“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”—“How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Zora Neale Hurston
In 2014, I wrote and directed a play entitled I, Too, Am Harvard, based on interviews with black students at Harvard University about their experiences with race and identity. The accompanying Tumblr photo campaign—images of these students, their stories emblazoned on whiteboards—quickly went viral, spurring, among other things, national media coverage and front-page stories in the New York Times and The Boston Globe. Over the next few months, I, Too, Am Harvard inspired similar photo campaigns on campuses across the country, from “I, Too, Am Iowa” to “I, Too, Am Oxford,” revolutionizing the national conversation surrounding race and belonging on predominantly white college campuses. As the nation’s unaddressed racism continues to make front-page news, I reflect upon the journey that led me to create I, Too, Am Harvard, looking back on the moments that shaped my own racial identity. As a black-Japanese woman born in Washington D.C. with roots that extend to Hawai‘i, race has always been a constant for me, as it is for most people of color in America. Each of us has a story, the moments that peek through the surface of our lives, forming the consciousness of our color. Here is mine.
I am riding home from middle school in Washington, D.C. one day when a white man gets on my bus full of black faces and calls us the n-word. My stomach drops. The boys at the back of the bus rise. This is the first time I will hear that word exit the mouth of a real life white person, not in the movies, but here, on my bus, on this bus full of blackness. As I walk home from the bus stop that day, I struggle to make sense of the feeling this man has left with me, the smallness, the brokenness, the shame slowly growing inside me. I will not hear this word shouted by a white man into a crowd of black and brown for another eight years, and eight years later I will still not know what to do.
In the basement cafeteria of my black elementary school, I am teased for the musubi I bring in my lunchbox, white rice wrapped in nori, pressed into its pyramid shape by my Nisei mother. “Ewww what is that smell?” they jeer. “Seaweed,” I answer. The word feels foreign and wrong on my tongue, but I push it out anyway, attempting awkward translation. “Seaweed??” They crinkle their noses and I feel I am foreign, I am wrong, I do not fit into this landscape of Lunchables, Gushers, and free and reduced frozen fish sticks. I go home. I ask my mother to pack me a sandwich. I miss musubi. When my classmates pull their eyes into slits, contort their mouths into ching-chong-Chinaman talk, and call our volunteer chess teacher Mr. Tsunami, though that is not his name, my cheeks flash hot again. Do my eyes look like that? Are they talking about me? Somehow I know I am tied to this taunting, that I am its target even though they’re not looking at me, the words still clinging to my skin as if sensing the yellow beneath the brown. I look at my eyes in the mirror, turn my head to the side, search for slits. Who is this they’ve made of me?
At 14, I move to Hawai‘i. Here, they say, there’s no racism, yet the familiar geography of difference says otherwise: Micronesians made the punch line of every joke; Native Hawaiians displaced onto tent city sidewalks and in Arizona prisons; Filipina housekeepers working under Japanese and Chinese management, all under the watch of white hotel owners. I pass by Punahou School and see brown-skinned construction workers placing rows of heavy rocks around the prep school’s kindergarten area, building walls that will keep their own brown-skinned children out. This seems no racial paradise to me.
In high school, I cringe at a local classmate’s T-shirt: cartoon characters sporting afros, grills, rims, and fried chicken—and somehow I know these images, as much as I would deny them, are kin to me. For four years, I hear classmates use the n-word, not a black person in sight. When I confront a classmate one day, telling him of the pain the word triggers inside me, he says, “What? It’s just a word.” It’s just a word. It’s just a song. It’s just a shirt. It’s just a joke. It’s just—are they talking about me? Since there are so few black people in this environment, I am the only one they know. But do they know? I am not brave enough to make them.
This is what I learn from the other children in school. I learn what I look like. I learn what I sound like. The slit eyes. The ching-chong. The n-word. The black joke. The violence of black on yellow, and yellow on black, and white out of sight, and an ocean apart, and me in the middle. We are children. We are learning racism’s language. We are becoming American. And slowly, I am learning my skin.
A Sharp White Background
The first day I realize I am a minority is the first day of seventh grade, my first day of middle school, sitting in fourth period algebra one. I had never been in a classroom with a white person who wasn’t the teacher, and now I am surrounded by whiteness sitting at every desk, only four brown faces that are not my own. I sit in the front row, sensing stares on my back. Suddenly, I feel the color of my skin. “You tested into this class,” I tell myself, trying to loosen the knot inside. “You have the same right to be here as they do.” I observe them: They are at ease, giggling and bouncing blond ponytails, surrounded by elementary school friends. They shout out answers without being called on and whine at the teacher about homework, speaking as if to an equal. They look at us with mild curiosity and unspoken assumptions: “Algebra is the white class.” I open my textbook. I resolve to prove them wrong.
Each morning, I cross Rock Creek Park on the D31, traveling between worlds—east to west, black to white. Long ago I learned the geography of race in this city, crossing the park for the soccer games the bookshops the good schools the good stores the good. From bus windows, I watch my algebra classmates walking to school in khaki shorts wet hair and windbreakers. It is 49 degrees out. “Don’t white people ever get cold?” someone at the back remarks. We shake our heads. There are metal detectors at the doors, cops in the hallways, fights between periods. Black kids on the basketball team, white kids in the musical. The cafeteria has its own train tracks, a line of pillars dividing black tables from white, the vice principal sitting on a stool at the front of room, calling people out on the mic: “You Latinos over there, sit down!” “Basketball boys, quit messing around!” The bell rings, school gets out, we get on the D31. And one day a white man gets on and gives me a name that’s not mine.
