Sea Race Conference room
Whew, the projector works! (my self-portrait on screen)

I’d dreaded giving this workshop. I literally lost sleep over it, turning over in my head a central question that I’d tried to resolve through innumerable conversations. The problem was built into the title I’d given the workshop, “Here I Am: The Self-Portrait as Act of Cultural Resistance.” And now I had to hash it out at the 2015 Seattle Race Conference.

My workshop was originally intended for people of color (POC)—both visual artists and writers. In a society where racial minorities are still marginalized, creating a self-portrait is an empowering exercise for POC to assert their autonomy and agency. It’s a way of actively resisting racial typecasting while also rooting out implicit racism in themselves. Sometimes self-judgment, like “My eyes are too small” (something I used to think as an Asian American), emerges during the process, and these indictments often carry internalized racism.

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Quarter Life, a self-portrait I did at 25 

Knowing the conference would be well attended by non-POC, I didn’t want to restrict the workshop to minorities and be accused of being, well, racist. So my big dilemma was figuring out how to position this workshop to non-POC. If whiteness is normative in our culture, then for a white person, creating a self-portrait is not necessarily an act of racial-cultural resistance. So the big question was: how can non-POC create a self-portrait and still gain an empathetic understanding of the racial minority’s positionality? It felt like trying to sell a car to someone and have them think of broccoli at the same time. Most of the non-POC I asked usually didn’t think about race at all.

So I asked the question to a diverse assortment of people I knew, from data analysts to artists to academics to executives. Their answers ranged from “Does this workshop have to include white people?” to “Have the white folks draw themselves as racial minorities.” The latter idea made me flinch, since it could easily lapse into stereotyping. I wanted this workshop to be a validating experience for POC, not another opportunity for hurt feelings and rage.

After weighing out the feedback, I finally settled on asking the non-POC to do self-portraits and hoped that the small-group discussion afterward could help them better understand the minority experience.

My next concern was: Is anyone going to be interested in my workshop anyhow? There were so many fascinating-sounding sessions, including ones run by representatives of the ACLU, Washington Bar Association, and Seattle Office for Civil Rights, going on at the same time as mine.

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An excerpt of the 2015 Seattle Race Conference guide (my session bracketed)

To my relief, 16 people showed up. They were visual artists and writers, varying in age and race but skewing POC and female. I shared some of my art and writing, including an excerpt of my piece at the Wing Luke Museum, talked about the politics of self-portraiture and the social/activistic aspects of art making, and described the parameters of the project. I asked the writers to produce a paragraph or several about their physical appearance, which is the manifestation of ethno-racial features and perceived difference. I recommended the artists stick to a realistic style but not worry about using a mirror, to avoid getting hung up on technicalities.

Then I asked the workshop participants how they would address the self-portrait challenge for non-POC. One mixed-race woman raised her hand and suggested that whites can experience oppression, similar to what POC feel, when they feel insecurity at their own features. It was an excellent point: oppression can come from oneself—we do it all the time.

Using the paper, pens and pencils I’d brought, the workshop participants got to work. They approached their self-portraits with courage and honesty; there was often pain and questioning on the page. One white woman drew her body as an outline and her head with only eyes, nose, and hair; in a caption, she berated her blankness and yearned for color. A young black man tried drawing himself several times; each time, a male relative’s face unexpectedly emerged. The mixed-race woman who had responded to my question earlier almost wept while drawing her self-portrait. On the paper, her dark eyes stared piercingly out but inward, as most self-portrait eyes do. She later told me the workshop changed her life.

When I divided the class into small groups afterward to talk about their self-portraits, the discussions were rich and deep, even spilling into the lunch hour. As I visited with the groups, I found it challenging to adroitly respond to some of the issues that came up. What to say to the young white woman who drew herself in long sleeves and wrote that she was seen by her high school as a threat to the community (due to self-harm) but “still doesn’t know oppression”? Or to the half-Hispanic woman who called herself “an invalid” because she doesn’t fit into either culture and it makes her feel sick and useless.

Or to the white senior citizen who had remained resolutely silent until she finally opened up about escaping her bigoted small town when she realized she was gay.

Many writers tried their hand at sketching. A biracial woman who had never drawn before brightly observed that she could pass as either Mexican or white. She drew her eyes looking down in a shocked but amused manner, the whites showing above the dark pupils, and a half-smile on her thin face.

I was inspired and moved by everyone’s braveness at confronting their issues and speaking frankly about them with strangers. A few participants told me afterward that they’d had a profound experience. I ended up making two friends: a talented young poet, who has since expanded her self-portrait into a long-term creative project, and a woman from the social justice organization Coming to the Table. The latter led an afternoon workshop that used art interpretation to reveal implicit bias, which fit the conference theme: Perceptions Kill! The Impacts of Implicit Racial Bias.

The conference itself was sold out, and the majority of the attendees were non-POC, which shows that Seattle is progressing, even if it has a long way to go. I met likeminded folks who offered me opportunities to lead workshops at University of Washington, North Seattle College, and Western Washington University. I was also invited to show my art at a gallery in Kingston, WA.

Sea Race Conference friends
New friends at 2015 Seattle Race Conference (me in center)

Talking about race in America is arduous, but it’s amazing how engaged people can become once they get started. I was struck by how coworkers at my office, even between meetings, spoke about it with earnestness and alacrity. Race is an issue that is alive and vital, percolating below the surface, and when siphoned out carefully—in moderated small-group discussions, even in large-scale events like this conference—it can become a potent and transformative force. So let’s keep talking. Let’s keep meeting. Let’s keep looking into ourselves, for our faults, our beauty, our future potential. Because that is where social change begins.

This post is dedicated to freedom fighter Grace Lee Boggs.

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My tribute to Grace Lee Boggs on the chalkboard at my workplace

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