Interview with Teja Arboleda
By Taylor Murray
Teja Arboleda is a multiethnic global nomad. The author of In the Shadow of Race and founder of Entertaining Diversity Inc., Teja is passionate about teaching cultural diversity and human potential through entertainment. He has spent 26 years creating commercial and educational programs for television and distribution, winning two TELLY awards and one EMMY award. Teja attended the 2015 Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference as the opening night’s keynote speaker. His funny, engaging, and genuine personality resonated with the FIGT attendees as he presented his popular one-man show Ethnic Man!. Laughter surged through the audience at Teja’s re-enactments of stories relating to his unique heritage and travels abroad. He shared his life story with honesty and transparency, moving his audience as he recalled a poignant moment during his daughters’ adoption with unanticipated tears. In this interview, Teja shares how his background influenced his current work, his passions, and his thoughts on diversity and race.
Tell me about your background. What have you gained from being of a mixed heritage, ethnicity, and culture? What are some of the losses or challenges?
That’s quite a big question! Background means so many things. Father’s mother: African-American/ Native American. Father’s father: Filipino-Chinese. Mother is German-Danish. I grew up in Japan and traveled around the world. Brother married to a Brazilian of Japanese descent. Daughters are adopted, Chinese ethnicity, but born in the US. I prefer to say I’m human.
Being mixed gives me the advantage of being able to fit in more places and situations than most people, also because I’m multilingual and understand how to adapt to different cultural cues and clues. That said, I’ve never really felt like I belonged anywhere – because of what others think of me. Also, having moved and traveled a lot made it difficult to call any one place my home. In addition, my parents divorced when I was 16. I have family all over the world, and I can’t claim allegiance to any particular group, culture or ‘race’.
Based on your experience, how would you define diversity?
Diversity is the nature of the universe.
As a child, all you ever wanted was to be ‘the same’. Growing up, you tirelessly searched to discover your roots. Where have you found your identity now? How has your sense of ‘who you are’ evolved and changed over the years?
I’m happily married, I love being a dad, I love my town, and I love my work. Also, I’m 52. I don’t care anymore to be the same. Every day is different for me – I breath diversity. That said, I’ve been getting the same tall mocha every day, at the same café, for 16 years.
What inspired you to establish Entertaining Diversity Inc.? As founder and president, what are your main roles?
Current Senator Al Franken, once producer and writer for Saturday Night Live, in 1992, gave a speech at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He made some racist and sexist remarks. I challenged him, and then he kept calling me ‘Ethnic Guy’. That night, I took on the stage name Ethnic Man. I left my job as Assistant Director/ Editor for PBS’s Frontline, to take him on. Creating an entertaining way of dealing with diversity issues was and is my mission.
Your philosophy for Entertaining Diversity Inc. is ‘There is no box’. Explain.
We get stuck on phrases that are cliché, without thinking about how they really apply to what we mean. The OMB/ Census Bureau puts us in to boxes – race categories, specifically. Race categories are archaic, unhelpful, unfounded, detrimental and even insulting. ‘There is no box’ means that I don’t have to think outside of the box because there isn’t one. I’m not in one, and I won’t put you in one.
Tell the story behind the creation of Ethnic Man! What have you learned about yourself through sharing your life with others?
In addition to what I said above, Ethnic Man! was a result of finding a niche solution to pedantic and patronizing approaches to race relations and mediation. I’m an entertainer and producer. This was a way of combining humor, storytelling and drama to open up dialogue about a very contentious and complicated topic. I’ve performed this particular show so many times, and yet it’s always changing… because I change.
Give a brief description of your book In the Shadow of Race.
The title suggests being under scrutiny, but also under the auspices of a term that is confining but also empowering. ‘In’ can also imply ‘within’. The book, like Ethnic Man! is an account of how I came to understand who I am in the context of the multicultural worlds around me. It is used in colleges around the country, and many countries. I am currently writing a follow up called In The Shadow of Race, Again. This book is about what happened during the years of my travels, adopting kids and becoming a parent, and watching my parents get older.
In your book, you encourage readers to focus on discovering who they are more than what they are. What advice would you give on finding your identity in this way?
‘What’ is a convoluted word, because on one hand, we can say, “that is a chair”. But there are many kinds of chairs. “Who sits in that chair”, is a question that has story, history and content. “What are you?” is an ignorant question. “Who are you?” invites discussion over tea or coffee, or maybe even a tall mocha.
How did the experience of writing In the Shadow of Race change you? What was most difficult? What was most rewarding?
Before laptops and cell phones. Pencil on paper, while sitting in airport terminals, in hotel rooms, on planes and in my offices. In order to write the story I had to travel to many places around the globe, meet with family I know and get to know family I didn’t know I had. What was difficult was trying to get publishers to agree to review it, only to be told, “we’ve published books on the Black experience”. Rewarding was the knowledge that it was really the first of its kind, and a publisher eventually approached me, believing these stories needed to be told.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement? What do you hope to accomplish in the future?
Continuing to challenge all academic, anthropological, legal and social concepts of identity. I have not had my greatest achievement. For example, I’ve written a movie script, now being adapted to a trilogy sci-fi book series about race that will flip everything on its head.
For further information visit www.tejaarboleda.com
For further information on Entertaining Diversity Inc. visit www.entertainingdiversity.com
In the Shadow of Race: Growing Up As A Multiethnic, Multicultural, and "Multiracial" American, Teja Arboleda, Routledge, 1998
This article was edited by Dounia Bertuccelli. With thanks to the sponsorship of Summertime Publishing and the Parfitt Pascoe Writing Residency.