The first week of my freshman year at Harvard University, the Asian American Association shows up at my dorm room door with an invitation to their welcome mixer. I answer, and they ask, “Is your roommate here?” “No,” I say. “Well, could you give this to Kimiko for us?” “I am Kimiko.” “Oh,” they say, and we stand there in the doorway, awkward, staring at the difference in the distance between us.
It is two months later, and everywhere we go—in the dining hall, in our dorm rooms, in our classes—our classmates are talking about affirmative action, debating our deservingness, our belongingness, our bodies in these seats, our hands on these books. At the black table in the dining hall, people are discussing their SAT scores, their AP classes, listing their résumés of accomplishments, as their questioning of us becomes our questioning of ourselves, as the defense of our presence here becomes an urgent daily task. We turn in on ourselves, taking refuge at the black table, gravitating toward black friends, not sure of whom we can trust. The campus feels threatening, like our footsteps are unwanted, like our bodies are dangerous, disruptive. In class, we choose our words carefully. We study too hard. We write too well. We are trying to prove them wrong.
I move through buildings named for owners of slaves, some former presidents of my school. I sit in rooms where dead white men whose grandfathers used to own people who look like me gaze down from 7-foot portraits on the wall. I go to parties where boys in tuxes call me exotic to my face, see my face copyrighted behind the gloss of brochures. The caption reads “diversity.” I look around my classrooms, all I see is white. Where is this diversity? They’re all looking at me.
I am passing through Harvard Yard with friends one Friday night when a group of large drunk white males approaches us. They yell in our faces, “Can you read??” “Can you read?” I ask. “That’s racist!” they say. “White dudes suck!” I scream back, as my friends pull me away, back into sanity. I am reminded of the white man on the bus. I try to remember the shape of their faces, but all I remember is their bodies, big and white and man, and everything I am not, will never be—everything that makes their bodies belong here, and mine always a question.
I want to show them my essays, want to pull out my exams and throw them on the snow, want to pull up my transcript on their smartphones, ask them can you read this? Sometimes I wonder if I have ever seen these men again. Have we passed each other in the hallway? Shared a lecture hall, a library book, a table in the dining hall? Later, I write their words on a whiteboard, stand in front of a camera, post the picture online, and wonder if they will ever see it, ever see me.
I am looking at a photograph where I am 5 years old, my brother 3, and we are peeking out from behind the corner of my father’s protest sign in the streets of Washington, D.C. We are old enough to walk, so we are old enough to march. We are marching for Amadou Diallo, killed by New York City cops who saw a black man and imagined his wallet into a gun. That night, my brother’s small voice fills the house: “No justice! No peace! No racist police!” I later will learn those cops fired 41 shots. The sign in my hand says: “Enough is Enough.”
Amadou Diallo. At 5, this is a name I know, like many I will come to know: Oscar Grant. Sean Bell. Jordan Davis. Renisha McBride. Aiyana Jones. Rekia Boyd. Ramarley Graham. Jonathan Ferrell. Kimani Gray. Kollin Elderts. Even at 5, I know the names are somehow connected to my own. I know the black, the brown of my skin somehow ties me to these now-dead men and women, the same black and brown that ties them to death. I know more names are coming.
My mother is crying at the kitchen table. Trayvon Martin is dead in the street, America pleading not guilty, and she is trying to explain to my 16-year-old brother what it means for him to be a black man in America: hood down, hands out of your pockets, don’t walk at night, don’t walk at all, these streets are not yours, you are my baby, that could’ve been you.
It is the night of non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed 18 year-old Michael Brown. I am tucked into the couch with a cold, still numb with the pain of this familiar heartbreak. Cities are burning, highways halted, hands up, raised to the sky. I want honey and tea, but I will not go to the dining hall, where I know they’ll be laughing, eating, drinking, studying, texting, Snapchatting, Yik Yaking, Facebooking, and living … like we aren’t dying next door.
They took my grandmother’s name in grammar school. Told her she’d have to get a real American name, and just like that, she became Carolyn. Years later she is in New York, now a young woman, when a friend asks her how her parents could have given her that name when they couldn’t speak English. And that is when she decides to take it back, unveiling this name, my name. Kimiko. The name her mama gave her the morning she was born into red dirt, bare feet, and one-dollar days, crying out amidst Kaua‘i canefields. Sometimes I wonder what my name would be if she’d never stolen it back for us.
It is one year after I, Too, Am Harvard, and I am still gathering my voice to speak. On the first day of classes, I sit in a seminar on the Civil War, surrounded by white faces. They go around the room. They say their names. I hear the professor say that this past Monday was the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, and it strikes me just how close we are to slavery. I think of the plantations that birthed me into this nation, the fields of cotton and cane, the stolen bodies, stolen land, and stolen lives that live on in me, the stories I carry with me to this place. I gather my voice. I gather the stories. I open my mouth, I say my name.