University of Oregon senior Rachel Alm doesn’t know what it means to be American, but she’s starting a campus-wide conversation seeking an answer to the question.
Alm’s family emigrated from Japan to Hawaii five generations ago. Growing up in her Hawaiian community, Alm was considered to be Hapa — a Hawaiian word identifying people of mixed-race heritage, particularly of Asian or Pacific Islander descent.
It was a comfortable term for a young woman straddling the identities of her Japanese and Scandinavian descent while growing up as an American and a Hawaiian resident, she said.
But when Alm moved to Eugene, a much more homogeneous white community than her last, she found that her Japanese heritage became the quality identifying her to many people.
“When I came to Oregon, I was like ‘Wow, I am suddenly this Asian girl,’ and that was really weird for me because growing up, I was mixed-race — a Hapa kid in Hawaii,” said Alm.
Her complex and rich heritage and identity was reduced by strangers— and it wasn’t even an accurate depiction, she said.
“When I came here, I realized I didn’t feel like I fit in and I didn’t know that much about American continental culture,” said Alm. “I felt very privileged to have been raised in Hawaii but then was struggling to figure out what it means to be American.”
She realizes this might be a common experience for U.S. immigrants and their descendants.
“How do I understand where I fit into American as a mixed-race kid? There’s going be plenty more people like me, so we need to figure this out,” she said.
Alm founded Define American UO last fall, a local chapter of a national nonprofit founded by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas. Define American explores how cultural narratives and storytelling influence ideas about immigration and identity. As coordinator of a hyper-local campus chapter, Alm is laying the foundation for a conversation to unfold.
Vargas visited campus fall term as the UO Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics Chair; the organization’s current theme of inquiry is “borders, migration and belonging.”
When Alm met Vargas during a lunch meeting with Wayne Morse scholars, he suggested that she could bring a locally-focused chapter of Define American to UO.
“I think we have to figure out a sense of collective identity beyond just our segmented groups. That’s what I’m kind of hoping we can do, is be a place for these difficult conversations that are coming up because we are becoming more diverse,” said Alm. “I think that diversity will be beautiful once we know how to work through differences and what happens when a homogenous community breaks down and is suddenly interacting with people that it never had to before. “
Alm said that Define American UO doesn’t have any political affiliation; It welcomes all students interested in participating in conversations about American identity and immigration. The group is working to challenge negative stereotypes about immigration in partnership with other similar organizations like No Lost Generation UO, a student group that advocates for refugees.
Momo Wilms-Crowe, director of No Lost Generation UO and a Define American UO member, said that while UO can be an open community, she does see ideas and stereotypes harmful to local immigrant communities.
“It’s not something that’s just unique to our campus; it’s a national conversation and I think the university is a microcosm for that,” said Wilms-Crowe.
She said Define American is looking for ways to uplift and support immigrant voices while challenging harmful ideas about the “good immigrant and bad immigrant dichotomy.”
“The biggest way that these harmful narratives get spread is just by people who don’t have that personal connection. With refugees, there’s just so much misconception,” said Wilms-Crowe.
Alm and Wilms-Crowe hope to reframe how people talk about immigrants in a way that is accurate and recognizes how they benefit American communities.
“I hope that in the future Define American can find a way to really incorporate the voices of immigrants themselves,” said Wilms-Crowe.
Vargas’ visit inspired more than one student; Mariko Plescia, a graduate employee in Romance Languages, taught a class with Vargas fall term that focused on empowering immigrants, listening to their experiences and challenging narratives around how they are portrayed in the media. Plescia said that immigrants are underrepresented in media and are often portrayed as criminals.
“This change has to come out of listening, and out of listening in particular to people who have gone through the experience of immigration,” she said.
On June 12, Define American UO will hold its second showing of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s film “Human Flow,” which documents current mass migrations around the globe. The screening will take place in the Knight Law Center, room 184 at 6:30 p.m. A first screening was held at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art last Thursday.
The screenings are the first public events held by Define American UO and are funded in partnership with the Wayne Morse Center, said Plescia.
After the screening, Plescia will host a community discussion. She said the film is a good starting point to build common ground and frame a conversation about migration that includes a wide variety of perspectives.
Define American UO is just beginning to build a presence on campus. Alm said she hopes the screenings will draw interest for student participation in the fall.
“We’re here to learn. We don’t know the right answers,” said Alm. “That’s why we want to keep talking — we think we’ll maybe find some answers along the way.”