(An excerpt from Midnight Peaches, Two O’clock Patience.)
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, California, 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. Throughout my childhood and adolescent years, I did this 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. 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 percent African-American and 100 percent 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 terms communicated the ideas of “together” and “distinct” at the same time.
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 young scholars who published articles on multiracial identity. Among these scholars who inspired me to reconsider the concept of blending and blended terms (like Mexipino and Blaxican) were Rudy Guevarra, Jr., Rebecca Romo, and Matthew M. Andrews.
What brought it all together for me was the work of Susan Leksander who applied the concept of psychosynthesis to multiracial clients. Leksander’s research helped me understand both of my ethnicities as being among the several subpersonalities that could be fully integrated into my sense of self—and this would be normal, not weird and not pathological.
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.” 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 am a second-generation Filipina-American, holding my mother’s immigrant dreams and sacrifices; as my utang na loob, I offer Momma and Daddy 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.
I am one of those children who walk the world protected by these spirits. My four-year-old daughter also walks enshrouded in their guidance. My husband and I try our best to encourage her to embrace all of her ethnicities; not only is she African-American and Filipina-American, but she is also Jamaican and Puerto Rican. This is a challenge, but one that we welcome since we know she will benefit from the richness of all four ethnicities in the same way I have benefitted from both of mine. From the food, stories and songs to the languages, people and cultural events, our daughter will learn and be at peace with the beauty of the multiplicity that exists within herself and within the world.
Janet Stickmon is a professor of Humanities and teaches Filipina(o)-American Heritage and Intro to Africana Studies at Napa Valley College. She is the author of Crushing Soft Rubies—A Memoir and Midnight Peaches, Two O’clock Patience—A Collection of Essays, Poems, and Short Stories on Womanhood and the Spirit.