Amy Franklin (they/she) is the Senior Manager of DEI Engagement in DWT's Seattle office. Amy shares their own engagement of their many identities, how "passing" has affected their own experiences, and how acknowledging our interconnectedness can be a steppingstone to embracing each other's wholeness.
The Personal is Political
Growing up in our society as a mixed Asian American, non-binary, queer millennial has been a roller coaster of emotions. Most recently, it feels like many of my identities have been up for political debate – whether that be around safety and protections, or regulation and autonomy of our bodies by the government.
For myself, identity is inherently political. There are currently over 300 anti-LGBTQ+ bills pending, of which 132 are anti-trans bills. In 2021, anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 339% nationwide. When our most marginalized communities are being disproportionately negatively impacted time and time again, this isn't coincidence. This is deliberate.
It's exhausting to navigate each day with caring and compassion when those who have been targeted look like ourselves, our families, and our friends. There is an expectation to continue life with a sense of normalcy while justice continues to elude those impacted the most. It also glosses over the real harm that many individuals are experiencing on a daily basis and, more importantly, leads to greater responses of desensitization and indifference.
The increased violence towards our Asian American and Pacific Islander ("AAPI") siblings in our country makes navigating through spaces more precarious than before. Our society has also ascribed the "model minority" narrative to the Asian American community, which inherently pits them against other communities of color. This myth falsely assumes a narrative where Asian Americans achieve a higher degree of socioeconomic success, which is politically leveraged to erase and separate the hurt and pain that is currently being experienced by all BIPOC communities. Despite this, there are movements of solidarity between AAPI and other BIPOC communities to reject this narrative and encourage deeper understanding and interconnectedness between our lived experiences.
As the founder of an LGBTQ+ sorority, I encountered many leaders whose lives were filled with the politicization of their identities. Many of them were often targets of harassment and bullying precisely because they were visibly queer, BIPOC, and/or gender non-conforming. Hearing these stories gave me a deep appreciation and respect for the many individuals who, despite their visible identities, persist on living (and ideally thriving) on a daily basis.
Conversely, those who are not visibly "out" are afforded the privilege of moving through the world less disturbed by others. For many individuals this "passing" benefits their overall societal experience, whether they want to acknowledge it or not.
The Quandary of Passing
The notion of passing is something that can be both visible and invisible. Passing occurs when a person classified as a member of one group is accepted or perceived ("passes") as a member of another. Historically, the benefits of passing are typically linked to one's closeness and assimilation to whiteness, straightness, and gender conformity. As someone who is both Japanese and white but was given a very white-sounding name, I often pass as white in most of my interactions with strangers. This grants me privilege in a number of ways: my resume may get more of a consideration and my name isn't mispronounced when being introduced. As someone who is non-binary but presents as femme, I often pass as straight in most spaces unless I am holding hands with my spouse. Unfortunately, this passing often means that core parts of my identity – my Japanese, queer, and trans identities, are either painfully ignored or completely overwritten by others. The exercise in correction becomes an exhaustive social dance around when and how to "come out," particularly if safety is of concern.
Here's one personal example of the complexities and quandary of passing: my non-binary spouse presents as masculine-of-center in their gender expression. Four years ago, we visited their sister in Hungary for her wedding, a country known for being staunchly anti-LGBTQ in its politics. My spouse was assumed as male the entire trip by all the locals. They maintained that image because it was safer for them to move through the country, and safer for us to be able to express public affection to each other. When we flew back into the U.S., they were immediately assumed as female by the customs officer, a bewildering effect when they had only been perceived as male hours before in the exact same clothes. Although it was incorrect, it was safer for my spouse to pass as a man in that space than it would have been to be staunchly "out" as non-binary.
For me, coming out and being visible professionally is one of the ways I can continue to assert my identity and validate my own experiences, despite whatever privilege passing will afford me. As many of my identities are de-valued politically time and time again, I cannot afford to pass even though I might fear that, by coming out, I will reinforce messages of "the other" and silently validate the dehumanization of people like me. Growing up, I never saw or heard from anyone who shared the same lived experiences as me. By being out, I hope that, through my own experience, I can help to shed light on other people with the same identities and demonstrate that they are both valid and reflected in our society. And as someone who works in the diversity, equity, and inclusion space, to not be forthright about my own identities and experiences feels irresponsible and detrimental to the larger movement.
I say all this recognizing that not everyone feels like identity politics should be on the table. When I was getting my MBA, I encountered classmates who were comfortable with their LGBTQ+ identity but it was not a core part of how they moved through the world. I realized everyone engages with their identities differently, both personally and professionally. That's okay – not every identity will be viewed with the same weight by everyone. But when this is representative of future managers and leaders of our companies and organizations, we need to lead with empathy and recognize that not everyone can afford the ability to leave their identities at the door. We must understand that for many of our colleagues, their identity is political and is carried with them every step of each day.
Acknowledging and Uplifting Our Interconnectedness
While some people may believe identity politics inherently divides us, I believe we can hold space where we acknowledge both the differences and sameness in our lived experiences. When we start to recognize that another person's struggles mirror our own – that another person's grief or stress is similar to ours – then we can dismantle the concept of the "other."
Holding space for all our identities is crucial to be recognized, celebrated, and seen for who we are as a whole person. Our identities cannot be separated from our politics because the people who are most impacted are the most visibly aligned with those identities and communities. We must challenge the paranoid and chauvinist concepts of "looking after our own" and build institutions to be agile enough to recognize and resource wider forms of care and support for all people.
For me, the answer begins in understanding the ways in which we show up and care for one another as acknowledgement of our interconnectedness. My definition of caring encompasses the social capacity and activity that nurtures all that is necessary for the welfare and flourishing of life, as well as recognizing and embracing our interdependencies. In my experience, our cultural norms restrict the ways we can care for one another, who is allowed to care for one another, and who is ultimately entitled to that care.
Fortunately, many of our communities today already model interconnected approaches to care that extend beyond the traditional American approach of the nuclear family. One example of this framework can be seen in the development of 'chosen family' in LGBTQ+ communities. Another example can be found in childcare, where communities of color rely on extended families or the broader local community both to ease the burden of care as well as spread the joys and challenges of caring to others in the community.
My hope is that we collectively expand our caring imagination further: to include all members of our communities regardless of their identities. This also means caring more and in ways that remain experimental and extensive by current standards. This will, in turn, enhance our abilities to cultivate an interconnection towards the other – whether distant or proximate – that is caring. When we recognize ourselves in one another, then can we start to build a true understanding of who we are and how that impacts how we show up in this world – personally, professionally, and politically.