecca Romo present her research about biracial people of African-American and Mexican-American descent and remember how freeing it was to hear her use the label “Blaxican.”[9]  Susan Leksander presented research on applying the concept of psychosynthesis to multiracial clients. Leksander described psychosynthesis as a process within Western psychology that drew from various traditions including an African worldview describing how each human being is “seen as a community in and of itself, including a plurality of selves.”[10]She pointed out the normalcy of each person having many subpersonalities and stated the following:

Subpersonalities are thought to form in response to a “unifying center,” a center of meaning that evokes a deep response in us. Different subpersonalities might arise in relationship to many different unifying centers—“parents, siblings, school, profession, philosophical systems, religious environments and the natural world.”[11] I would add to this cultural and ethnic communities. A unifying center can be contacted at any age, from our earliest relationships to experiences late in life. What one experiences as outside of oneself, with enough exposure and meaning, eventually becomes internalized as a subpersonality.   This new identity internalizes and consolidates the skills, gifts, drives, qualities, beliefs and values activated and gained in response to the unifying center.[12]

Her research put my complex relationship with my African-American and Filipino-American backgrounds into perspective. At various times throughout my life, different aspects of each ethnicity seemed to be “outside” of myself since I had fashioned my life after the white dominant paradigm. In order to fully understand what it meant to live out my African-American and Filipino-American identity with depth and integrity, I consciously exposed myself to the people, language, arts, and history of each side to the point where each ethnicity gradually became internalized as one of my subpersonalities.    My nucleus of subpersonalities was and will continue to be strengthened by my continuous immersion in social circles consisting of African-Americans, Filipino-Americans, women, introverts, extroverts, artists, athletes, theologians, healers, the various subgroups lying within each circle, and the intersection of all these and more. This nucleus is a tight, yet fluid, ever-expansive, ever-evolving blend housed within my spirit. I possess an authenticity that laughs in the face of essentialism. I am “Blackapina.”[13] Black. Filipino-American. Woman.     I am an African-American unafraid of identifying as Black because it hearkens back to the Black Power Movement when Black, the color and the culture, were embraced with pride. I also use it because bibi, the word for “black” amongst the Sonay of Mali, referred only to “the essential goodness of things”—a definition predating the distortion and demonization of the color.[14]   I am a second-generation Filipina-American, holding my mother’s immigrant dreams and sacrifices; as my utang na loob, I offer Momma the fruits of my work as professor of Filipina(o)-American Heritage and Africana Studies.   I am a woman who menstruates and gives birth and nurses and nurtures and fights. I am each of these and more.   I am all these at the same time. I live at the crossroads, straddling multiple worlds.   Hybridity is my home where transition and nuance are always welcome. At the interstices, you’ll hear my breath. When I walk, listen for the sound of ancestral spirits and deities hailing from the African continent and the Philippine Islands; hear them pulse and drift, cry and whisper, laugh and pray as they clear the way for their children to walk the world protected, guided, and strengthened.   Ashe.

NOTES:

[1] The term “multiethnic” is used to denote a person who is comprised of more than one ethnicity. Based on the work of sociologist G. Reginald Daniel, I use “multiethnic,” as opposed to “multiracial,” considering the notion that ethnicity includes the concepts of both race and culture. Daniel states, “Ethnicity generally refers to a segment or subset of a larger society whose members are thought by themselves and/or others to share a common culture (beliefs, ideals, values, meanings, customs, artifacts), which sets them off from other groups in the society. However, these individuals also share a common ancestry or origin (real or imagined)—and thus may have similar or common geno-phenotypical traits—that distinguish them from other members of society as well. In addition, they may more or less participate in shared activities in which that common origin and culture are significant ingredients. Considering that ethnic formation includes notions of both race and culture, it might seem more appropriate in this book to use the term multiethnic, rather than multiracial.” See G. Reginald Daniel, More Than Black?: Multiracial Identity and the New Racial Order (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002), xv.

[2]“The First Movement: The Intersection” was adapted from an introduction originally written in my article, “Barack Obama: Embracing Multiplicity—Being a Catalyst for Change” for Race, Gender, and the Obama Phenomenon: Toward a More Perfect Union?, a text co-edited by G. Reginald Daniel and Hettie Williams.

[3] Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Sons: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Random House, 2010), 9.

[4] Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2000), 38-48.

[5]Since phenotypically I appear African-American to most people, it was a little more difficult to “turn off” my Black side than “turn off” my Filipino side.

[6] Rudy P. Guevarra, Jr., “Burritos and Bagoong: Mexipinos and Multiethnic Identity in San Diego, California” in Crossing Lines: Race and Mixed Race Across Geohistorical Divide, ed. Marc Coronado, Rudy P. Guevarra, Jr., Jeffrey Moniz, and Laura Furlan Szanto (Santa Barbara: Multiethnic Student Outreach, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2003), 74.

[7]Guevarra recently released Becoming Mexipino—Multiethnic Identities and Communities in San Diego.

[8] Matthew M. Andrews, “(Re)Examining (Multi)Racial Identity: Black-Filipino Multiracials in the San Francisco-Bay Area” in The Berkeley McNair Research Journal (Berkeley: Trio, University of California, Berkeley, 2005), 27-38.

[9] Rebecca Romo, “Blaxican Identity: An Exploratory Study of Multiracial Blacks/Chicana/os in California” (presentation, National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies Annual Conference, San Jose, CA, April 1, 2008), 64.

[10] O.A. Ogbonnaya, “Person as Community: African Understanding of the Person as an Intrapsychic Community.” Journal of Black Psychology 20(1)(1994), 75, quoted in Susan Leksander, “Psychosynthesis and Multiracial Clients: Diversity and Integration of Multiple Selves” (San Francisco: California Institute of Integral Studies, 2007), 2.

[11] J. Firma and A. Gila, Psychosynthesis: A Psychology of the Spirit (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), 73, Ibid., 12.

[12] Susan Leksander, “Psychosynthesis and Multiracial Clients: Diversity and Integration of Multiple Selves” (San Francisco: California Institute of Integral Studies, 2007), 12.

[13] The first Blackapino I met was Lance Adderly. Our mothers, Lucrecia Adderly and Lucrecia Stickmon, and our fathers, John Adderly and Fermon Stickmon, became friends in the 1970’s and consequently we became childhood playmates. Thanks to his mother, he and I were recently reunited. It is only in my adulthood that I understand how those early years of playing together prevented me from feeling like the lone Blackapino in the world. Since 2004, I began meeting other multiracial people of African-American and Filipino-American descent like Vangie Canonizado Buell, Tony Robles, Matthew M. Andrews, Dennis Calloway, and Teresa Hodges. Thanks to the work of Myrna and Carlos Zialcita, I learned about jazz artists who were also Black and Filipino like Sugar Pie DeSanto, Bob Porlocha, Elizabeth Ramsey, Joe Bataan, Lena Sunday, and Anna Maria Flechero. In 2011, I learned that long before I identified as Blackapina, Joe Bataan used a blended term, “Afro-Filipino” to describe himself. Bataan released an album in 1975 called Afro-Filipino which included a song entitled, “Ordinary Guy (Afro-Filipino).”

[14] Wade Nobles, Seeking the Sakhu: Foundational Writings for an African Psychology (Chicago: Third World Press, 2006), 329.

 Copyright © 2012 Janet Stickmon

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4 Comments on “BLACKAPINA

  1. Pingback: How to Bring Other Voices into Your Writing | Read to Write Stories

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