“Whatever, yo!” Whatever happened those of us existing outside the black/white racial dynamic in the U.S. being acknowledged as more than “whatever”? Kelly Tsai has a new spoken word video out asking us, as we approach election day 2008, to peel back the worn veils of “whatever” and recognize what needs to be seen underneath. In the following interview, Tsai discusses with Shyree Mezick her influences and aims for this new piece, as well as the need for broadened discourse around ethnicity, gender, and politics in America.




SHYREE MEZICK: Your poem “Black, White, Whatever,” and now a new video, sheds much light on a loaded comment made by Senator McCain. Can you explain the intention of this piece from your vantage as an artist, a woman of color, and someone with a knack for specificity?

KELLY ZEN-YIE TSAI: The real genesis of “Black, White, Whatever” came to me one day while listening to Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child gushing on the radio about how Destiny’s Child loves all people, “black, white, whatever you are!” Although it was probably the millionth time that I’d heard that phrase, it was the last time I could stomach its flippant, simultaneous embrace and dismissal of the complexities of American diversity today. I filed away my annoyance and hoped for a more fully formed poem to come to me eventually.

As the presidential campaigns for the 2008 election began, I found myself rapt and rabid in front of the television screen and the radio speaker hoping, praying, begging that somebody, anybody would even mention the word, “Asian,” in any of their speeches. I found myself making touchdown victory-like dances at the rare mention of “Asian” or just muttering, “damn,” on the more likely occasion of its omission. My standards for politicians were sinking to new lows: “Just say Asian please!” In the midst of all the media spin, mud-slinging, and rare dialogue on real policy issues, I wondered shouldn’t we expect and want more from our candidates? Our candidates need to not only acknowledge us, but also take on the charge to advocate for the rights and freedoms of every single one of us.

MEZICK: I love that you got this poem from a pop song. With the current state of politics, particularly with Sarah Palin’s appointment, I feel that this whole parade is very much like American Idol. So, who do you feel are the “Asian talking heads” of politics, if any?

TSAI: It really is like American Idol, isn’t it? To be honest, I’m not very clear on who the “Asian talking heads” are. We need passionate and charismatic leaders to captivate the hearts and minds of our community as well the national mainstream media. When I was eighteen years old, I volunteered at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1996. What struck me most was what a production for television it was. All the signs are handed out to the audience; all the cues are timed. It seemed that no matter the race or gender (or, at times, the backgrounds of the individuals), everyone was saying the same thing. For me, it was disappointing to see that it was such a “performance” in the worse sense of the word. It felt so devoid of genuine human feeling and engagement.

MEZICK: The idea of sincere engagement seems to be lost entirely. Particularly with respect to race, from both sides of the conversation, this binary discussion continues in the tautological vein of black and white. I find it amazing how “progressive” people felt because they witnessed a “black man” and a “white woman” compete for the U.S. Presidency. For me, it feels all a bit circa 1960s. What do you think about this binary conversation and how it could potentially evolve?

TSAI: What I love about what’s happening right now is that white people are having conversations with white people about race in America. People are talking with their therapists about anxieties that they have about having a black man in office. Canvassers for the Obama campaign are going door to door talking to people, often about their relationship to family histories and legacies about racism. No matter what the outcome of the election is, this is a powerful and transformative time because Barack Obama symbolically has struck a chord in the psyches of people around the world.

MEZICK: I absolutely agree. This is just the beginning, and perhaps for the first time we have white people needing to do what they have needed to do for a long time. Do you feel that this will broaden the conversation of race to include “others”?

TSAI: Actually, I don’t think it will broaden the conversation at all. I feel like it’s time for those of us who are outside the monolithic black/white binary (including those who others may identify as “black” or “white” but who themselves feel it does not encompass their full diversity) to step up and talk about the necessary and useful nature of recognizing the complexities of diversity in American society. It’s not just “Hey, pay attention to me!” It’s also “Look, I’m trying to help you represent and govern your constituency, as well as possible. You need to recognize what is going on with your own people.” In the most romantic sense, that’s what I feel like our leaders and politicians need to be on. We are their people. As a leader, you hold the opportunity and potential of people’s individual lives in your hands. It is a very intimate, vulnerable, and potentially sacred relationship-that of the social contract. As somebody outside of the black/white binary, all I’m saying is, “I’m trying to help you not drop the ball on that.”

MEZICK: Your example of the Democratic National Convention reminds me of what is happening to a similar extent with both campaigns. Many people talk about Obama and being “black enough” while rarely referring to him as being “mixed.” While he constantly talks about his full heritage, he is often merely characterized as a black man. Obama is mixed, but to be mixed or “other” is to be completely omitted. Since they can’t ignore him though, they default to discussing race through the lens black and white.

TSAI: What really moved me too about seeing Obama’s sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, speak was the sense that this is what an American family is. A white mother, a biracial black and white brother, a biracial white and Asian sister—it’s not some fantasy notion of racial harmony. It’s the reality of the diversity of our communities. Let’s talk about the shared history of a multiracial America: It didn’t emerge from the civil rights movement of the 60s. It didn’t emerge from the political correctness of the 90s. It is the reality of the human history on this earth of multiracial collaboration and conflict and transformation. I don’t hear that many folks talk about Barack Obama as a multiracial person—most of the time it is, as you mentioned, the “is he black enough” thing.

