Identity Project founder speaks on identity politics

Elise Otto

Identity Project founder speaks on identity politics | Photo by KazekOn Wednesday, Nov. 28, between 20 and 30 Whitman students and community members met in the Reid Campus Center Ballroom to hear author, photographer, filmmaker and scholar of identity politics Kip Fulbeck. The event was sponsored by the International Students and Friends Club and the Asian Cultural Association in conjunction with the Whitman Identity Project.

In her introduction of Fulbeck, junior Becky Avila said, “Identity is something really hard to define because we are constantly changing all the time.” Fulbeck is an equally hard speaker to define. Despite the sparse attendance of the at the talk Fulbeck’s personality did not reflect the size of his audience. His presentation consisted of three short films, slam poetry, talking and a high level of audience interaction.

Fulbeck introduced himself by acting out a dialogue between himself and a survey. Eye color, weight and height all had straightforward answers, but race was more complicated for Fulbeck, who is of both Asian and Caucasian descent. “Thirty-five years without being able to check more than one box,” said Fulbeck. “It’s like asking me to choose, ‘mom or dad.'”

Fulbeck is best known nationally and within Whitman for his “Hapa Identity Project,” in which he photographed 1,200 people who defined themselves as ‘Hapa,’ and then asked them to respond to the question, “Who am I?”
Fulbeck identified the term ‘Hapa’ as referring to a person “of mixed race heritage with partial roots in Asian and/or Pacific Islander ancestry.” However, he also noted that the term originated on the Hawaiian Islands to mean mixed race, and was at one time considered a racial slur.

The result of the project was a successful show at the Japanese American National Museum and a book.
Responses, which were hung on bulletin boards around Whitman campus, ranged from testaments about racial identity or philosophical analyses to pictures. The project was the inspiration for the Whitman Identity Project, which is currently showing in the Stevens Gallery.

Tattoos are the subject of Fulbeck’s newest project, which will be released this spring. Fulbeck photographed three hundred 9/11 firefighters, celebrities, former gang members, Holocaust survivors and Hell’s Angels. Some of the tattoos were private or especially meaningful and shown anonymously.

The talk was well received by its attendees. Sophomore Missy Nevarro said that Fulbeck “opened my eyes… we talk about diversity and ethnicity and we like to sugar coat it. I value Kip’s honesty.”

Becky Avila, an organizer of the event, saw Fulbeck at a conference in San Francisco, and said she found him “refreshing, lacking the stigma that normally comes with talks about race of diversity. I felt he was something real and approachable.”

Organizers were disappointed that fewer than a quarter of the seats were filled. “I think it’s unfortunate for the student body,” said Avila. “Being part of the club, it’s hard to say that people should participate, that they should have been here, but he did have really important things to say.” said first-year Elizabeth Sieng.

“I think people assume that as far as identity goes we’re just going to talk about race,” said Avila. “Identity is not limited to race.”