Janet Stickmon is the author of Midnight Peaches, Two O’Clock Patience and the memoir Crushing Soft Rubies, which has been used as a course textbook at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, Santa Rosa Junior College and Gavilan College. Stickmon is a professor of Humanities at Napa Valley College and a former high school teacher in Richmond, CA. She founded and facilitates Broken Shackle Developmental Training, a program that promotes the use of healing techniques to help reduce the effects of internalized racism.
In this interview, Stickmon discusses dangers of identifying people as “just human,” her unexpected love of the sci-fi novel Heirs of Prophecy, and hybridity in both writing and community.
To read Stickmon’s essay, “Blackapina,” and an exercise on narrative voice, click here.
You write, “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.” When I teach an essay like Richard Rodriguez’s “‘Blaxicans’ and Other Reinvented Americans,” one of my students will inevitably say something like this: why can’t we just be people? It’s almost always a white student, and so I’ve come to think of this question as a white question. Yet here you were, with the same idea. Was there a particular experience that made you realize that being “just human” was an insufficient description of yourself?
Actually I never really longed to identify as “just human.” In that line, I wrote, “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.’” Perhaps I could have phrased this sentence a bit differently. To clarify, I never longed to identify as “just human” even though I did find questions like, “What are you?” and “Are you more Black or Filipino?” to be frustrating and limiting.
However, I do remember when I was around 17 or 18 thinking that clubs organized around ethnic identity undermined integration. Attending my first National Society of Black Engineers (N.S.B.E.) conference during my sophomore year at U.C. Irvine completely changed my mind. There was something extremely powerful about being surrounded by hundreds of African Americans of every shade, every eye color, every hair texture. For the first time in my life, I did not feel strange, unattractive, or undesirable. Instead of being the only Black person in the room, I was one among many; being Black was the norm; we were the majority. As diverse as the students at that conference were, we still shared a common ethnic heritage that we could detect in each other’s voices, gait, concerns, values, complexion, hair, and more. I felt a sense of relief that I could share certain aspects of my life experience and be understood without offering detailed explanations.
Gradually, with my involvement in N.S.B.E., and other groups, I began to understand that organizations centered around ethnic identity served as a home people of color could return to and have their/our existence validated and supported. In Crushing Soft Rubies—A Memoir, I go into more detail about how other college organizations/programs helped me understand that ethnicity is an integral part of our humanity.
When I talk about racism or multiracial identity in my classes, I also have at least a couple of students each semester who will ask, “Why can’t we just be human,” or make statements like, “People are just people,” or “We are just one race: the human race.” I’ve also found that usually these questions/statements are made by white students. Occasionally they come from students who pass for white and/or are multiracial students. Students who say these things are unaware of the implications of what they are saying. They don’t understand that such a mentality fuels color-blind racism. Some of these students believe that if we just stop talking about race or stop talking about our differences then racism (and other systems of oppression) will just go away. Instead, precisely the opposite happens. Ignoring the real differences between groups of people prevents us from seeing the real ways, for example, such differences are used as a basis for giving one group a set of privileges at the expense of another group. If we don’t see difference, we are incapable of seeing injustice clearly, and therefore are not in a good position to end the injustice. Though on the surface, the “just be human” mentality may look and sound appealing and innocuous, it’s actually a fear-based mentality that perceives difference as potentially divisive or something that “complicates” human interactions. Instead of being feared, our differences can be recognized and celebrated. Conversations about our different and similar ways of experiencing the world in terms of ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality, disability, religion, and more have the potential to deepen relationships amongst human beings.
Many people have probably experienced something like this:
“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.”
You write that you grew weary of these expectations, saying, “I wanted to bring all of me wherever I went,” but this seems easier said than done. Our communities exert a powerful influence on how we see ourselves—who they say, and we say, that we are. If you’re choosing to identify yourself in a different or new way, is it a constant battle with the community? Do your family and friends and acquaintances eventually come around to your way of seeing things? Or, do you find or form a new community?
