In conversation with Will Oshiro de Groot

To mark ESEA Heritage Month we've been collaborating with artists and creatives from around the world.

Today we hear from Will Oshiro de Groot of the LEGO Group and founder of MEND, a platform exploring masculinity in the 21st Century.

Hey Will, tell us about yourself

I'm Will. I'm a creative & cultural researcher currently working at LEGO, where I lead Global Insights for Diversity and Inclusion. Here, I'm exploring how we harness play as a platform for social inclusion through D&I & culture-led research and insights, to inform Brand and Product development. I'm also looking at our internal research practices, to ensure we're conducting it in a way that is inclusive. I’m interested in the relationship between play, creativity and expressions of identity. I’m half Okinawan-Japanese, half British. I spent my childhood split between a subtropical island off the south-west coast of Japan and a remote village in North Yorkshire, England. I now live and work in London.

How does it make you feel to be asked “Where are you really from?”

Whenever I've been asked that question, I've always felt like it's never me that benefits from giving an answer. We live in a culture in the West where people think that answers are owed, that they can demand information about us, categorise us for their convenience. I find it's a question usually asked to satisfy someone else's own sense of being unnerved, or not being able to quite make sense of what’s in front of them.

There’s an implicit suggestion that sits beneath that question, one that implies you shouldn't be there.

That can mean that we sometimes internalise a sense of unbelonging, displacement, or that we carry a defect of sorts. I think that is true of a lot of 'marginalised' experience and identity.

It’s also down to who’s asking that question - I think we often have a sense of the place from which that question is coming from, the intention that sits behind it. That can often determine how I feel in response to it.

But it also makes me feel like I have a quiet power, by which I mean a story to tell. I like when things aren't immediately obvious, or when we have to do a bit of work to figure things out, when what we see in front of us challenges our perception of what we think we know. Perhaps there's something more empowering than we realise about being incoherent to others. I don’t believe that we have to constantly be stating things about ourselves in order to exist.

Being asked that question makes me feel like I possess knowledge, and it's my decision as to what I then do with it. The key, I'm learning, is to take ownership of that narrative and determine it for ourselves. All too often in this culture, people want to determine that for us, to label and categorise for the sake of putting themselves at ease, to alleviate their own anxiety, conscious or otherwise. We have to be able to put our own words to our own experience and do so in our own time, not when others demand it of us.

How important is identity to you? To your work?

Questions of identity are integral to everything I do. It guides everything I'm doing in my work and in my practice. I have thought about identity from as early as I can remember. It's often operated from a place of difference and being aware of this difference - but I'm thinking a lot more about what it might mean to bring myself / selves more into the centre. Identity is about how we relate not only to ourselves, but the world around us. It is malleable, changeable, something that we do not experience as static. It is infinite and it is intimate. It can be personal or it can be very public. We exist in multitudes and are far more plural than I think we've ever been led to believe - and it's exploring that complexity that I'm interested in - the multiplicity of who we are, how we experience ourselves, what we know ourselves to be but might not yet quite be able to articulate.

Do you feel your identity changes and fluctuates based on who you’re with? Where you are? Throughout time?

Yes and no. I feel I have a strong sense of who I am, a core sense of self I've always felt very comfortable with. It's the expressions of that self that changes and fluctuates according to its environment. I think our identities are ever-evolving and so in that sense I don't ever expect to fully 'know' or comprehend everything that I am or might represent to others. I also think we've been brought up on the idea of linear trajectories that aren't true to how we actually experience ourselves; identities are very vulnerable things, susceptible to our external environments. Whether or not we consciously realise it, we are all shape shifters to some degree. But that's where I think play comes in - we can create more space to play with our identities. I think finding a sense of safety is important in order to do that.  

What does heritage mean to you?

Heritage to me is actually very sacred and something I'm thinking about at the moment. Heritage is about how we preserve what preceded us, connect with the culture, its rituals and customs. Heritage is a thread that links us to the past, it gives us a sense of belonging to something much richer than our present circumstances.

I think heritage is often where you can go, or access, to find some answers.

I'm excited by those around me that I see accessing their heritage in order to create a new language through their art, articulations of identity, or new blueprints for being,

that seek to transcend what we think we know about ourselves and the world around us. Lending on our past to tell stories about our present, whilst imagining what potential futures might look like. It's amazing. And it's so rich.

I’m a researcher and framing questions and acting on my curiosity is key to my practice. What I’m learning is that getting to understand ourselves, our identities and our heritage is not about seeking ''answers' as such, but more about getting comfortable living in the questions.

Being of mixed heritage, there's more than just one tradition to pull on. Sometimes that awareness can feel very acute, heightened, overwhelming. It can be disorientating and definitely has been at various points in my life, both here and in Japan. Displacement is a theme and an experience that I don't know we discuss enough. Currently I'm doing a lot of research into Okinawan history, culture and tradition, both pre and post-war. It's inspiring me to think about my work and practice today - there's so much we can learn from our heritage.

Race and how we choose to identify are important things, so is there a better way to ask you more about your heritage?

We don't always have to ask. We can observe, we can listen, we can give people space, we can wait for people to tell us, we can wait for an invitation. These are all good practices and something I think the world would benefit more from if people really tried to do these things more. Maybe it's about reframing the question and turning it back on ourselves - if it were up to you, how would you tell stories about who you are?

What steps can people take to ensure we're headed in a direction where more people feel welcome?

Where to begin. I think industry has to realise that the world has changed and that if spaces are not made to feel inclusive, then the work will suffer.

I think brands have to be asking themselves, what's the point of a brand in the 21st century? Consumers aren't necessarily looking to brands to give them a sense of identity anymore.

I think people are increasingly determining this for themselves and drawing on richer, more connected sources to build a sense of self.

So in this emergent reality, industry needs to create intentional spaces where different voices can be heard, expressed and represented, both internally and externally. We need to think carefully about how we build this into our processes and ways of working. In research for brands, I'm constantly challenging us to think about how we avoid reinforcing dominant world views often perpetuated in this industry, because we just invite the same people to speak on the same things. Sometimes reaching less heard voices requires different approaches - industry has to be willing to put the work in.

So much of D&I in the commercial world is wrapped up in mitigating risk. I think that's a misstep. We need to view it as an opportunity - an opportunity to tell new stories, to innovate, to really reflect the world, not just a small slice of it.

Can you speak about intersectionality, if that’s something you identify with?

Definitely something I identify with but I'm also conscious of my own privileges and advantages here too.

What kind of representation would you like to see more of?

I feel like representation doesn't always mean what we think it might. Sometimes it feels to me like 'representation' has almost become an aesthetic. I think representation is about a moment of connection, how we relate to someone or something that we see or witness, how that connection evokes something in ourselves. To feel connected is to exist. So in that sense, representation can take on many forms. I am interested in stories and actually would love to see different types of relationships represented more - the different types of connections we can have with those around us. I'm interested in what it might mean to represent moments of connection between people, and where that intersects with culture and identity. I think right now we need to feel a sense of possibilities - this is where I think representation can be super powerful.

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