What Are You?

Like many mixed-race/mixed-culture peoples who have emerged, are emerging, or perhaps yearn to emerge from a colonial legacy, most Filipinos see no contradiction in this racial, ethnic, and cultural mix. It is not a problem or a source of confusion to the people in that mix.

Is it possible for someone named Josh Kline to be Filipino American?

Josh Kline, Politics is like the weather, 2017. Photography by Robert Glowacki.

This spring and summer, the Whitney is exhibiting Josh Kline: Project for a New American Century, a retrospective of video work, sculpture, and photography by Josh Kline. To celebrate, we’ve republished Kline’s contribution to Paper Monument’s 2021 anthology, Best! Letters from Asian Americans in the Arts.

To whom it may concern:

My name is Josh Kline.

Am I Asian? Or Asian American? Am I American? Am I one of you?

When people—of all backgrounds—see my name on paper, they assume I’m a white Jew. Perhaps you’re wondering to yourself right now why someone with a name like mine is even in this book. Or asking whether it’s problematic for someone with a name like mine to claim certain identities. Or to speak out about certain subjects. Or maybe you live in the kind of utopian majority-minority future America I’ve fantasized about living in for decades, and this letter is completely banal, my concerns obsolete.

If only I were there with you now in the year 2121, instead of living in Donald Trump’s America in 2020.

Meeting people in person for the first time, before my background gets unpacked, I frequently get told I must be Mexican. Or Colombian or Ecuadorian. Once, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when I still lived in Philly, I was waiting for the bus, and a teenage white girl called me an “Ay-rab” before she flicked her cigarette at my face. A few years ago at a bar in the East Village, a well-regarded Japanese performance artist with an expensive MFA from Bard College asked me: “Do you think you’re Asian?” I asked him in response if he thought I was Asian. In his slippery awkward-cool way, he very slowly and very briefly gestured to the sides of his eyes and their epicanthal folds, and almost under his breath, said: “You . . . look . . . Hispanic.” In response, I asked him if Filipinos are Asian. And if the Philippines, where my mother and her family come from, is in Asia? He demurred, and the conversation slithered elsewhere. I decided not to share with him how, when she was a little girl, my mother and her family—my grandparents, my aunts, my uncles—had to flee into the forest after the Japanese Imperial Army burned down their home. I decided not to ask him if that took place in “Asia.”

My whole life, I have often had to muster long arguments with you about family, heredity, or the nuances of my upbringing when I attempt in conversation to casually embrace the identities I claim or am connected to—in the casual, thoughtless way that white people or people from less complicated family backgrounds are allowed to in our society’s racist hierarchy. Questions along the lines of “What are you?” or “Where do you really come from?” follow people like me through our entire lives like aggressively ignorant stalkers. Even worse are the moments when people take it upon themselves to play a game of ethnicity jury or race court and assign mixed-race people an identity. Half-this, half-that, he’s not really, that name, that doesn’t sound, you don’t look, the shape of your eyes, you’re like a Seinfeld character, et cetera. So, before I come to my point, I am going to write this all down for you now. For you, my friends and frenemies, casual acquaintances and interested strangers, colleagues and random art historians of the future. You can decide for yourself what racial and ethnic taxonomies are appropriate for me to claim. I decided for myself long ago.

Mixed-race identities are complicated . . . for people who carry or cling to certain ideas, assumptions, or theories about racial and cultural purity. And for Americans. Whiteness has long been an imagined absolute in the United States. For generations, it was a legal absolute. “One drop” of African ancestry and you are Black. But what if your “drop” of blood contains DNA from this immense region Europeans decided to call “Asia”? Does one drop make you Asian? What about close to 50 percent of your genetic inheritance? Sometimes when I talk about race with my white friends, some of them will get uncomfortable and declare “you’re half-white” to try and neutralize my arguments. As if reminding me that I have a White father somehow neutralizes everything in my past that has led to a non-White perspective inside my skull. If whiteness is an absolute—the absence of melanin—and you have brown skin—even light-brown skin like me—can you be “half-white”? Does Crayola make a “half-white” crayon? And what does that color look like? Along with being Filipino and American, I can “claim” Jewish, Russian, Austrian, and Hungarian descent through my father, but like so many other Americans with complicated roots, I am not white. I have never been and will never be white. Or be allowed to be white . . . if for some reason as an adult I even desired that.