MEZICK: This is the exact conversation I was having with my mother. To sum it up, I explained to my mother, who is white, that for me, a mixed Asian and white woman myself, Barack is the closest I may ever see of myself in the White House. More than a white woman, more than a woman, but this man-who has roots no one really knows how to put together—speaks a language I understand. Like you suggested earlier, it’s the reality of the diversity of our communities.

TSAI: The whole “does Hillary Clinton represent me as a woman” versus “does Barack Obama represent me as a person of color” thing is a tough one. All I know is that when I hear Barack Obama speak, his values and experiences speak to mine. When I hear Hillary Clinton speak, I don’t feel the same connection. But I will say we’ve been talking a lot about race, but on the gender tip—the whole Sarah Palin versus Hillary Clinton situation is mad real. What kind of woman is America ready to embrace in leadership? Although Palin’s gotten so many attacks for being stupid and vacuous, she’s gotten exponentially more media coverage that Hillary Clinton ever did for her comparable decades being involved in community work and government. It feels like people would rather vote for the cheerleader rather than the smart, take-no-shit female. We see that there’s a lot of intimidation people feel from Hillary Clinton, while Sarah Palin doesn’t really know shit, from a Vice Presidential standpoint. There is a little bit of a pornographic fascination that people like to keep her around and think of her as a feisty, non-threatening sexual object. All in all, both on a race and a gender tip, this election is uncovering the unsavory undersides of what is deep within multiple American psyches about race and gender.

I am constantly frustrated by how simple people are trying to make this election. Each week, someone is trying to find out why black women are voting for Hillary, or why white women are voting for Barack, or now “hockey moms for Palin” and etc. It seems to be caricaturing the reality of who we are and what we really believe and identify with—as if our identities can be summed up so simply. Meanwhile, they are ignoring what it means for us to be human individuals. For me, listening to all these studies etc. makes it all seem so fake and unnecessary.

TSAI: I’ve been working on a poem about Sally Hemings speaking to Maya Soetoro-Ng. I can’t even imagine the lived pain of being enslaved by your own lover, by the father of your own children, who is also the President of the United States. I can’t imagine, because of race, knowing that your children would never be able to be recognized in birthright to any relationship to their father. That wasn’t a desire she could even expect to have in early American society: the fact of a multiracial American family (and a first family at that) was completely inconceivable. She was actually three-quarters white, but in those times, due to the matrilineal nature of slavery, she lived as Thomas Jefferson’s slave until his death.

MEZICK: That is a poignant story that highlights the reality of what race, as an “other,” looks like.

TSAI: Yes. I’m just saying let’s stop hiding who we are in the closets. A lot of American families are multiracial. A lot of American families are gay, straight, bisexual, transgender. Many American families span the entire class spectrum just within one branch of an extended family. Maybe if we can heal the wounds within our own family relationships, we would be much further along towards realizing social justice in our world in general. But that is often what is most difficult, because we don’t choose our biological families. And even our chosen families have roots in all of these different directions.

MEZICK: This seems to be the intention of your poem “Black, White, Whatever . . .” What do you ultimately hope this poem and video do?

TSAI: In a lot of ways, I feel truly blessed to have been born Asian-American. It is such a strange and unique position to be in: a person of Asian (and more specifically Chinese and Taiwanese) descent living in the West in the twenty-first century. Because of who I am, I can never forget that there will always be those who are overlooked, dismissed, and seen, statistically or otherwise, as insignificant. It has taught me that I can do better as a human being. I may not always get it “right,” but I can keep pushing and think of who or what is not being represented here, who or what is being silenced, who or what is being thought of as existentially unimportant.

As for my hope for the poem, when I first wrote it was just to blow off a little steam in a funny way. I was truly moved when I performed “Black, White, Whatever . . .” for a mostly black audience this Spring, and a performer who came late dedicated her song to all people who were “black, white, whatever you are.” The whole audience came down on her hard! They came down on this poor, unassuming performer so hard that no one noticed that I hadn’t uttered a word at all. That’s when it really clicked for me: the power of this poem. If I can subtly indoctrinate people to hear that phrase and question it, as I do every day as an Asian-American, then we have done that work of broadening what the American family is. We all need to speak out for our brothers and sisters as allies so they don’t always have to be so damn tired of speaking for ourselves. We need to do this for each other in all directions and constantly. This is not just my story. This is for all of us. And for me, that’s the heart of what this poem is about.


KELLY ZEN-YIE TSAI is a Chicago-born, Brooklyn-based, Chinese Taiwanese American spoken word poet who has featured at over 300 performances worldwide including three seasons of HBO’s Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry. “Black, White, Whatever” is her third spoken word video collaboration with award-winning filmmakers. For more information, visit www.yellowgurl.com, www.youtube.com/kztsai.

SHYREE MEZICK is an artist and arts administrator by way of Portland, Oregon, Phoenix Arizona, Chicago and presently Washington, D.C. She holds a B.A. in Theatre and Sociology from Grand Canyon University and continues to implement her passion for art and life through all of her evolving activities.

About the filmmakers: “Black, White, Whatever” was directed by Jazzmen Joy Lee-Johnson and produced by Alli Maxwell and Kelly Tsai. JAZZMEN JOY LEE-JOHNSON is a film/video artist and animator from Baltimore currently residing in Johannesburg, South Africa. A graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, her work has been recognized by the Hip-Hop Odyssey International Film Festival and the Thomas J. Watson Foundation. ALLI MAXWELL has directed multiple productions as a company member of At Play Productions. Her current film projects include production coordination for “The Black List,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is slated for broadcast on HBO.