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From Watching Blossom to Writing for Mayim Bialik

Today something incredible came full circle. I was an avid fan of Blossom back in the day, and I wanted to be just like the spunky protagonist played by Mayim Bialik. I wasn’t as obsessed with her as I had been with Punky Brewster in middle school, but she was still a really cool chick. I especially wanted to be able to do her dance moves in the opening credits!

For the past few months, I’ve been contributing to a column called Feminism 101. It’s been fun getting the questions in my inbox and answering them when I have something to say. The column started off on SheKnows, and later switched to a new site, GrokNation, which just happens to be that of Mayim Bialik! Or, as some know her, Amy Farrah Fowler from The Big Bang Theory.

For me, Bialik will always be the girl in this picture, which I’d cut out from a magazine in my teens and has remained in my cedar box ever since.

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These past two years in Los Angeles have been a hard road. Sometimes I’m not sure how I’m going to eat the next day. Sometimes I get lonely and miss the friends who have known me for over a decade. But then, like clockwork, something amazing happens that reminds me why I’m here. Today that amazing thing was realizing I’ve been writing for Mayim Bialik.

Click here to discover my first act of feminism, complete with a photo of preschool me.

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Feminism 101: “What Was Your First Feminist Thought?”
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Celebrating the 1st Annual Mixed Heritage Day at Dodger Stadium

What happens when a young, mixed race boy asks his mother what ethnic day is meant for him? The Los Angeles Dodgers have special days for certain ethnicities, but none celebrating mixed race heritage… until now.

 

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Nice day at the Dodgers vs. Cubs game.

Sonia Smith-Kang and her business partner Delia Douglas approached the Dodgers about creating a Mixed Heritage Day. The Dodgers obliged, and yesterday about 200 people came to celebrate at a game against the Chicago Cubs. I arrived with my friend Jennifer, and at first I had trouble trying to find Delia and Sonia in the bleachers. I scanned the faces of the children and adults, trying to spot a large grouping of people set apart by varying skin tone and racial admixture. Funnily enough, I had difficulty finding them in the crowd, because the bleachers were filled with fans of all different hues. There wasn’t much that set this group apart, and that was the point. Los Angeles is becoming increasingly diverse and increasingly mixed, and having a day to celebrate a mixed race heritage is thus tremendously important for children who grow up in interracial families.

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Sonia and her family at the game. Photo courtesy of Sonia.

The Dodgers displayed “Mixed Heritage Day” on the jumbotron in between innings, just as they do for other cultural days at the stadium. This day was a bit different from most, however, because Sonia and Delia were presented a certificate by the Los Angeles mayor, who himself identifies as mixed race. Adults, children and families gathered together in celebration and community as they cheered their team to victory. It was a victory not just for the players, but also for the families who saw their love recognized and validated just like any other.

Sonia and Delia plan to make Mixed Heritage Day a yearly tradition. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter to see what went down in 2016!

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See you next year!
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Is Culture Innate, or Is It Learned?

I often write about growing up folk dancing with my family in the Santa Cruz mountains. We mostly participate in Israeli and Balkan folk dancing, even though no one in my family is Israeli or of Balkan ancestry. Regardless of race, I’ve been doing this type of dancing since I was in the womb.

Just before I was born, my aunt (white) and my uncle (white and Japanese) met at folk dancing classes at UCSC. Another class member owned land in the Santa Cruz mountains, and he invited my aunt and uncle, as well as a few other people, I believe, down to his property to practice. This was about 40 years ago. It quickly grew into a biannual event, with weekend-long dances over the Labor Day and Memorial Day weekends. This type of music is not in my blood, and I didn’t even grow up in this culture. However, I spent countless long weekends dancing with people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including those who have immigrated from the Balkan region.

About 15 years ago, I surprised a Macedonian coworker by jumping right into a folk-dancing event at the nearby Seattle Center. She never saw it coming but was pleasantly surprised. Amazed that her black friend knew this aspect of her culture so intimately.

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At my sister’s wedding in 2013, with my mom second from right.

Whenever I dance in a circle with my left hand attached to one person and my right hand attached to another, I feel a sense of connection that I’ve never feel anywhere else. It’s not just the hand holding, and it’s not just the movement in and of itself. It’s this particular tradition that I’ve grown up with since birth. Whenever I attend weekends at what we refer to as “The Land,” I feel like I’m reconnecting with my roots.

I’m black on my dad’s side, and German, English, Irish and Scottish on my mothers. If anything, ancestry says I should love African dancing. I should love square dancing or English country dancing. But I don’t. For me, it’s Balkan and Israeli all the way.

