This is part three of a series showcasing underrepresented narratives within the Asian/Pacific Islander-American community. Kai Mason is a junior majoring in English on a pre-law track. On campus, she is the president of the University of Michigan Slam Poetry and creative director of ROGUE, a fashion publication working to bring social, economic and environmental consciousness into fashion. Follow ROGUE on Instagram (@reallyrogue) or contact Kai at email@example.com.
The Michigan Daily: Tell me a little about your family history.
Mason: My mom and dad are both immigrants. My mom came here from Japan for graduate school. My dad came here from Jamaica when he was six. They met at a café.
I grew up with a really strong influence by my mom, who was a Japanese teacher at both American and Japanese schools. She really pressed our Japanese side on us, and we went to Japanese school every Saturday and school in Japan every summer. We didn’t really get a chance to learn about Jamaican culture from my dad. I still identify as both Black and Asian, though, because I was always the “other” wherever I was. I was very aware of the fact that I didn’t look like everyone else or live like everybody else. So I identify as both; I usually tell people that I’m half-Japanese and half-Jamaican.
TMD: How has your perception of your identity as an A/PIA shifted over the course of your life?
Mason: I grew up in very white environments, so until about first grade, I really believed I was white. In first grade, though, we were learning about Martin Luther King Jr. and someone said, “If it weren’t for MLK, Kai wouldn’t be here.” I was so confused, because even though I knew that I was a different color than everyone else, I didn’t think anyone else noticed. It was also around this time that whenever I went to Japan, people would ask me if I was 黒人 (a Black person). I didn’t know what this word meant at the time, so I would say that I didn’t know.
In middle school, my school’s friend groups were very segregated by race. The white kids hung out with each other, and the Black kids hung out with each other. There weren’t many Asian kids, but the ones we had were absorbed into the white kids. I started feeling really conflicted about where to go — was I more Black, or more Asian? I ended up hanging out with white people, because that’s who I felt the most at home with.
One day, I just had a random epiphany: I wasn’t more of one thing than another — I was both at the same time. I could create my identity, and I could be whatever I wanted to be. I was reading a lot of books by mixed authors at this time — my mom had this book called “Half and Half”, which was an anthology of short stories by mixed writers. I was also reading “The Color of Water”. I think this really helped me, because until then, I had never read anything by mixed people about being mixed. I didn’t know that other people could relate to my experiences.
TMD: Among these experiences of grappling with your identity, how have you found ways to celebrate who you are?
Mason: I can get caught up in the social justice aspect of my identity sometimes, but it has been so cool to be able to live multiple cultures. Who gets all of the opportunities that I have? Who has my mom and my dad? That’s the first thing that people usually say, like, “Wow, that’s so cool,” and it is! It’s really easy to forget how fun it has been.
I’m also so thankful for how close these experiences have made me to my brother. He’s the person I can most closely identify with, since we grew up experiencing the same things in (and in-between) the same communities. We talk a lot about our identities, and I’m so glad to have him. If I were alone in this, it would be a lot tougher.
It’s also really cool how close you get with people who understand you. I’m so close with the mixed people in JSA (Japan Student Organization) because we get it. Yeah, I’m just really thankful for how cool life has been.
TMD: Earlier, you mentioned being asked about your identity in Japan. As you move about the world, how do you feel like other people might label you at first glance?
Mason: It really depends on the person — everyone but Black people think I’m just Black. They’re not wrong — I am Black, but I’m also Asian. They’re both huge parts of my identity that you can’t factor out, and I especially can never factor out. But I think a lot of Black people know that I’m mixed. They’re like, “Oh, are you mixed Asian?”
TMD: Do you think that has affected your relationship with the larger A/PIA community on campus?
Mason: I don’t really know, actually. I know that it has definitely affected the way that I perceive myself and others, but I don’t know if it really affects my relationship with the community because that’s always been my relationship with the community. It’s really exhausting, but I’m so used to Asian people being like, “Oh, why are you so good at Japanese?” Every time I meet a new Japanese person, I have to give them my whole life story, like, “So, I actually am Japanese.” I grew up speaking Japanese — it’s my first language — but every time I meet a new person, I have to explain myself.
