Last semester, as a final project for my Asian American studies class “Mixed Race Experience”, I made a small book with reinterpretations of three fairy tales or fantasy stories as narratives of mixed race and transnational identity. I chose to do this project because interpreting and analyzing stories is something I really enjoy doing, and there is definitely a lack of representation of mixed race identities in mainstream media. I’ve created a blog to document and share the work I did for this project, so please check it out if you’re interested! Below, I’ve included the most recent post I’ve made to my blog, which consists of some analysis and explanation for my reinterpretation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
~ Erika K. Carlson, PO ’15
A mixed race Alice and the mushroom of false binaries
“One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter.”
This is the enigmatic statement the caterpillar makes before leaving Alice in Chapter 5 of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The first half of this chapter consists of Alice’s encounter with a caterpillar who begins their conversation by interrogating her about who she is and rudely dismisses Alice’s confusion at having grown and shrunk so much since arriving in Wonderland. This encounter is what inspired me to do a mixed race reading of Alice and re-interpret one of my favorite stories as a narrative of mixed race identity.
There are really several aspects of Alice’s story that are relatable to experiences of mixed race folks (and people of color in general, in some cases). The caterpillar’s insistent “Who are YOU?” is pretty darn similar to everyone’s favorite microaggression, the notorious “What are you?”. Alice is forced to grow and shrink drastically several times throughout the story to navigate Wonderland, often to pass barriers and enter spaces that she wouldn’t have been able to otherwise (code switching!).
However, the thing that stood out to me most (in terms of mixed race re-interpretation potential) was the caterpillar’s mushroom. ”One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter”, the caterpillar said, leaving Alice to wonder how to tell one side from another, especially on a round object like a mushroom with no distinct “sides”.
For me, this recalls my own experiences as a biracial/transnational individual struggling to figure out my identity in terms of race/ethnicity/nationality and be “enough” of one thing or another, and the confusion of being told by others that some things make me “more Asian” and some things make me “more white”, as if my racial identity is determined by a tally of some arbitrarily decided point system. Of course, this isn’t entirely exclusive to mixed race folks — many POCs have experiences of being told that they are “whitewashed” or “too ___” or “not really ___” for all sorts of arbitrary reasons. Who likes “ethnic legitimacy”? No one.
Throughout the original story, Alice’s signature characteristic has been her curiosity and capacity for “wondering” — and she has pondered a lot of mathematical and logical concepts (there are lots of interesting analyses of the math of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). Alice’s circumstances and characteristics struck me as the perfect opportunity to explore the illogicality behind the concept of blood quanta, the idea that “how (insert race or ethnicity here)” a person is is something that can be determined in a quantitative manner by the racial or ethnic identities of their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. Putting any kind of measure on the identity of a person is arbitrary, reductive, and problematic; identity is so much more complex than that.