Some background testimony for my what-are-you?-conversation trial:

My mother was a Filipino woman with dark brown skin who was brain-drained out of Manila in the late 1960s along with many of her classmates from the University of the Philippines. She arrived in New York City two years after Loving v. Virginia ended all the laws criminalizing interracial marriages. My father is Jewish and white with pale skin and reddish-brown hair. In the late 19th century, his parents’ families fled antisemitism and poverty in Central and Eastern Europe for America, settling in Philadelphia. I was born twelve years after what used to be called “miscegenation” was legalized across the USA.

As a child, I had dark blond hair, my nose didn’t have a pronounced bridge, and my eyes had epicanthal folds. Over the summers of my ’80s and ’90s youth, my skin would get very brown in the sun. As I’ve grown older, my hair has gotten darker. During puberty, the shapes of my eyes and nose changed. Before that, in elementary school in the ’80s, my white and Black classmates would ask me if I was Japanese or Chinese and pull the sides of their eyes with their fingers and make slanted eyes at me. I grew up in a neighborhood that is now Philadelphia’s equivalent of Queens, but at a point when the non-European immigrants were just starting to arrive en masse. The Catholic and Jewish white children that dominated the public school classes I was interned in didn’t know what to make of the young Korean immigrants in our classes, but they had sort of heard about Korea because of the American war there three decades earlier. There was a TV sitcom on the air in syndication set in the Korean War (which didn’t feature any Korean characters). The Philippines, though . . . might as well have been somewhere in outer space. There were no significant American films or TV shows set in the Philippines.

My early birthday parties were basically Filipino fiestas. I would fall asleep on the couch at some point to the clacking of mahjong tiles in the middle of the night. Thanksgivings with my mom’s friends in the Jersey suburbs involved a buffet table with an untouched turkey that sat next to the real celebration—lechon—a whole roast suckling pig. My childhood, like the life that’s followed it, has been entirely unkosher. Every meal my mother cooked, except spaghetti, tacos, and pancakes, was accompanied by rice. Breakfast on the weekend was often turon or suman steamed in banana leaves. Weeknight dinners would involve dishes like chicken adobo or beef kaldereta. The den in my parents’ house had 1970s landscape paintings of rice paddies and decorative cooly hats on the wall. There were shelves full of canned lychees, bagoong, Spam, and fish sauce in the storage room downstairs. My mother’s Filipino friends and their first-generation American children were a constant presence in my childhood. And of course, I was raised by a Filipina immigrant—who lived the first three decades of her life there, and not here. Have I established my Filipino American credentials yet? Is it possible for someone named Josh Kline to be Filipino American? Am I a Fil-Am? Or perhaps Filipinx? And if so, does that make me “Asian”?

All of you who either openly or deep down have trouble with mixed-race people claiming multiple and supposedly contradictory identities—I wish you were familiar enough with the Philippines to understand the possibilities that lie in abandoning cultural or racial purity as values and embracing hybridity. Or the freedom that comes when hybridity becomes banal and ubiquitous. I wish you could understand that these apparent contradictions many of you get hung up on are artificial constructs, like the ideas of racial and cultural purity that people who are in love with sick racial myths rooted in colonial imperialism and slavery cling to.

The many sides of the Eurasian and African continents are a vast pool of cultures and genes that have been in slow contact since our species first ventured out of Africa tens of thousands of years ago. In a world where you can fly around the world in a matter of hours, contact has sped up. What would happen in our own country if race-mixing among our country’s different racial groups lost all stigma? If it really lost all stigma? Or if it was embraced? Can Americans learn to love and celebrate “The Great Replacement”? No one is going anywhere or being violently disappeared; there are just more mixed-race babies being born with American passports.

Assuming you accept that someone like me could maybe be “sort of” or “vaguely” Filipino—or at least Filipino American or Filipinx—you can open up any number of questions regarding the larger cultural taxonomic status of Filipinos. For instance, my question to the performance artist from Fukushima: “Are Filipinos Asian?” And then the larger question of what defines a Filipino: A job as a nurse? Relatives cleaning homes in Dubai or Hong Kong or working in a Manila call center? An obsession with pork and a longing for tropical humidity? Exposure to bad jokes involving puns?