These are great questions! Yes, bringing all of me wherever I go is easier said than done. Indeed, people always have their opinions about how multiracial people should identify. Personally, I was tired of viewing myself as a fraction and feeling compartmentalized. Changes in how I chose to identify were informed by a substantial amount of self-reflection, research, and interaction with other multiracial people, particularly at conferences. In general, I never formally announced to all of my relatives or friends how I identified. For some reason, I didn’t feel the need to do so.
With my closest friends and family members, how I identified ethnically was one of many things that inevitably came up in conversations since I shared a certain level of intimacy with them. In such cases, no matter how I identified, there was acceptance and understanding.
In more formal settings, like during a performance, presentation, or class introduction, I explicitly state how I identify. In such spaces, no one has ever confronted me or questioned why I identify the way I do. Perhaps, this was due to the clarity and conviction with which I publicly defined myself. Maybe identifying so strongly discourages people from openly questioning me. (Perhaps, some just prefer to criticize me in private. Who knows?) It is also possible that some might think twice before questioning how I choose to identify (or before questioning my Black or Filipino authenticity) because I teach both Intro to Africana Studies and Filipina(o)-American Heritage. Though I don’t believe that teaching these histories makes me an “expert” in each culture, I do find it interesting that teaching both of these classes affords me the privilege of not having my authenticity routinely questioned—at least not in an academic setting anyway.
Today, when I share with my students why I identify as Blackapina, my students listen carefully and make a genuine attempt to understand a more nuanced approach to speaking about ethnic identity. Judging from class discussions and one-on-one conversations, many students, especially multiracial people, transracial adoptees, and those involved in interracial romantic relationships, find it liberating to hear a professor articulate something that reflects some aspect of their own experience. Many of my students, including those who may identify as monoracial, welcome the possibility of embracing a both/and/and mentality to challenge binary thinking.
In response to your question about community, I actively seek out an unofficial circle of support that is made up of the people I confide and trust with various aspects of my personal and professional life. Some may share my way of thinking, while others may not. Those within my circle of support are generally compassionate and have a good sense of humor. This group consists of people of color and white allies with education in critical consciousness and intersectionality. This circle also consists of those of various backgrounds who may not have been exposed to an education in critical consciousness, but have a basic sense of justice and integrity and demonstrate a desire to learn from others and share of themselves. As I reflect upon this, my circle of support seems to mirror my own hybridity.
I love that you found a model for your identity from a novel—and not some highbrow literary work but a fantasy novel, Heirs of Prophecy, with a main character who was half elf and half human. Was this just a happy accident of your reading, or do you think that genre fiction (especially science fiction, fantasy, and comic books) have something to teach us about how we identify ourselves?
I must admit, my knowledge of science fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, and comic books is fairly limited. My husband is far more well-versed in these worlds than I am. Years ago, we used to go to one of his favorite science fiction and fantasy bookstores called The Other Change of Hobbit. He usually knew exactly what he was looking for, while I would wander around the store trying to figure out what book seemed interesting enough to commit to. I happened to stumble across Heirs of Prophecy, part of the Forgotten Realms series. I read the back cover and the words “half elf” and “half human” caught my attention. I bought it and began reading it right away. It turns out, yes, it was a happy accident.
I was pulled into this fantasy world set in the country of Sembia, and I wanted to stay. The characters were so believable. The landscape of Sembia was breathtaking. The author, Lisa Smedman, didn’t just write a story, she painted a world, and I had the pleasure of sitting on the canvas. Witnessing the experiences of the main character, Larajin, gave meaning to my reality as a biracial woman. The extremes presented in this world inspired me to feel the realness of the spiritual force that I could invoke from both sides of my heritage and be able to benefit from both. In the past, I had attended a couple presentations where people talked about being biracial as having double the happiness. However, this book seem to speak to something deeper than possessing double the happiness; it seemed to say I had double the power. No longer was I seeing myself as one condemned to a lifetime of confusion and rejection for being mixed. Heirs of Prophecy seemed to create in me this audacity to believe I had special gifts that monoracial people did not have. Indeed, there are some issues with this idea, especially pertaining to exoticism and privileges given to light-skinned African Americans at the expense of dark-skinned African Americans; but I would need to expand on this in another essay. Nonetheless, I felt empowered as a biracial woman through this book.
