White Flags

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With Chris Clarke’s call for an ongoing discussion about racism in Blog Against Racism Day my ears have pricked up and heard the buzz of blogs around me again, and I made the rounds of old, familiar blogs, and in the process tripping over some new ones. There certainly has been a lot to say by lot of people. Some of it quite moving.

My first reaction, as a person of very mixed heritage, was that the idea of setting aside one day to honor sentiments against racism seemed cavalier and irresponsible. After all, how can something that follows you everywhere from the moment of your birth, poisoning so much of what you touch, excluding you from a complete and fair experience of the society that you happen to inhabit, be vilified within an afternoon’s blithe hat-tipping? It just seemed illusory. Guilt-ridden without action. Pedantic by so many who I presumed never experienced the fruits of racism.

I decided to give the topic time to ferment, while reading more entries and letting the thoughts I read mix with my own experiences and conclusions. Bigotry comes in so many forms, much of it solidified into stereotypes based purely on presumptions of one’s skin color or cultural bent or sex. “Whites are racist.” “Muslims are all devoutly religious.” “Blacks understand discrimination.” “Asians study and work hard.” “Americans are arrogant.” “Jews don’t commit genocide.” “Native Americans have done no wrong to the European settlers.” “Women respect life and would never start wars.” Everywhere you look, in everyday life, in each individual you meet, you see the kernels of disagreement, misunderstanding, dislike, and ill will. Who’s to say that racism would not grow among any group of people, given the right conditions? At what point is an individual capable of distinguishing their own righteousness from the confusion of all others’ wrongs?

In my own life, living between the self-battering anguish of my Filipino/ American Black side and the self-searching, confused outlook of my German background, all I have been certain of is that people in my family have continually surprised me. I discovered that my German grandparents risked their lives during the Second World War attempting to protect a Jewish family, all of whom were eventually captured and sent away. My paternal grandfather, a Filipino who left the close-knit community of his childhood in the Philippines, wandered halfway around the world to South Carolina, there to marry a black woman, a woman who would never be accepted back in the Philippines. Another Filipino-American side of the family vehemently supported Bush’s attack on Iraq. My Brazilian-of-Japanese-descent wife resents people assuming that she can dance. Even in myself, in spite of my pride in my tolerance of all people and cultures, recently find flares of resentment and impatience with Japanese, especially on the trains where the worst of people’s ugliness comes out while crushed up against a train door. The other night a businessman, disliking being forced to share shoulders with foreigner, shoved me away and snarled, “Fuck you!” at me in English. I stumbled out of the train at the next stop, dazed, and soon after finding myself silently cursing at all the Japanese around me for this feeling of being knocked out of kilter. I know very well that few Japanese harbor any real resentment against non-Japanese, but the feelings bubbled out of me nonetheless.

The only way I can see overcoming racism is to forget identifying with any group and consider each individual you meet on their own merits. It is the very act of setting parameters by declaring “We…(fill in a racial group, cultural group, nationality, sex…)” that creates the breeding grounds for exclusion. Those who are passionate about rending the walls often differentiate the discrimination into neat categories: racism, sexism, ageism, nationalism, fanaticism… But aren’t they all one and the same? People finding things to refuse or disrespect in others?

In the end it all comes down to me living within my own skin. I’ve lived in enough different places and cultures to realize that the tides wash both ways, that what you thought of as set in stone here, has been forgotten elsewhere. And that people will always surprise you.

When I studied at the University of Oregon I lived in an apartment a mile or so outside the campus. The apartment faced a tiny, intimate alley that didn’t admit cars and that set the houses and apartments close enough that many of the residents greeted each other on a daily basis. One day a woman moved into the empty cottage across the street from my apartment. She was stunningly beautiful, blonde, and white. From the first day she waved at me and shouted out a bright, guileless “Hello!”. I often sat out on my deck and leaned over the railing, conversing with her as she sat on her doorsteps. We learned quite a lot about one another, confessing details of our lives that normally we would not have shared outside the societies we both hailed from. I learned that she had been a model for Playboy and that her father was a millionaire. She eschewed sorority life, but spent a lot of time hanging out with men and women from the Greek world, something that I had never once been invited to, and which seemed to me a surreal form of hedonism catering almost solely to whites. She learned about my growing up in Japan and my father in the United Nations. And about my elementary school days at a school in Harlem and my activities in the Asian-American club in which members barred whites from participating in events (an attitude that eventually made me quit the club). These bits of information didn’t come between us and our friendship grew, to the point where I began to fall in love with her.

