Editorial: Alison Lea Bender
Owning Both Sides
By Alison Lea Bender
How do I even begin? I am a person who is trying to navigate this complicated, wonderful, and mysterious life just like everyone else. On top of that, I am in a career that tends to make subjective decisions on race and culture. Needless to say, facing those factors and trying to "fit a bill" for my art constantly makes me analyze and overthink my racial identity. I don't mind that I'm continuously thinking about it anymore.
I never truly gave my racial makeup much thought my whole life, so I feel like the past few years have been a needed catch-up. I am quite proud of the knowledge I've gained from looking at every angle of it, and I feel closer to my roots now. I've come a long way, but as far I have come with my own racial identity and accepting and loving every part of myself, it seems that there will always be an obstacle in my way to make me question who I am.
An obstacle or a voice.
I've been speaking more openly and publicly about why representation matters and about Hapa identity. When you make the decision to open your perspective up to the public domain, you make yourself vulnerable and susceptible to others’ opinions of you. It's taken me some time to get used to this. I am often guided through my emotions, which I am grateful for. My emotions and empathy bring me to beautiful places and grant me special opportunities and conversations.
However, when I first began the journey of speaking up and speaking out, letting my emotions “get the best of me” was something that hindered me. Why, you ask? Well, because when you are mixed race and speaking up for your communities, you will always encounter those people who think you don't qualify to represent.
I’ve had Asian Americans ask me what I identify more as: White or Asian? I absolutely despise this question every time I am faced with it. It is unfair because I identify as both. When I answer with that, I have been told that I am not acknowledging or embracing my Asian-ness or that I am a "Twinkie" (look it up).
I identify as biracial. I feel disingenuous calling myself Asian. That's not fully accurate. And I wouldn't call myself White either, but I am not going to pretend that my White blood doesn't exist. It's there, too. I am 50/50 and that's how I choose to identify myself.
On the other end of the spectrum, when I discuss the matter with some white people, I've been put in their box and just seen as Asian. To them, it doesn't seem to matter that I am also half White. Some fellow White actors have even told me that I've gotten roles and cast in projects because "diversity is in" and because I "look Asian." Likewise, Asian actors have said "I look White" and assumed that's why I've gotten cast.
Can you imagine having to hear that from people on both sides? By me saying I'm a mixed-race person, I am not rejecting either side of my makeup, I am acknowledging all of it.
Alison Lea Bender is a multi-hyphenate who defies conventional categorization and refuses to be pigeonholed. She is an avid champion for diversity, representation, inclusion in the arts, and the AAPI & POC communities. Some have called her the voice of a generation, some have called her a dangerous threat to society, but most of us just call her "my friend." The self-proclaimed "Hello Kitty meets Marilyn Monroe," Mizz Bender has performed on many a NYC stage as a muse to her many theatre friends and family. She can be followed on Instagram @AlisonLeaBender.