Part 2: Lessons from history
“If you could go back in time, what era would you choose to live in?”
This common dinner question puts me between a rock and a hard place. Do I choose to be that person? The one to bring down the atmosphere by bluntly saying that now is the best time in history to be a Black Asian woman? Because the truth is, the odds of my existence would lower drastically if I were to choose a time in the past.
In an alternate reality, maybe I’d choose the early 80s; I like disco and it sounded like a fun era overall. But for me to answer this question honestly, it requires a suspension of reality. I know it’s a fun what if question, but it raises the question of intersectionality – a framework that “takes into account people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face.”
To make sense of my identity in the present, I turned to the past. In university, I studied history to understand my place in the world. But while searching for the stories of my ancestors, I found so much more.
To measure mixed identity
During a romp through colonialism, I stumbled across Casta paintings.
Smarthistory’s entry on casta paintings states that these pieces were a method for Spaniards to codify racial groups. My father had explained the 1 drop rule to me before, but I never had understood words like mulatto or octoroon until I saw it in the paintings.
They’re strange to look at, a frank display of an obsession with races and their mixes. But at least the casta paintings are visually rich; charts far less artistic show hierarchy for what it is, with Spaniards and Creoles at the top and Indigenous and Black people at the bottom, their mixes floating somewhere in between.
Something clicked into place then and forced me to ask tough questions. Are we really in a post-colonialist world? How has colonialism’s existence shaped the world that exists today? And is this at the root of what happens when people try to categorize me based on race?
Black history & Civil Rights
In university, I wrote about how the economics of slavery built on sugar contributed to Britain’s ability to claim the title of the largest Empire in the world. And I learned from Trinidadian historian and former Prime Minister Eric Williams that it was not racism or morality but the changing tides of capitalism that shaped the slave trade in Britain.
I confronted the idea that the truth could have two sides through Bartolomé de las Casas, a priest remembered as a hero to the Caribs (the Indigenous people of the Caribbean). In my Indigenous studies course, he was taught with a saviour narrative. But my father taught me otherwise.
Because although Las Casas shifted the burden off of the Caribs by importing African slaves, he ultimately valued the lives of one group at the expense of another. I raised this point in my class and caught the professor off guard, as though the detail wasn’t necessary to the story.
The Civil Rights movement gifted me with lessons of the many forms the fight for equity might take. The era taught me about the importance of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X, or Angela Davis who organized protests and sit-ins. And it also taught me about the importance of the everyday person.
The ones who sat at counters in the southern US demanding service while slurs and food were hurled at them and the ones who were blasted with hoses for marching in the streets also deserve to be remembered. Reflecting on their stories makes me question even today: what are we willing to accept? And what are we willing to do about it?
Indonesian history & identity formation
As for my mother’s side, I finally unpacked the intricate make up of Indonesia and its relationships with nationalism and identity.
August 17th, 1945 marks the day that Indonesia asserted its independence from the Netherlands. In the birth of a country, two concepts are important to success: nationalism and identity. Unfortunately, both concepts make ethnicity and religion more complicated.
Nationalism is often deeply emotional and tied to people’s identities, as a citizen will identify with their nation-state rather than race or religion. This makes the idea of nationalism especially attractive to a new country, as it can equalize heterogeneous populations and promote unity. But then identity confuses nationalism, as it is a fluid area and something people create.
In breaking free from the Netherlands, President Sukarno, the Indonesian government, and his successors took a systematic and detailed approach in order to create a strong Indonesian identity issuing things such as the Pancasila, Indonesia’s 5 principles.
The example of Indonesia taught me what creates and shapes national identity, and then in turn, an individual’s identity. It taught me that identity exists within the context of larger, overarching communities and history.
Tracing family history
On top of the history of my communities, I also exist within the context of my families’ histories. Both sides of my family have stories of how they came to call Canada home, but they are starkly different from each other.
Asians have a storied history with the Americas. Generally, the story is about migrating for opportunity – the gold rush, work on the railway, and so on. In the case of Black people, their initial arrival in the Americas is mainly marked by slavery.
As far as I know, my great-grandparents on my father’s side are from Caribbean islands or from India. It makes me have to ask: were any of my ancestors slaves? The likelihood of this is high. It’s a contrast to the friends I have where many of their grandparents fought in WWII or immigrated to Canada for opportunity. What my father found in Canada was an education and gainful employment but also experiences of racism.
In the case of my mother, she came here with our family. But her family history is more than just immigration; it includes a story of folklore.
According to our family legend, long ago a Chinese prince set sail across the ocean. During his journey, he was caught in a vicious storm. Luckily, he was saved and brought to shore by the belanak fish (English Blue-spot mullet). Filled with gratitude, the prince promised that no descendants would ever cause harm to the fish. And that was how my mother’s family came to live in Indonesia.
In this story there are two things: an explanation for why the men in our family are allergic to belanak fish and an origin story. This isn’t something found in history books; rather, it’s something passed down to remind us who we are and makes us proud.
The cost of erasure
Stories of my communities and my families play into who I am and where I belong. But all this becomes forgotten and lost along the way because we’ve all been robbed.
In school students spend years learning about the discovery of North America by Europeans, the highlights of founding fathers, and other great achievements. In Canada, it’s a harrowing story of explorers battling and taming mother nature, followed by the struggle between the English and French, then a fast forward to our contributions to the World Wars, and finally, a legacy of being peacekeepers.
A lot of the history I learned in school was told through the lens of nationalism and flavored with a pitch for patriotism. While I love Canada, it always struck me as odd how people who looked like me were rarely the heroes of the story.
If anything, when people of colour were mentioned, it was as a footnote, often as helpers or the conquered. Minorities appeared as people upon whose backs modern nations were silently built or examples of success, to prove that anyone can make it, if they try hard enough.
In reality, that’s still been a disservice because it isn’t the full story.
Without the full scope and stories of other cultures, we’re robbed of truly seeing one another. We do not see the full scope of everyone’s contributions throughout history. And then we lose understanding and empathy for one another because then we lose the understanding that we were all there.
We spend our time only understanding two stories: the official national truth and the histories of our own communities. With a narrowed line of sight, we limit our understanding of the world around us. Protecting ourselves is part of our nature, so we turn inwards, protecting our families and communities.
But an oversimplified worldview doesn’t allow for the complex and complicated history of different communities. By looking outwards, we can make space for other communities and more perspectives.
Towards a better future
In having my identity questioned, history helped me understand various questions about identity. As I looked into the history of my family’s communities and my family history, I started to look beyond myself.
Because, as people say, history repeats itself. Though the story of 14 year old Emmett Till being lynched in 1955 for whistling with a white woman nearby is history, the core of the injustice continues in 2020.
Having the perspective of history, I feel equipped with the language, fight, and sheer audacity to ask more of our world. Now that I know where I came from, I felt ready to push forward to where I wanted to go: towards a better, more equitable future.
This is part two of the three part series Identity through the eyes of a Black Asian. The finale of the series will be published next week, where Jasmine will dig into present day issues. Part 1 is available here, Part 3 is available here.
Featured image from Pexels
Making Asian American media
We believe that our stories matter – and we hope you do too. Support us with a monthly contribution to help ensure stories for us and by us are here to stay.