I don’t think that has happened as much here as it does in Japan. The U.S. is a lot less homogeneous than Japan, so people understand more quickly and are more open to the idea of multiculturalism. In Japan, I could tell people my entire life story and they still could reply to me in English, because they cannot get over the fact that someone who doesn’t look 100 percent Japanese is Japanese. They actually have a term there — 純ジャパ — which means pure or genuine Japanese, and people say it to describe being non-mixed. It’s pretty messed up.
TMD: Thinking about how you interact with A/PIAs — not only on campus, but in the world — how do you view your narrative in relationship to these dominant narratives of what an A/PIA is or should be?
Mason: I am really proud of my heritage, and I love hanging out with my fellow mixed people — especially my fellow mixed Japanese people, because I feel like they get it. My narrative is triumphant — I know that it’s not me who’s wrong when I face the microaggressions I face — I know that it’s not my fault when people try to suggest I’m not Japanese or exclude me. I just exist, and that’s all I do. That’s their own limitation, so I brush it off.
That’s owing to the fact, though, that my mom taught my brother and I Japanese so well. We have the language and the culture to fall back on. Without that, I feel like I’d have nothing to show for my mixed identity. Right now, I speak perfect Japanese and essentially grew up in Japan. I know what’s going on, and I know how to talk to people. I’m confident in the fact that I speak just as well as everyone else and have Japanese citizenship like everyone else. I honestly don’t know if I would feel as strongly about my identity if I didn’t have that. I recognize that people who don’t have the same ability might not feel the same way, and I’m really privileged to be able to have that.
That being said, people who are mixed shouldn’t have to prove themselves. If you are something, then you are.
TMD: Have you been actively involved in A/PIA spaces on campus?
Mason: I have been active in JSA — again, I love my JSA friends! I definitely wish there were more half-Black and half-Japanese people, because even though I have mixed friends, it’s very different being mixed-Black and mixed-white. At the same time, though – I know I shouldn’t feel like this – it also feels like a luxury to ask for different mixed people. Having mixed-Japanese people at all is already an honor, but we don’t have the same experiences. A lot of them recognize that, too.
In terms of the broader A/PIA community, I don’t hang out in those circles much. I feel very accepted in JSA, but I also know how problematic the greater community can be. In Asian Greek life, for example, some spaces tend to be very anti-Black, and I often hear stories of people saying the n-word. A girl I know joined an A/PIA sorority here and started saying it — she knew not to say it before, but something made her regress back into saying it. What makes it cool to say the n-word? What do people gain? Do they do it to gain proximity to whiteness or to feel included in Blackness? I know that I identify as Asian as much as they do, but to know that they are anti-Black … it makes me wonder: If I were full-Asian, would it be that different for me? What makes me able to understand why the n-word is problematic, when other people can’t?
About this girl I know, again, I wonder how she regressed into saying the n-word. Is her community so strict or so strong that she feels she won’t be included if she doesn’t say it? It makes me feel like Asian Greek life is, at least, partly built on anti-Blackness. If you’re going to say the n-word, say it in front of a Black person. Let me see you talk to a Black person at all.
TMD: Has this been an obstacle to you being involved in pan-Asian activist spaces?
Mason: Definitely. Why would I want to be in that space? Not being anti-Black is a bare minimum. I feel like that isn’t even something that I should have to educate people on — the community should be able to figure that out by itself. If you’re advocating for racial equality and want to be taken seriously, stop being racist yourself. People shouldn’t have to help you with that. What does solidarity look like when I can’t even be included in these types of spaces?
You’re 20 years old, and it’s a word. You tell a literal baby “no” and they’ll understand it, but you’re telling me you can’t stop saying one word?
TMD: What is a message you would like to convey to your fellow members of the A/PIA community?
Mason: I would say … “Fellow members of the A/PIA community: stop saying the n-word.”