This connection brings up many questions regarding ethnic identity. For example, if a black child is raised by white parents, is he culturally–in his bones–white? Can Rachel Dolezal claim blackness? Perhaps the simple difference is that I don’t see myself as Israeli or of Balkan origin. I don’t pretend to know much about the cultures or even the histories, besides what I’ve learned in school and picked up orally.

But when the music plays, whether it’s in the car or at The Land, my very bones feel that connection. My feet move as if they’ve always been meant to folk dance. I grab the belts of those next to me as if I were meant to perform this very act. Even when years go by between my visits –even when the landscape of who is attending is almost completely foreign to me–once I get on the dance floor, I’m connected to the wood, to the earth beneath, and to the rhythm that pervades my very core. I am a black folk dancer.

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Aged 24, I Flew to Sacramento to Care for My Dying Alcoholic Father. This Is What I Learned.

My latest article, published on The Influence, April 19,2016

When I was a little girl, I looked up to my dad the way most little girls look up to their fathers. I liked watching the way he’d cross his legs while he smoked his pipe in contemplation. I liked lifting my dumbbell while he lifted his barbell. I liked telling people that my ex-prison father could beat them up at a moment’s notice.

My parents split up when I was three, but I still saw my dad fairly regularly—until he moved three hours away when I was seven. It was when my dad moved back to our area at the start of middle school that he started to fall from his pedestal.

Read the rest here.

 

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Going Back in Time on “The Bachelor”

Anyone who watches The Bachelor knows what happened Monday night between Jubilee and the other members of the house. For anyone not familiar with the show, allow me to fill you in.

The Bachelor, like many reality TV shows, is known for being extremely whitewashed. This season, one of the few people of color has lasted through a one-on-one date, which sadly is especially surprising since she’s Haitian and very dark-skinned. Naturally, Jubilee had a hard time opening herself up both to Bachelor Ben and then to the other women in the house.

Jubilee is a refugee and U.S. war veteran who was adopted after her entire family perished in Haiti. I’m not adopted, my family didn’t perish, and I didn’t go to war, but I still understood Jubilee’s reserve.

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Photo courtesy of The Bachelor

When Ben used words like “strong” and “genuine” to describe her on their one-on-one date, that also felt intimately familiar. These words have been used to describe me more than any others (even as men are breaking up with me). Jubilee’s date went refreshingly well, and in a way that has never felt so intimately familiar to me, as I usually feel a bit removed from the participants.

Back in the house, the women attacked Jubilee with what a friend accurately described as a “pack mentality.” They questioned what Ben could see in someone who was obviously so different from both him and themselves, with one woman telling the diary cam that Ben needed a soccer mom, not “someone like her.”

Ben stood up for her in a way bachelors rarely do on the show, but I don’t want to focus on that, because, while my instinct is to praise him, he was just acting the way any decent guy should. Instead, I’d like to share a little something I wrote when was 17, which eerily echoes many of Jubilee’s sentiments. It’s a little corny, but bear with me. I was 17, after all.

* * *

I know of a girl who is silenced. I have known her all of my life and I will know her until the end of eternity. Only I know what goes on in her mind. Only I know the untold secrets that lie at the bottom of her heart. She shares them with me and me alone. I am the only one whom she trusts unconditionally.

She is a short girl with dark skin and far darker hair. Her eyes brim over with dreams and ambitions. On her face is a look of longing and of passion. This girl has a deep desire to make a difference and to share her ideas. Yet she rarely ever voices them.

Conversation is hard for the girl. She is afraid of rejection, afraid of being laughed at. What if she opens her mouth to speak and the words that flow from her mouth are met by silent stares? What if she opens her mouth to speak and nothing comes out at all? She is a continuous ground watcher, afraid to look in the eyes of disapproval.

In seventh grade the girl was mostly alone in a crowd. She ate with a group of people whom she hardly knew. She would self-consciously eat her lunch as fast as she could get it down, trying not to draw attention to herself. A year later, a boy from the group was surprised to hear the girl say hi to him. “You never talked before,” he exclaimed. “I thought you were deaf!”

Part of what makes the girl so afraid to speak is that she knows that the physical aspect of her is different. The girl has one eye that doesn’t move properly, which makes it hard to look at people without turning her head to face them. She has a massive head of kinky, layered hair which she can never wear fully loose. The girls with straight, fine hair could never understand that.

