The constant racial, sexuality, ethnic, gender, national labeling that people participate in, is a product of systems that we inherit. None of us are born from or into a vacuum. Even the label “human,” which many people think of as a “safe” label to use to escape from being called a racist or sexist or homophobic etc., is fraught with the language of unaccountability and domination. We are born into and live within systems that live on the producing and re-producing of languages (including words and body-language and their meanings) to perform culture. What happens in neighborhoods, counties, prefectures, regions, states, nations, and islands, streets, palaces, offices, clubs, and playgrounds—all inform our self-labels and other-labels and influence the staying, the switching, and the moving of oppressions and social positions that our bodies invite and encounter. In this writing, I’ll take my own experiences with those of others I’ve spoken to, as a starting point for readers who may want to reflect. Again, I want to remind that my focus is on deconstruction (as per the usual) toward social change and justice toward liberation’s possibility, as opposed to conclusions that prove a final mythical “single and original truth” and foundation of any reality.
No matter the label, there are problems to be pointed out. All labels are contested because they are coming from humans who have lived different histories (time, space, memory, feeling, cultural traditions, forms of empowerment, domination, oppression, trauma, etc.). If I call myself Black-Asian, this will bring certain kinds of meaning to others. If I call myself Japanese-American, how would this be different from American-Japanese? If I call myself Blasian, or Black-Japanese, or Afro-Japanese, what does this do for others and how they will remember me, treat me, think of me, assume, or become afraid of or attracted to for other reasons such as affection or hatred? Then the labels bi-racial, or multi-racial, hapa, ha-afu, or bi-cultural, or third-culture? Of course we are “just me” as each individual might say. This also brings the common erasing of history and difference that Americans, especially, are fond of doing. To be “just me” or “human” makes oppressions invisible and shuts down the moments and actions that make social change possible, and making investigation of oppressions and injustices as a way to ridicule and refuse you if you do bring it up. Each of these terms, and others, bring about issues of cultural conflict, prejudices, and pride, perhaps. If we think further on this, we may encounter the subconscious quality of westernization, where a final conclusive reality is trying to be reached, where a perfect label or a perfect answer to “what are you?” becomes confusing or impossible.
I think that labels come from the languages we use, whatever language we are speaking, or cultures we are from. Therefore, whenever we travel into cultures and nations not our own, we encounter further problems. For me, this is always an interesting question and problematic because to do anti-racist work, for example, when our main labels of analyzing and breaking down the processes of racism and anti-racism, are done in United Statian English. The United States has a culturally particular history, of course, and will not have the language to adequately translate into Japanese or Korean, or even in another mainstream English-speaking country. Doing anti-oppression work in Japan, for instance, as an American, will bring about problems. But my point is not to stop doing anti-oppression work in nations or sub-groups within one’s country, that do not speak our language. My point is that we should be aware and to study how to make it more adaptable. This is also difficult because often, if we are advised by people from the said “other” country, they will often dilute, or re-direct away from the problems. This may be for several reasons including thinking of Americans, as an example that includes myself, as somehow superior or dominating. This is not so far-fetched if we understand, for one example, what the United States government and corporate workers, missionaries, anthropologists and others, have done in other countries to favor the U.S. over the local peoples. In Japan’s case, there are those who just think of America as better and will just follow, where other Japanese people will be more resistant as a reminder of the U.S. Occupation and the Atomic Bomb. Others are aware of something more personal such as working for a computer company that was taken over or shut-down by Microsoft or Apple’s encroachments into the Japanese market (which favors Japanese elites, perhaps, or not, but not the people). These are just examples of things we may not know in relation to the resistances and conflicts we encounter in memory and how language is heard and considered by those outside of our own culture. Just think of the difference in our own cultures between men, women, and LGBTQ people, for instance, each having very different views of many realities in our lives. This is why I believe in healthy study and investigation to perform the real task of investigating what our labels do in the world (not just what labels are).
"Since life itself is political because everything is historical, our labels have to be thought of as being political tools. "
This is why, as I have mentioned before, in other articles I’ve written as well as in my book, that labels are political. Since life itself is political because everything is historical, our labels have to be thought of as being political tools. As close to my life and cultural values and things that are close to my heart, I will use the labels that I use—the variety of them—in different contexts for my commitments. In my case, to investigate and intervene for liberatory possibilities for social justice, with a Zen perspective, is my commitment, as one example.
Therefore, my responses to the question of my own labels is informed by this commitment in various contexts. Sometimes it is better to explain to people that I will use various labels to mean the same thing so I don’t have to favor one label over another. At other times, I will decidedly and strongly use one label to explain my identity, depending upon who I am speaking with. The term “Amerasian” is something I use often as a way to bring up history, in a world that has largely forgotten and even refused this term. I like this term often because it opens up dialogue about many things.