A Visit to the 2018 Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference

March 23, 2018 • Feature, Homepage Feature, In-depth

Ken Tanabe, left, and Jeff Chiba Stearns lead the Community Caucus at CMRS. (Photo: Rob Buscher)

Leaders in the multiracial movement gather to ‘Resist, Reclaim, Reimagine’ – a direct call to action amidst the current political climate faced by historically underrepresented communities in the U.S.

By Rob Buscher, Contributor

Over the past few decades, the Japanese American community has become increasingly inclusive of multiracial and multiethnic individuals. However, for those of us who appear less phenotypically Japanese, it is sometimes difficult explaining our connection to people who are less familiar with interracial marriage and mixed-race children.

Multiracial Japanese Americans are in many ways the direct result of institutionalized racism that stigmatized Japanese-ness in the 20th century. From the Alien Land Laws to the mass incarceration during World War II, the very existence of our Japanese immigrant ancestors was deemed objectionable. Is it any wonder that so many of our parents and grandparents would choose intermarriage with partners from other ethnic and racial communities?

Yet, despite the growing prevalence of mixed-race Japanese Americans, there are many outside our community who do not acknowledge the legitimacy of our existence within the spectrum of Japanese American identity.

This is why it was so empowering to attend an event like the Critical Mixed Race Studies Conference, where nearly every one of the 200-plus participants were mixed race. While each individual has a totally different experience being mixed race (even within the same mixed community) the fact that multiracial folks were a super majority in this space meant that everyone had at least a basic understanding of the shared complexities surrounding our mixed identities.

Hosted at the University of Maryland on March 1-3, the 2018 conference’s theme was “Resist, Reclaim, Reimagine” — titled with a direct call to action amidst the current political climate faced by historically underrepresented communities in the United States.

Liz Acevedo at the CMRS Spoken Word Open Mic (Photo: Rob Buscher)

“This is the fifth time our community of scholars, activists, students and artists have gathered to share our work about racial mixture,” said CMRS Association President Greg Carter. “The panels, roundtables, screening, readings, films, poster sessions and exhibits addressed these three areas to uncover the ongoing relevance of white supremacy around the globe. As a system of organizing societies, white supremacy does not work by magic, but by the tools of homophobia, transphobia, colorism, sexism and greed. The conference theme has attracted work that examines this in innovative, exciting ways.”

While CMRS is primarily an academic conference, it is quite unique in the number of presenters and attendees who are not from a strictly academic background. Seemingly, there was an equal number of artists, activists and cultural producers represented amongst the convention attendees. Likely the underlying activism inherent in the conference theme was a driving force in creating this kind of unique space.

“As an organization, the CMRS Association has also been at the juncture of resisting, reclaiming and reimagining since we last met in Los Angeles in 2017,” Carter continued. “By challenging ourselves to be critical and to engender racial justice, everyone involved with the organization has been doing this throughout the year.”

Thomas Lopez, a multiracial community organizer who has been active in this space for more than 25 years, expanded on the history of the organization.

“CMRS offers so much: cutting-edge research, diverse topics, arts and entertainment and a chance to build community,” said Lopez. “Every year is different with unique keynotes, performances, venues and themes. I never know who I will run into and what to expect, but I never leave dissatisfied. It is the rare occasion when so many leaders in the multiracial movement are able to get together in person. I always leave inspired and motivated to keep going in spite of what headwinds I may be facing.”

From the perspective of a multiracial Japanese American, I was pleasantly surprised to meet many people of mixed Japanese descent who were participating in the conference. One such person was Ken Tanabe, founder and president of Loving Day and another longtime supporter of the conference.

“You could say that my interest in CMRS started before there was a CMRS conference,” said Tanabe. “I launched the Loving Day project six years before it started. For those who don’t know, Loving Day is a global movement to celebrate the June 12 anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court decision that struck down all U.S. laws against interracial marriage.”

Notably, the JACL wrote an amicus brief in support of interracial marriage during this case, which was presented to the Supreme Court by late Philadelphia chapter member William Marutani. Loving Day is especially resonant among multiethnic families and their children but is open to anyone who believes in equality and building diverse communities.

Also in attendance from the Loving Day Project was Director of Technology Eddie Nwabuoku.

“As a Core Volunteer with the Loving Day Project, a person of mixed race and a participant in the academic study of mixed-race identity in the United States and worldwide, the CMRS Conference has been vital to my life and my larger work,” said Nwabuoku. “CMRS is all about building, uplifting and promoting the community. This is still a fairly new field of academic research, but CMRS is the center of it all. If you are interested in the concept of race and its intersections with class, power, privilege and impact on life worldwide, you simply must attend!”