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Growing up in a Caucasian society, the dark-skinned girl always stands out in a crowd. However, if she is ever around African-Americans, she never fits in there either for her skin is so light. She is too black to be white, yet too white to be black. Mostly, people don’t know what she is. Oftentimes, these differences seem to work against her instead of for her. She is constantly reminded that she sticks out in a crowd and that causes her to fold up in the attempt to be immune to hurt or criticism. 

This girl wants someone to listen to her hopes and dreams. The girl wants someone to believe in her who won’t say that her dreams are dreams and nothing more. This girl is me.

* * *

Twenty-five-year-old Jubilee mirrors this younger self. I remember vividly being invited to a game night of white acquaintances when I was about 19. All my high school friends were white, but we all held family secrets and didn’t fit into “normal” society. I drove to the apartment where the game night was hosted, parked my beat-up car, and walked up to the door. I heard the women laughing inside… laughs that seemed so carefree. Laughs that at least in my mind came from girls who had parents who called them and wished them well. Girls whose families helped them navigate the adult world instead of leaving them to their own devices. And I suspected that these girls had never felt judged, ogled or dismissed for their skin.

Now that I’m older, have developed close friendships, and have a family unit that is refreshingly intact, I look men straight in the eye and know my worth even if they don’t. I can walk confidently into a room of women and know I belong there, even though my story is likely much more intense than theirs.

I don’t mind, now, that I’m complicated. Even though the women in tonight’s episode proved that the pack mentality is not dead, it’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one who has felt silenced for standing out in a manner I couldn’t control and now wouldn’t change. Whatever Jubilee’s path ends up being, I hope her future is filled with connections and self-love that she never thought possible. I hope she can stare that soccer mom pack down with fierce confidence.

Update 2/2/16

Spoiler alert for anyone who’s not caught up to episode 5….

Unfortunately, their end was just like mine with so many others. It’s honestly like watching myself on TV. No answers, but comforting somehow to know my personality is so closely shaped by my experiences. Here’s to bright futures with men who see us as equals instead of on a lonely pedestal. Not a pity party, just looking forward to what lies ahead!

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Gabrielle Gorman’s “Dear America”: When You Don’t Love the Skin You’re In

On December 8th, I attended the 2015 My Hero Awards, where my dear friend Kayla Briet won the Emerging Artist Award for her work in film, music and technology.

While Kayla’s work always mesmerizes me, another award recipient named Gabrielle Gorman brought me and many others to tears with her experimental film “Dear America,” for which she won the title of 2015 Student Honoree.

I just watched the live stream of Kayla’s film screening at the National Young Arts Foundation in Miami, and Gabrielle’s film screened shortly before hers. Watching it again made me question why this film touched me so personally. After all, Gabrielle’s film is about not loving herself as a dark-skinned black youth. She candidly discusses how she wanted to bleach her skin and shrink her large lips–how she wanted plastic surgery to look more like Michael Jackson. While I’d never had such desires, her film somehow resonated with me, and I wasn’t sure why.

I got to thinking, maybe it’s my white privilege that has made me feel comfortable in my own skin. Maybe it’s the fact that I look more like Michael Jackson once he’d reached the middle of his many surgeries than when he was in the Jackson 5.

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In costume for Halloween, 2014

I knew, however, that I’d wrestled with loving my body. Then I remembered why.

Growing up, I lived in the liminal space between two races. I had olive skin and “mixed race hair.” Instead of inhabiting this space, I wanted to look more like others. But not white others. I wanted to look more black.

I loved my skin in the summer months, when the back of my hand got darker than my palm. I loved wearing braids my senior year of high school and thought that would make me less ambiguous. (It didn’t.) In my late 20s, when I started gaining weight, I happily watched myself get increasingly curvy. My happiness didn’t stem from a desire to look sexy. I was happy because the curves made me feel more black. Like most youth and young adults, I wanted to look like I fit in somewhere instead of feeling watched–a desire that Gabrielle discusses as well.

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Me in 1993 after a trip to Indonesia.

Is my experience the same as Gabrielle’s? Definitely not. But Gabrielle doesn’t think this matters. Her video also features a mixed race youth who wears labels like “Oreo,” and Gabrielle says, “We can’t afford to say any longer […] ‘You have dealt with different struggles than me because you’re lighter skinned than me or because you’re darker skinned than me.'” And I think that’s why her video touches so many people. We all wrestle with self-acceptance, for varying reasons and in varying extremes. Gabrielle boldly speaks what many of us think but would not dare utter.

Gabrielle Gorman
Photo courtesy of Liz H Kelly, Goody PR

Thank you, Gabrielle, for being so brave. And so strong. And so beautiful. Thank you for now loving yourself just as you are, because you help all of us love ourselves a little better, too.