upper waypoint

'What Are You?' Artist Kip Fulbeck Gives Mixed-Race People a Chance to Answer in Their Own Words

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

Images from artist Kip Fulbeck's "The Hapa Project," documenting mixed-race people's experiences over 15 years.  (Courtesy Kip Fulbeck)

This post is part of a series of stories featured on this week's episode of The California Report Magazine about the experience of being mixed race.


What are you?

More From the California Report's 'Mixed' Series

It’s a question that artist Kip Fulbeck has heard since childhood. He’s not alone: Most mixed-race people get asked that question all the time. The answer can be complicated, and for multiracial folks who straddle many identities, just being asked the question can feel isolating.

But, as Fulbeck has explored throughout his career, it can also feel invigorating and rich to belong to multiple communities, and to celebrate that complexity.

For more than two decades, Fulbeck, a filmmaker and a professor of art at UC Santa Barbara, has traveled around the country to photograph other mixed-race people and let them answer the question “What are you?” in their own words. His two most famous exhibits, "The Hapa Project" and "Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids," both were both featured exhibitions at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.

The Hapa Project featured hundreds of identically composed portraits, all shot from the collarbone up, of mixed-race people. Accompanying captions, written in the photo subjects’ own handwriting, featured answers to the question “What are you?” in their own words. Fifteen years later, he followed up and photographed 130 of those participants, to show not only their physical changes over time, but also their differences in perspective and outlook on a rapidly changing world.

Fulbeck also published a book, “hapa.me,” to capture these responses. His book “Mixed: Portraits of Multiracial Kids,” featured a forward by Barack Obama’s sister, Maya Soetero-Ng, and an afterward by Cher, known for her famous song “Half-Breed.”

Two portraits, side-by-side, of a shirtless man from the collarbone up. The man describes his ethnicity as Black and Japanese. On the left, his hair is black, and his face is bare. On the right, 15 years later, his hair is streaked with white and he sports a salt-and-pepper goatee.
Selections from Kip Fulbeck's "The Hapa Project," which has exhibited at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. (Courtesy Kip Fulbeck)

Fulbeck sat down with The California Report Magazine to reflect on his work as part of our project probing the mixed-race experience.

He said that growing up with a Chinese mom and white American dad, he often felt out of place. At home, he was the only one of his siblings who was mixed race.

“I grew up in a very Chinese household where Cantonese was spoken. And we spent every weekend in Chinatown, in LA,” he said. “I grew up as the ... ‘white kid.’ I didn't speak [the] language, didn't like the food, didn't get the culture.”

A man who describes himself as mixed race poses for a studio-style photo against a light gray background. He's got shoulder-length black hair and is smiling wide, in a blue collared shirt with his arms crossed, holding a microphone. He has "sleeve" tattoos visible because his shirt cuffs are rolled up just a bit. He holds a microphone in one hand.
Photographer and filmmaker Kip Fulbeck. (Courtesy Kip Fulbeck)

And then in school, Fulbeck said, “I was the only Asian kid. And so I had no real cultural footing.” He remembers being bullied for being Chinese, when the Chinese community didn’t seem to accept him either.

That created a sense of isolation, and for Fulbeck, not even his family could relate to his experience.

“When you're mixed, your parents don't get to tell you what it was like. They don't get to say, ‘When I was a kid, it was like this,’ because they don't know,” he said.

Fulbeck said he struggled as a kid whenever he was asked to fill out a form detailing his race. Back then, those forms didn’t let you choose more than one racial background.

“You get that questionnaire, the ‘check one box,’ which is ridiculous,” said Fulbeck. “[For] a 7-year-old to have to pick Mom or Dad is not a fair question. I remember being a little kid thinking like, ‘Well, do I love my dad today or my mom?’”

That isolation helped spark his portrait series, “The Hapa Project,” where Fulbeck photographed mixed-race people and let them define who they are with a handwritten caption authored by each photo subject. Hapa is a Hawaiian word for “part.” It’s used in Hawaii to describe people who are part Asian or Pacific Islander, though since Fulbeck first debuted his project in 2001, there’s been heated debate over whether the term should be used more generally to define mixed-race people.

Two portraits of the same shirtless woman taken from the collarbone up. On the left, her hair is long and black, reaching past her shoulders. On the right, 15 years later, her hair is shorter and just below her ears. Her hair is wavy in both.
Each participant in "The Hapa Project" could write a caption about themselves in their own handwriting, in response to the question "What are you?" Artist Kip Fulbeck revisited those same subjects 15 years later for an update on how their perspectives on their identities had changed. (Courtesy Kip Fulbeck)

Traveling around the U.S. for The Hapa Project, Fulbeck found that mixed-race people were eager to write their own stories.

“No one gets to tell you who you are,” Fulbeck said. “And people, if you don't define yourself, people define you and they don't do a good job of it and it doesn't really work. So I always say it's kind of your responsibility.”

Sponsored

In the years Fulbeck has undertaken this work, mixed-race people — and the idea of mixed-race identity — have become more visible in America.

In January, Kamala Harris became the first Black person and first Asian American to be sworn in as vice president. And according to data from the latest U.S. Census, California saw a 217.3% increase in people who identify with two or more races from 2010 to 2020.

But as a kid in the 1970s, Fulbeck had to turn to fictional characters to see himself reflected.

“The funny one that sticks out to me as a child was 'Star Trek,' the original series,” said Fulbeck. “They always took Spock and would say, ‘Are you human or Vulcan?’ and he would say, ‘I’m both.’ I remember being a kid going, ‘I get that.’”

Two portraits of a shirtless woman from her collarbone up. On the left she sports frizzy dark brown hair that has volume. In the right photo, taken 15 years later, her hair is white and close-cropped. She's smiling in both photos.

Fulbeck said mixed-race people are often left out of — or not fully let into — their own communities.

“People are defining you according to this boundary, that you have to be ‘this much’ this,” said Fulbeck. “You have to speak this language. You have to take off your shoes, whatever it is. It's like if you're going to go off those definitions, then you're going to be in a world of hurt. You have to find your own way to define yourself.”

Sponsored

lower waypoint
next waypoint
Tahoe Storm Forecast: Why Sierra Driving Will Be 'Extremely Difficult to Impossible' This WeekendHidden in the Oakland Hills Is An Outdoor Gallery of MuralsPolitical and Legal Fallout Continues After Alabama IVF RulingNewsom Vows to Take Latest Recall Effort 'Very, Very Seriously'Macy's to Close Flagship San Francisco Union Square StoreElection 2024: SF’s Prop F Would Cut Cash Aid for People Who Use Drugs and Refuse TreatmentUC Berkeley Officials Denounce Protest That Forced Police to Evacuate Students at Jewish Event on CampusDespite Decades of Warnings, People Are Still Dying After Police Hold Them Face DownThese Are the 4 Oakland Police Chief Candidates Mayor Sheng Thao Will Consider for the JobSeeing Nicki Minaj at Oakland Arena? Everything to Know, From Parking to Bag Policies