“You are one handsome white man,” a young female African American exclaimed one afternoon as Jeffrey Omura stood on a busy Manhattan street. Of course, she was only half right–not about his looks–but about his race.
Jeff is biracial, a product of English and Japanese ancestry. He is at least one proof of the theory by some that mixing races make for beautiful kids. (Unfortunately, some would argue that the theory also implies not mixing them make for unattractive ones). But on the narrow point of being able to nullify any preconceived notion of what a particular race or group looks like, being of mixed race is indeed quite beautiful. Then there’s the point that what race you belong to shouldn’t even matter. But in Jeff’s industry unfortunately, he is very much judged by his looks.
To some he is a strikingly handsome Asian; to others like that street admirer, he is a dashing Caucasian. Given that, one might conclude that Jeff is in an enviable position.
For an actor, however, being biracial often means not being cast or not being considered for a part that ought to be played by either. As if being a minority isn’t difficult enough, falling between the majority and the minority group is even worse. Jeff finds himself often being told that he belongs to neither. Race, it appears, is in the eyes of the beholder.
Jeff recalls, “I went to an audition once. While waiting patiently for my turn, a member of the casting staff approached me and said that the role is for Chinese. You’re not Chinese.” He says he couldn’t be even cast for an Asian character.
“If they ever have an Asian role open, I’m not Asian enough. I’m not from China or Japan or Korea. I don’t have those experiences. And I don’t speak the language.” Another biracial actor nods in agreement. She is half Asian and half Italian, but some casting people insist that she’s simply too “Jewish.”
On the other hand, he is also frequently told he’s too Asian for a non-Asian role. For instance, when going to an audition where multiple parts are being cast for television or film, he is almost always assumed to be either getting, or trying to get, the role of a “nerd ” or some type of “techie,” stereotypical roles for Asian men in the U.S.
One might suggest that this is true of all stereotypes. After all, aren’t the more commanding roles that are written for African American women generally for slaves or the help? That has been the case historically, at least until recently, when producers like Shonda Rhimes began to create women-of-power roles. These new characters are aimed to chip away at the stereotype: that powerful women are “bitches” while their male counterparts playing similar roles are regarded as “strong” and “distinguished.” They were also created to illustrate that women of color may also be powerful, feminine and smart in real life. So to find them on TV or in the movies as such shouldn’t be “weird.”
But weren’t Asian women also playing geisha and other subservient roles since the history of films? Asian actresses had it bad, too: they had to be pretty enough to play a seductress, and obscure enough not to appear trustworthy and likable.
And when an Asian actor or actress couldn’t pass these stereotypes, there’s always comedy. And people wonder why any Asian male mistaken for Mr. Chow would be offended! Of course, the usual excuse for that “mistake” is always this: “Asians look alike.” In other words Jeff, justifiaby, could be mistaken for Mr. Chow at Starbucks, but he just can’t play a Korean or Chinese on stage because, well, he doesn’t look like either enough under Fresnel lanterns?
Now residing in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood, Jeff Omura moved to the Big Apple eight years ago from Okemos, Michigan, a suburb of Lansing. His father, a Dean of MBA at Michigan State, was originally from Hawaii but grew up in the District of Columbia.