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Professor from University of California discusses changing face of America

<st Friday, convocation speaker Kip Fulbeck started by responding to an oral application of sorts: “Age?” the application asked. “44.” “Marital status?” “Single.” “Pizza or spaghetti?” “Spaghetti.” “Ashlee Simpson or Jessica Simpson?” “Jessica.” “Ethnicity?” “Asian and Caucasian.” “Please check only one box,” the application replied. “Do not mark outside the designated areas. Do not invent your own box. If checking ‘other,’ please explain.”

Fulbeck, an art professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who identifies himself as Chinese, English, Irish and Welsh, used the application process as a segue into the overarching theme of his presentation entitled, “What Are You? The Changing Face of America.” It wasn’t until the 2000 U.S. Census that people were allowed to check more than one box in the ethnicity category, Fulbeck said. He went on to speak of identity and multiraciality, subjects highlighted in “Part Asian, 100% Hapa” and “Permanence: Tattoo Portraits,” two of Fulbeck’s photograpy projects.

In creating “Part Asian,” Fulbeck photographed over one thousand people who identified as Hapa—a mixed heritage with partial Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry—from the collarbone up, expressionless and makeup-free. Subjects wrote responses to the seemingly simple question, “Who are you?” and Fulbeck compiled the most “nontransferable” answers into a book.

Some wrote in terms of race—“I’m 100% Filipino… I have some Spanish in me.”—while other responses ranged from “Boy Elijah purple belt” to “Queer Eurasian” to “I’m a little boy in fifth grade that doesn’t have any friends.”

Fulbeck never tried to change someone’s response, except that last one. He told the boy he must have at least one friend, but the boy insisted he didn’t. When Fulbeck does gallery showings of his projects today, people always ask him to include the boy’s photo.

“We’ve all been that kid,” he said. “Someday in our lives, we’ve all been or are or will be the blank in the blank.”

That may be the appeal of Fulbeck’s projects. When he conducted a five-month show at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, he set out Polaroid cameras for visitors to snap their own photos so the exhibit would continue to evolve and become more personal throughout its existence. The five hundred slots Fulbeck allotted were filled the first night, and eventually, he said, people would walk past his photos to the new ones overflowing into other galleries in the museum.

Another of Fulbeck’s projects—a book of photos featuring people and their tattoos called Permanence—explores diversity in another sense. As he said, “Diversity is not just race. It’s socioeconomic standing, age, education level, religion.”

Subjects include such celebrities as Kat Von D of TLC’s “LA Ink,” Joan Jett, Scott Weiland of Velvet Revolver and Paul Stanley of KISS, but also gangsters, lawyers, anorexics, marine biologists, adult film stars and cancer survivors.

Fulbeck traveled to the home of a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp to photograph the number burned into her forearm and stayed for hours looking at photos of her family. He worried using her story in his project would show disrespect, considering the distinctive nature of her forced tattoo.

“I told her this book is going to have Crips, ex-convicts and porn stars, as well as lawyers and doctors,” Fulbeck said, to which the woman replied, “It is my life’s mission to show this tattoo.”

The woman embodies the ideals Fulbeck introduced at the end of his presentation, utilizing another of his talents—slam poetry—to describe his perfect world. It’s a world where students care more about learning than getting a good grade, popular movies don’t insult people’s intelligence, Taco Bell uses an asterisk in front of “Mexican food” and Tiger Woods is known not as a good black golfer, but just as a good golfer, and he makes it known.

“I will settle for Tiger saying something political just once,” Fulbeck said. “Speaking out is not what you get to do with fame. Speaking out is what you have to do with fame.
Fulbeck also showed one of his shorts films, called “Lilo & Me,” where he explores the idea of growing up mixed-racially. In it, he reminisces about childhood, when no one played, thought or looked like him.

“Nothing really matched up,” he says, then pauses and adds, “until Disney came to the rescue.”

He made a list of the top ten “ethnically ambiguous” Disney characters who look like him—Mulan, Aladdin, Pocahontas and, topping the list, Lilo from Lilo & Stitch. While these comparisons started as a joke with a girlfriend in high school, they have grown into the key element of Fulbeck’s life’s work.

“If I want you to take anything from this talk, it’s that the idea that race exists biologically doesn’t make sense,” he said. “But does it exist in our everyday lives? Of course it does.”

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