I first met Felicia Ishino, Project Pilgrimage’s Executive Director, five years ago on my first Civil Rights pilgrimage through the University of Washington. As a student leader, I worked closely with Felicia, who guided the student leaders in creating a curriculum that fostered reflection and vulnerability from the pilgrimage participants. Felicia’s prowess for critical thinking, supporting young leaders, and speaking her truth was evident when I first met her. Recently, I (virtually) sat down with Felicia to talk about our Asian American identities, the historical nomination of Senator Kamala Harris, and the importance of representation.  

Different Identities

As fellow Asian Americans, Felicia and I have talked about our Asian identities since we’ve known each other. She identifies as biracial: Black and Japanese American, while I identify as Vietnamese American. I grew up in Olympia, Washington, which was a predominantly white town. Felicia grew up with her Black mother and step-father in a household that had a lot of “Black culture and an appreciation of African American culture that was prevalent in the household.” Her connection to Japanese culture “was something that I more read about in books or studied in school than I truly experienced, culturally.”

Felicia later talked about having moments of exposure to her culture with her father’s Japanese family instead of “being completely immersed in it.” Although she was encouraged by her stepfather to spend time with her father’s side of the family and learn about her culture, she didn’t start to learn about Asian American activists until she was in college. This really resonated with me. Growing up in Olympia, Washington, I was surrounded almost exclusively by white folk. Despite growing up in an Asian American household, I felt like I only had moments of exposure to my own culture, similar to Felicia. No one in my family ever talked about what it meant to be Asian or to celebrate our culture. It wasn’t until I attended the University of Washington when I finally met other Asian Americans who could understand and contextualize my experiences.

Nuances and Complexities

There are nuances and complexities within any ethnic identity, and Felicia’s biracial background is no exception. “It’s unique. I haven’t met as many biracial or multiracial people with that combination specifically of being Black and Asian American.” Having a very unique perspective and set of experiences can sometimes be isolating when there’s not a lot of representation out there. There’s also the experience of not feeling enough, or that you have to define your own identity for yourself. “Biracial people go through this [process] where I’m not this and I’m not that or I’m both,” Felicia shared. “And the notion of when and how we fit into certain communities. A lot of our history, a lot of our world feels like it’s Black and white, and so when you add in another perspective and another experience, it feels like, I’m really trying to figure out where I fit.”

Felicia and I talked a lot about representation during this conversation: how there’s not a lot of representation when it comes to Black and Asian communities coming together, how society’s external perception of her (Felicia being a Black woman) differs from how she internally perceives herself (Felicia recognizing she’s Black and Japanese), and why we need representation on all types of levels, especially politically.

With the historic nomination of Kamala Harris as the first Black and Asian woman Vice President nominee, many Black and Brown Americans, including Felicia, are really hopeful by this new and much needed example of representation. “As soon as Kamala was announced, I felt that familiar kind of hopefulness… after a long stint of not feeling hopeful at all.” This nomination, for many, signified a type of representation that affirmed our experiences, communities, and visions for the future. “Kamala Harris represents real change, just by virtue of who she is. It’s incredibly important for the Asian community but also the Black community and biracial individuals, women, there’s just a lot that’s wrapped up in her as an individual. That representation really matters.”

Hopeful Representation

Being able to see a part of you reflected and in a position of leadership can inspire a confidence within you that I matter. My experiences and stories are unique and have value. I deserve to be here. I remember seeing my Asian American identity reflected in Felicia as we went on several pilgrimages together, which comforted me when my Asian American identity didn’t quite fit into certain narratives and conversations around race.

But representation is more than just what we see. It’s also about engaging with each other, sharing our stories, and deeply listening to the nuances within each other’s experience. My friendship with Felicia has expanded my awareness of biracial representation within my own community, which has been vital in how I think about those who don’t fit within a certain image or expectation. Her existence and perspective have affirmed how beautiful and possible it is to hold intersectional identities, and the importance of finding friends and a community who can wholly embrace who you are. While Kamala may be an example of hopeful representation for Felicia, I am thankful that Felicia is that type of representation for me.

Felicia and Simon on their Fall 2015 Pilgrimage