I never consciously noticed that my personal narrative wasn’t depicted in the popular culture. I actually barely thought about it at all. I think I always assumed I was an outlier, that my story was too specific to expect any widespread representation.
Growing up, the only Disney character I felt any relation to was Mowgli, from “The Jungle Book.” With my short brown hair and dark skin, I thought I looked just like him. When “Mulan” came out, I at least had an Asian character to dress up as, but even that was a generous pairing.
It wasn’t a glaring absence of representation. But when you have never seen yourself in books or movies or music, the first time you do is stunning.
Wendy Hsu is an arts researcher based in Los Angeles who said that representation isn’t just about seeing yourself in art or culture — it’s about feeling connected to and seen as part of a larger community.
“It’s often important for people to have this feeling of belonging, and it comes with things like social comfort, familiarity, the language that you speak, things that are really usually pretty intuitive like your family and social connections,” Hsu said. “So those are critical things in people’s well-being.”
Hsu also said that for people who are estranged in some way from their cultural ancestors, the communities that spring up around new art and culture are especially vital.
“The spaces where lived experiences matter, the particular and nuanced experiences of an individual that make up the stuff that makes you who you are … it’s all the vivid experiences of having to go to grocery stores with your mom or translating the utility bills for your parents, or taking your shoes off before you go into somebody else’s house, or the smell of the pickles in your fridge, all these things matter,” Hsu said.
“All of this is the stuff that artists and musicians write about. The things that make up the narratives of who they are and who their communities are. And that’s an important space to have.”
In this episode of “Other: Mixed Race in America,” I interview Katie Malia and Ruth Ozeki about the importance of building communities around art and culture that represents you.
Learn more about the other episodes here:
- Race is more than just black and white. This new podcast explores some of that middle ground.
- Why it can be hard to date as a multiracial person
- What happens to your cultural heritage when you marry someone of a different race?
- The long history and legacy of passing in America
- The debate over who counts as ‘American’ is nothing new. Just ask this woman who was put in an internment camp when she was 10.
- How Ruth Ozeki renamed herself.
- ‘That’s my story’: Heidi Durrow on why stories about multiracial identity just aren’t niche offerings