Assuming they even know that the Philippines exists—an official, on-paper American colony for half a century, and within living memory—Americans of any background with any familiarity with Filipino culture have difficulties with the Filipino/Asian dichotomy. It hurts their heads. You don’t look Asian. You don’t look Asian Asian. You’re so brown. You look Mexican. They’re Catholic. She has a Spanish last name. Flan is not an Asian food. The three words I’ve heard in “Tagalong” sound Spanish. Everyone speaks English there.

Allow me to read between your lines and translate for everyone else: What you’re talking about is racial and cultural purity, and GDP.

My mother’s family, the Jesalvas (I’m fairly certain the name is shorthand for “Jesus saves” or “Jesus is Salvation”), comes from Sorsogon in Bicol, near the southern tip of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines. According to my mom, there might have been one or two Spanish ancestors four or five generations back—she wasn’t certain—but everyone else has Native ancestry and has lived in villages on this small peninsula for countless generations, harvesting coconuts and planting rice. Luzon is located in the Pacific Ocean immediately to the south of Taiwan and to the east of Vietnam and southern China. Further south, past the other Philippine islands, lies Indonesia. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, there was no “Philippines,” and there were no “Filipinos.” Luzon was just another island in a vast geographic and cultural archipelago that includes Mindanao, Java, Sumatra, and Borneo—and thousands of other islands—all peoples with related cultures speaking related languages. The Spanish arrived on one of these islands and forced their religion, some of their language, and much of their culture on the peoples there—including my maternal ancestors. In what is now Indonesia, it was the Dutch. In Malaysia, the British. But before the Europeans arrived with their crosses and their cannons, those ancestors of the Filipinos, Indonesians, and Malaysians were already under the cultural influence of India, the Islamic world, and China. But they were not directly colonized or conquered by these cultures. The Chinese had come to the Philippines centuries before the Spanish as traders, not as colonists. Out of the influences that these immigrants brought, what the pre-Filipino people liked, they adopted as their own. One lens to look at Filipino culture through is its capacity for cultural absorption. And through the unrestrained, guiltless pleasure Filipinos take in sampling from other cultures, adapting newly discovered foreign novelty for native tastes.

Filipinos are a mestizo people by definition. The majority of Filipinos descend from the pre-colonial Native population of the islands—the result of multiple waves of migration stretching back thousands of years. Many can also claim descent from more recent waves of Chinese settlers and/or the relatively small population of Spanish colonists. Like many mixed-race/mixed-culture peoples who have emerged, are emerging, or perhaps yearn to emerge from a colonial legacy, most Filipinos see no contradiction in this racial, ethnic, and cultural mix. It is not a problem or a source of confusion to the people in that mix. I want to be clear that I am not suggesting ignoring the very real class-based, economic, and political divisions that emerge from the country’s troubled history. I am in no way trying to hide the skin-lightening creams and the Ayala family and Rodrigo Duterte. I want to draw your attention to one part of a complex postcolonial reality. Something profoundly inspiring rising out of centuries of colonial and postcolonial abuse.

In the Philippines—which has a population of 107 million people—there are tens of millions of people with Spanish family names who have no Spanish ancestry. There are thousands of places with Spanish names. The non-Western languages of the Philippines are full of Western words. Foods that have been cherished in the Philippines for untold millennia have ended up with new names in Spanish and English. Adobo. Beta Max. Bicol Express. The Philippines has no L’Académie française that hovers over its languages and mass media, attempting to freeze some linguistic golden age in place in eternal ice. There is no popular mass movement trying to decolonize adobo. Filipinos are gleefully drowning the English language in tangy vinegar. Perhaps someday Duterte or one of his successors will rename the country Maharlika, but it hasn’t happened yet. If Filipinos like something or like the sound of a word for something, they will adopt it. They will absorb it. They will make it their own, adapting it to native tastes. Few Filipinos give much thought to whether European words are polluting their culture or whether their Catholic religion (or Islam) makes them less “Asian.” Or, for that matter, whether Chinese influence in the last thousand years has tainted some primordial Pinoy culture. A past rooted in racist, exploitative colonization has left many tragic legacies and injustices in the country, but a national mass obsession with cultural purity is, fortunately, not one of them.

