Sarah Donaldson was a Portland State University student headed toward an English degree when the filmmaking bug bit her in senior year. She took advantage of her film classes to put together a dream project.
In the bio she sent “Oregon Lens,” she describes herself as “an Asian-American woman who is tired of hearing comments like ‘You look white except for your eyes.’” (For the record, her mother is Peranakan Chinese from Indonesia and her father is white.)
Her film, “What Are You?” records stories from friends and fellow PSU students who identify as multiethnic. It confronts the racist and insensitive microaggressions they encounter on a daily basis.
When you contacted people who weren’t your friends and told them about your project, were they eager to participate?
Yes. We have this shared experience in our lives of overcoming racism. It was very special to me to hear their stories coming from a similar background.
What is your experience?
I encounter a lot of racism everyday being multiracial myself. It’s not OK for people to ask us “What are you?” as if we are something to be dissected. It’s mostly microaggressions, not overt racism. No one would spit on me. But they say things like, “What are you?”
I was struck how much racism I had encountered in college and on campus. College is supposed to be this mecca.
Who have you turned to for help?
What has been really good for me are my friends who have helped me overcome and understand this. And my professors have helped me.
Was it also bad in high school? Where did you go?
I went to high school in Gresham. English wasn’t my first language. At first they thought I was autistic or had a learning disability. But they finally figured it out, and they put me in ESL classes.
Were the kids racist?
No. The school very diverse so most of the kids were very accepting. There were a lot of biracial kids at my school, a lots of multiracial kids.
But Portland State was different. Can you give me an example?
Freshman year, first term, chemistry lab class. The students were waiting for the center to open when a white guy in his thirties said, “All Asian people are rude.” And he defended it. One other white guy tried to defend us with examples from the workplace. But no one else knew how to respond.
Did anything you discover while making the film surprise you?
I was surprised with the diversity of experiences people have. No one who is multiracial will have the exact same experience. They all experience racism in different ways.
What has been your experience?
My mom’s family is from Indonesia. When I’m over there people call me “half breed.” Here people will say things like, “You look white except for your eyes.” There’s often this othering of people who are biracial.
This may be a dumb question, but how does that make you feel?
It makes me feel different from everyone else. It makes me feel like I’m a science experiment.
Has anyone in college ever suggested that you should or shouldn’t pursue a career because of what you are?
While no one has bluntly told me that I cannot pursue a certain career because of my racial identity, I once worked with a man who used racial stereotypes against me as he sexually harassed me. I was editor-in-chief of an academic journal on campus during the 2013-14 academic year, and during this time he worked under me. He brought up my Asian-American identity several times during our interactions. Later, he repeatedly told me that I was passive-aggressive and a bad leader, suggested I adopt a “naughty librarian” look, and offered other commentary regarding my physical appearance and “sex life.”
His comments and actions align with stereotypes directed toward Asian-American women — we are often sexualized and portrayed as meek or submissive in popular culture and the media. In a twisted sort of way, he helped to fuel my desire to become an educator through diminishing my voice. In the future, I hope to empower my students, to help them speak out against injustice and share their stories.
What’s next for this film? Would you like to make it longer?
I want to follow one person throughout their life, seeing what they encounter.
What else would you like to include?
I think there are a lot of positives about identifying as multiracial. I’d like to explore that side. I think we often think about people not being white just in terms of them being discriminated against. I’d like to have a more comprehensive view of being multiracial rather than just racism. I think it’s special. You get to learn more about the world. I learn multiple geographies, different foods, and a more comprehensive view of the world, just because of my perspective.
Is there anything else you want to say we haven’t covered?
I think it’s important for people to educate themselves about multiracialty. Because the world is getting more diverse and there are more and more interracial marriages. People need to take the time to make sure they don’t say something accidentally racist.