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Bay Area Teacher on Growing Up 'Multiracial Japanese American' — and Why Ethnic Studies Matters

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A graphic that displays the word "Mixed!" in large letters with "Stories of Mixed Race Californians" underneath. Underneath the text is a photo of a man and woman in the background with a colorful profile of a multiracial woman on the right side.
For the series 'Mixed: Stories of Mixed-Race Californians,' hosts Sasha Khokha and Marisa Lagos spoke to Joemy Ito-Gates about growing up as a multiracial adoptee, the loss of her parents to AIDS and the ways she's reclaiming Japanese heritage garments. (Illustration by Kelly Ma/KQED)

“Woman. Daughter Adoptee. AIDS Orphan. Hapa. Japanese-American. Asian. Asian-American. Queer Musician. Writer. Martial Artist. Alive.” Those are the words a 21-year-old Joemy Ito-Gates wrote below a photograph of her taken by artist Kip Fulbeck as part of his photography project documenting mixed-race people.

Some 20 years later, Ito-Gates says many of those words still describe her. She’s also now a mother, an ethnic studies teacher and an advocate against cultural appropriation in fashion. And she’s changed the words she uses to describe her racial background to “multiracial Japanese American.”

A photo of a headshot of a multiracial woman with text underneath.
A portrait of Joemy Ito-Gates by artist Kip Fulbeck, who has documented hundreds of mixed-race Americans. (Courtesy Kip Fulbeck)

For the series “Mixed: Stories of Mixed-Race Californians,” hosts Sasha Khokha and Marisa Lagos spoke to Ito-Gates about growing up as a multiracial adoptee, the loss of her parents to AIDS, and the ways she’s reclaiming Japanese heritage garments. Here are some excerpts from that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

A vintage black and white photo of a white man and an Asian woman sitting next to each other, both smiling happily and wearing short-sleeved shirts.
Joemy Ito-Gates’ parents, Allen and Yoko, as a young couple. (Courtesy of Joemy Ito-Gates)

On growing up with a Japanese mother and a white father

We didn’t talk about what it meant for me to be a multiracial kid, to be Asian-presenting, to have two parents who were of different races and very different cultures and backgrounds.

There was just a lot of silence. I did experience a tremendous amount of racism as a child. And I was quiet about it. I didn’t tell anyone about it. So it wasn’t until I was, I would say, in my teens that I really started grappling with, who am I? What does my identity mean to me?

On both her parents dying from AIDS

Part of my story is that my father was — I don’t know how he self-identified, but he was queer. That’s how I talk about his identity. And in the ’80s, he was having affairs outside of the marriage with my mother. And he did contract HIV, passed [it] on to my mother. And so she also had HIV. You know, of course, at that time in the ’80s, it turned into AIDS and she died when I was 8. And then my father died when I was 10. They had made arrangements for me to move in with friends of theirs, a white family [in the Bay Area]. So when I was 10 years old, I moved in with these family friends and was raised by them. And living in a white family was culture shock because I was not only navigating the grief of losing my parents, but not having my mother. And [not having] that cultural foundation in my life was pretty devastating.

A vintage black and white photo of an Asian woman wearing a kimono and her little girl, wearing a white blouse with a butterfly collar and a dark pinafore, sitting on her lap. The woman is smiling, close-lipped, and the little girl is looking down and to the left, away from the camera.
Ito-Gates’ mother and grandmother in Japan. (Courtesy of Joemy Ito-Gates)

On the rise of violence against the AAPI community

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I think like so many people in the AAPI community, I’ve been in this cycle of grief for the past few years, not only because I find the pandemic really triggering as an AIDS orphan, but also just as a multiracial Asian American woman. It’s been devastating to see my community under attack.

[The way] I’ve been able to bring a semblance of balance to the past two years, around this issue in particular, is to show up with my daughter to protest events, taking action in the community, to speak our truths, to be with the larger community, saying, “This is not OK. We are here. Our pain is real. Our pain matters and I’m taking action.” So that has been healing to be able to do that, especially with my own child.

A woman wearing a hat, face mask, black shirt with a logo and jeans holding a sign next to a small child wearing a hat, face mask, and skirt holding a sign outside with people walking in the background.
Ito-Gates and her daughter at a protest for racial justice. (Courtesy of Joemy Ito-Gates)

For me and my family, we really focus on, for example, role models like Yuri Kochiyama, who is such a bridge builder and brought communities of color together, particularly Asian and Black. And then making sure that we’re part of this movement of Japanese American folks who are showing up in solidarity with the Black community to fight against anti-Black racism and to fight for Black American reparations.

On why she’s advocating for ethnic studies for all K–12 students

At its heart, I believe that ethnic studies is about telling the truth, and it’s about love and it’s about being curious. It’s telling the truth about historically marginalized communities of color and bringing them to the center of the conversation in the curriculum. When we do that, everyone wins. When we bring people who’ve been pushed to the margins to the center, that is an act of love and community care. That’s what our students, what our children, deserve.

I believe ethnic studies is for everyone. It’s a place where we can show up and be whole people and be fully seen. And it’s about being curious about the world around us, about each other, and really questioning, why are things like this? Why doesn’t it feel good? And questioning structural racism, power dynamics, patterns in history. We are celebrating people in our communities of color who are often hidden, who are invisible-ized. And so to me, ethnic studies is also an act of joy.

A multiracial woman standing in a red, white, pink and blue kimono with a yellow garment around her midsection while holding a white bag behind a mural.
Ito-Gates poses in her kimono. (Courtesy of Joemy Ito-Gates)

On the appropriation of Japanese textiles in fashion

So often we see sacred, ceremonial, deeply meaningful garments and cultural pieces appropriated, misused and commodified and stripped of the meaning and the significance and the ties to the people of the origin culture that those items and garments are coming from. To me, that’s ultimately dehumanizing. There is this historical context to these kinds of items that I think it’s really important to understand and learn about. It’s connected to why I feel passionate about ethnic studies, about our young people learning our true histories of what has happened to people of color in this country.

A man wearing a dress shirt, dark pants and shoes sits to the left of a small child in a dress standing in the middle and woman in a red kimono seated to the right.
Ito-Gates and her child wearing ceremonial garments with her husband at an Obon festival in Oakland. (Courtesy of Joemy Ito-Gates)

I do feel strongly that if you’re someone who’s multiracial and you’re on this journey to come home to yourself, it’s a wonderful and important thing to connect with heritage garments. When I wear my kimono and my yukata and my haori, I feel the generations wrapped around me. Even if it’s not a piece that’s been handed down in my family, I feel this cultural hug when I’m wearing these garments.


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