All this absorption doesn’t make Filipinos any less Filipino, any less themselves. Their culture is the opposite of stasis: it is defined by constant metamorphosis. As America’s culture has been, in many ways.

America counts many characteristics in common with its former colony and current client state. Both the Philippines and America are racial and cultural melting pots, and both constantly reinvent and renew themselves by embracing outside influences to trigger internal innovation. America is a larger, wealthier, and more complicated melting pot and comes with a more problematic history rooted in its specific history of genocide, slavery, Jim Crow apartheid, and overseas imperial misadventure. The word appropriation is appropriate in the American context in a way that it isn’t in the Philippines. In spite of this history—as well as because of the affluent, bourgeois society built on and financed through its original sins—people from all corners of the Earth and their descendants, numbering in the hundreds of millions, have come to call the USA home. Even in the present, the interracial, multiracial, and multicultural realities and possibilities in this country are awe-inspiring—even if Fox & Friends tries to pretend they aren’t real. The inspiration catalyzed through the juxtaposition of, conflict and collaboration among, and possible consensus within so many different perspectives and histories remains a source of hope for those of us dreaming of a different and more just—not to mention more interesting—future on this continent.

The blurring or transgression of racial boundaries remains radical in America’s race-based hierarchy, especially outside the racist order established by America’s British founders. The choice to partner and have children outside your lane remains subversive because it carries with it the possibility of dissolving the categories America’s racial hierarchies are based on—as well as the racially demarcated economic boundaries that have defined class inclusion here. As more and more non-Western immigrants settle in the United States—and as their descendants mix with the people already present here—another family of questions comes into focus. Especially in those parts of the country—especially in the cities—with majority-minority populations. Are all of the immigrants here and all their multiracial descendants Westerners? Is “the West” really just code for white people? Is “Westerner” even a relevant category for discussion in a globalized world increasingly defined by disparities between the rich North and the impoverished, looted South? If America can’t escape categorization as a Western culture, is there the possibility that it is undergoing a process of metamorphosis and becoming something else? Assuming the country still exists in 2050 or 2150, will a majority of Americans even want to consider themselves Westerners? Or will they see themselves and their even more hybrid culture as something else? Perhaps America is in denial about something that’s already happened.

Here is where the example set by the Philippines and Filipinos—their attitudes toward cultural and racial purity, their nonchalance around their culture’s complicated roots in the East and West—is so revelatory. These binary categories melt down in a place like the Philippines. American culture can also be described as highly absorbent—augmenting itself with the cultural achievements of all the immigrants drawn to the myth of the American dream and, of course, through the achievements of African Americans, who have created much of what we think of as American culture while being assaulted by this country and denied that dream for centuries. American culture has been a hybrid culture from the beginning, combining elements of Western European, West African, and Indigenous cultures. White American conservatives—and many liberals too—are seriously uncomfortable with just how much of their culture’s foundations are non-Western. African. Native. And now increasingly Latin American and Asian. A large percentage of white Americans—71 million people voted for Trump in 2020—appear to be totally terrified of this truth. They are scared shitless of the culture growing in America’s majority-minority cities—and of the future those cities, and now their suburbs, are ushering into being across the country. As of 2016, the majority of babies born in the USA are now non-white. It is predicted that America will cease to have a white majority at some point in the mid-2040s, two decades from now. Today around 7 percent of Americans identify as mixed-race/multiracial. In 2050, that number could be 20 percent, or one out of every five people here. How do these demographics make you feel?

The deeper changes brought by this growing population of multiracial and multicultural people will extend beyond radical new mixtures of facial features and endless ignorant questions about family names and identity. They are cultural. They will be political. No bureaucratic checkmark box labeled “Other” will contain them forever. Regardless of what languages are coming out of our mouths, and what European names appear on our government documents, non-Western cultural perspectives and non-Western family histories remain as part of the mix in the descendants of all the immigrants coming from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and they can’t help but rearrange and reshape this fucked-up place.



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