Indeed, it is the intersectionality that truly makes this space special, allowing for the free exchange of ideas between a diverse group of backgrounds both ethnically and in terms of profession.

“I learn something important every time I attend CMRS. It provides context to my work with Loving Day and informs the conversations and presentations that come with it. As a member of the Hapa Japan Board, I also draw from those experiences to provide insights that help us to craft future projects,” Tanabe concluded.

The Hapa Japan group that Tanabe references is an international organization seeking to track the growth of multiracial individuals amongst the Japanese diasporic community. The project consists of an event series, publications and a website hosted by the Hapa Japan Database Project, a research initiative at the University of Southern California’s Ito Center, which is dedicated to the global study of mixed-race and mixed-roots Japanese people.

At least three of its board members were in attendance at CMRS, including biracial Japanese Canadian filmmaker Jeff Chiba Stearns. In reflecting on the overlap from various multiracial organizing spaces, Stearns offered the following: “Many of the attendees and participants roll in the same circles. It’s great to have a place where were can all meet up once a year to discuss how we can support each other.”

Stearns’ previous documentary titled “One Big Hapa Family” delved into the issue of intermarriage from a Japanese Canadian perspective. Stearns also used the conference to launch his new original ABC picture book titled “Mixed Critters,” a playful way to teach children about mixed-race identity.

“Many of the animated and documentary films that I’ve directed and produced, including ‘What Are You Anyways?’ (2005), ‘One Big Hapa Family’ (2010) and ‘Mixed Match’ (2016), focus on multiethnic themes and exploring mixed-race identity,” said Stearns. “Therefore, CMRS is an important conference for me to attend, promote and exhibit my work to scholars and students.”

Much of the work presented at CMRS is issue-based, and many of the connections and relationships that are established in these spaces have led to more direct activism. One poignant example is the “Mixed Match” film that Stearns directed. While his previous work dealt mainly with the Japanese Canadian community, the time he spends in multiethnic coalition spaces like CMRS has helped expand his work to include a broader mixed-race perspective.

The film, which has been making its rounds through the Asian American film festival circuit and college campus screenings for the past two years, reveals the challenges facing mixed-race individuals when it comes to finding bone marrow donors of a similar genetic composition.

Much of this project was made possible through Stearns’ partnership with Athena Askliapiadis, a multiracial Japanese, Greek, Italian, Armenian, Egyptian American who represents Mixed Marrow, a Los Angeles-based organization that encourages mixed-race and multiethnic individuals to join the national bone marrow donor registry.

Reflecting on her experience at the past several CMRS, Askliapiadis said, “The connections made here have allowed me to bring my mission and film to different college campuses and events. Also, recruiting marrow donors is not easy — there are so many misconceptions and fears — but attending a conference where people are open minded and willing to learn makes explaining less challenging.”

Askliapiadis used this year’s CMRS as an opportunity to recruit more individuals for the donor registry.

“CMRS has been directly supportive by allowing us space to host a drive, provide materials for distribution and show ‘Mixed Match’ during the closing night event in 2016,” she said. “Screening our film for a 300-plus person crowd was so amazing and extremely touching for our patients, some of whom were in attendance. It was great to share the film with our peers and with a target audience who could relate and it can resonate so well with.”

By the end of the conference, an evident bond had developed amongst the attendees, including CMRS veterans and first-time attendees alike. But the organizers were nearly forced to cancel because of the unseasonably strong Nor’easter that week.

“What happened on the second day of the conference shows what CMRS is about,” Nwabuoku said. “Extreme windy conditions that day caused the host university to close down entirely. But attendees weren’t going to let a little bit of wind stop them from attending, so the organizers rallied round and within less than two hours, they were able to secure an alternate venue just outside of the university, rearrange the schedule, inform all the attendees about the changes and the show went on! That sense of community, and the eagerness to push on through no matter what, is emblematic of CMRS.”

Indeed, the sense of community was palpable, and I found myself on the verge of tears often throughout the weekend, having found a kindred space at the intersection between academia and activism.

“You would be hard put to find a venue that represents the breadth of the multiracial community as much as this event,” said Lopez. “If you wanted to get a peek into as much of the community as you can all at once, this would be the place. You will learn, you will laugh, you may cry, but mostly, you will leave inspired.”

While details about the next conference have not yet been announced, it will tentatively take place in 2020.

For more information, visit criticalmixedracestudies.com.

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