I tried to recapture that same feeling and search for something just as meaningful in other books in the series but had little success. I enjoyed fantasy, but these latter experiences weren’t nearly as magical or as meaningful as the first time.
Shortly after reading Heirs of Prophecy and a couple other fantasy novels, I became exposed to the work of Octavia Butler and the His Dark Materials Trilogy. Around the same time, I became a fan of Star Trek (The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine) and Lord of the Rings. Although I am a fan, I consider myself a novice when it comes to science fiction and fantasy and gained appreciation for these genres through a combination of literary works and cinema.
I think the creation of fantastic worlds have the potential to push, destroy, or bend the boundaries of our reality to cause us to think we are bigger than ourselves and more capable of having a greater impact on the world than we ever imagined. Science-fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, and comic books have the potential to shape our identity and influence our self-efficacy.
This essay is, in a way, a kind of hybrid, employing scholarly language like “the more one critically examines racial hierarchy and essentialism and their impact on the dynamics between racial groups” and also more informal language and structures:”I had to “turn on” my Black side (whatever that meant).” How do you find the right balance between the formal and the colloquial in your writing?
That’s funny that you noticed that. I don’t think I fully realized how much of a hybrid this essay was. The first part of the essay was originally written for a scholarly article on Obama. While writing it, I was on a flight to Chicago and one of my favorite movies, The Adjustment Bureau, came on. Perhaps it was a couple of scenes from the film or maybe its soundtrack that became my muse for that introduction.
About a year later, I wrote “Blackapina.” I decided to reshape the introduction of the Obama article, use it in “Blackapina” and call it “First Movement: The Intersection” as if it were the first part of a musical composition. I wanted to use it for “Blackapina” because it accurately represented how I felt about the benefits that come from being born from and living within the intersections of life. Throughout the writing process, I noticed most certainly my use of scholarly language, but there also seemed to be a flow and a pulse to that flow, that seemed to lack the rigidity that often characterizes scholarly writing. It was as if the writing process itself became a bit of a dance that was magical and majestic at the same time.
I think the hybridity that exists throughout “Blackapina” is a reflection of my own hybridity as a professor. I have teetered between valuing the language I’ve learned from graduate level education in theology and ethnic studies and valuing less formal ways of speaking. I never want to be too “academic” that everything out of my mouth is so jargon-laden that no one understands what I’m saying. I don’t want language to create a chasm between myself and another. I want it to create greater understanding and connection. I want my students to learn the “academic” language so it can serve as an additional tool they can use when a social context requires it. I discourage students from using it to alienate or impress people. I think if what has come to be accepted as “academic” language does not obscure the meaning that I want to communicate, then I use it. However, if a more colloquial voice expresses what I want to communicate in a way that is more meaningful to the target audience, then I use that. My objective is to use a combination of tools that create the greatest amount of understanding of and connection to the writing. Perhaps then with time, if enough of us continue to use this approach—another way of being bilingual—we can collectively change the face and sound of what is considered “academic” or “scholarly” language.
Another way I try to find balance between these voices is to pay attention to my heart and my intellect. Lately, I have been toying around with telling stories to evoke a certain feeling. I enjoy sharing and listening to people share their personal stories and when they do so, there appears to be a difference between where they reach from: if they are reaching from their heart first or from their intellect first. There seems to be greater honesty, rawness, vulnerability when an attempt is made to draw from the heart first. I have great admiration for those who allow their intellect to be informed by their heart—their emotional and spiritual selves. Consequently, I also make sure my intellect is guided by my heart’s needs and wants. I try my best to do this first in my personal life in order to be able to do it later in my writing. The final product then becomes the hybrid that you see in pieces like “Blackapina” and other selections from Midnight Peaches, Two O’clock Patience.
Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.