Race In The Northwest

An American Of Japanese Descent Sees The Foreignness In Herself

By Anna Griffin (OPB)
Portland, Oregon Sept. 17, 2017 8:45 p.m.
Naomi Tsurumi

Naomi Tsurumi

Anna Griffin / OPB


Naomi Tsurumi’s genealogical history is a tale of the great American melting pot.

Her mom’s side of the family is from northern Italy by way of Pennsylvania. Her dad is Japanese.

Tsurumi was born and raised on the East Coast, something she felt the need to point out recently.

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"I was having a conversation at [the] elementary school with classmates of my kids’ about a trip the kid had taken to New York City," she said. "I said, ‘Oh, I grew up right near New York City in New Jersey.’ The kid said, ‘You grew up in New Jersey?’ I said, ‘Right within commuting distance of New York.’ The kid said, ‘But you weren’t not born there, right?’ ‘I said, ‘Yeah, I was.’

"The kid said, ‘You weren't born in an Asian country?’"

She gets that a lot, this sense from other people that she must not be from the U.S.


"People have asked me, 'What are you?' before. Or they say, 'What’s your ethnicity, what’s your nationality?'" she said. "But really what they want to know is, ‘Why do you look different or what Asian country of origin is behind the way you look?’ A thing that has become clear to me over the years is that people look at me, and they assume that I’m not American."

She and her husband moved to Oregon 14 years ago. He’s an emergency room doctor. She’s an environmental specialist focused on stormwater management for the City of Portland.

When they moved west, she was excited at the prospect of living in a place with a larger Asian population.

"It wasn't something I was seeking out, it wasn't a factor in deciding to move to Portland, but it was something I thought might be here that would be nice: 'Maybe if I move somewhere where [there] are more people who look like me, I won't be assumed to be an outsider,'" she said. "And there’s certainly a cultural component. One example: if you asked somebody where I was growing up what a bento was, I’m not sure anyone could tell you. But anybody in Portland could."

A few years ago, Tsurumi and her fellow city employees were encouraged to take an online test of their own implicit racial biases. The idea is to get a better understanding of how your brain works.

"You basically are pressing buttons and associating images and words," she said. "What the test tracks is how quickly you associate things. So with Asian and American, we could have the face of someone who is Asian and the word ‘American,’ and you're pressing buttons to match them up."

Implicit bias tests are usually rapid fire. How do you respond to an image or an idea when you don’t stop to think?

"When your conscious mind has to override what your subconscious mind wants to associate, it takes you longer," she said. "It could be a fraction of a second, but the test is able to track it.

In Tsurumi’s case, the results were instant. And shocking.

"It took me longer — maybe it was just a millisecond, but longer — to associate the Asian faces with American words and symbols," she said. "I had a slight bias against seeing Asian people as American, despite the fact that I am a half-Asian person who is American.

"And that really was something else. It made me realize that I’m in the same boat as this kid and every other person — I have this sort of automatic assumption but that fact that it's against myself was really something.

"If I can't see myself as American, how can I expect other people to?"