But I noticed that all her boyfriends were white, well-off, and straight from the cover of GQ. My whole experience of wealthy white women, dating from my high school years in a school of amabassadors’ children, consisted of exclusions from conversations, being beaten up by older brothers outraged at my temerity at even thinking that their sisters might have an interest in me, condescension by the girls themselves in the form of coquettish dismissals, as if I couldn’t understand where my place was, “the skinny Indian”, as one French girl, the darling of the class, dubbed me during a chemistry class one afternoon. So though I fell in love with the woman across the street, I kept it to myself. My perception of her was reinforced by her never once attempting to come up to my deck and sit with me. I just assumed that she would make friendly talk with me, but always at a distance. Several times she invited me to have dinner with her in her cottage, but I always declined, citing the need to spend time at my architecture studio. When she started dating this athletic, he-has-everything man I backed into the woodwork of my apartment, leaving her to be with a man who most likely wouldn’t give me a second glance.

Then in the middle of the night my phone rang. It was the woman from across the street.

“Miguel, can you come over? Please?” Her voice was shaking.

“What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

There was a sob and then a thin wail, “Oh, please… Miguel. Please…”

“Okay, I’ll be right over.”

I threw on a jacket and ran across the alley to her door. No lights were on. I knocked. No answer. So I pushed the door open and peered inside. She was curled up in a ball on her couch, wrapped in a blanket. She lifted her head and turned to look at me. Her face was streaked with tears. There were clothes all over the floor.

I rushed to the side of the couch and kneeled beside her.

“God, are you all right?” I asked in whisper. I dared not touch her.

She broke down sobbing again and after some time I tentatively reached out a hand to touch her shoulder. I rested it there, feeling her body shudder. She cried for a long time. Then, “He… he…”

I shook my head. “It’s okay… Don’t speak. Just let it out for the moment…” She cried again for a long time. When she seemed a bit calmer, I asked, “Would you like me to call your father?” Her mother was no longer alive.

She shook her head, her eyes wide with alarm.

“Okay. Then we’ll just sit here like this for now. How about I make you some tea?”

She nodded.

“Okay.” So I got up and put some water on to boil. When the water was ready I made two cups and brought them over to my friend. I handed her cup to her, sat down beside the couch, and together we sat in the darkness, not saying a word. We sat like this until dawn, when the curtains began to glow with the first light.

And all the while my mind shifted between the strange numbness of realizing that this white woman had all along accepted me for who I was, and the odd peacefulness of being handed her vulnerability and trusted with it. I had been carrying around a racism all my own, blinding myself to the genuineness of her smile, and allowing stereotypes built up over past wrongs to shape her in my mind. I’m not sure if her acceptance of me was without exclusion, but perhaps it was the very fact that I did not live inside the sphere of her white world that she found safety with me at that moment. My visage differed from the familiar faces of the men she knew. She had trusted me enough to allow those quiet dawn hours, before the telephones rang and the officials came asking questions.

To blog against racism. Perhaps it is the very act of sitting and thinking about what you are writing and attempting to make some sense of it that points to the value of the exercise. You come away with the feeling that the mote in your eye has splintered and dispersed. Upload the act and it is like the smoke of incense at a temple: the gods will surely hear your confession.

10 Responses

  1. Oh, Miguel, it’s wonderful to have you back, and to read your powerful words on a subject so close to your heart with your own numerous and unhappy life experiences. What a lesson here! I hope this means you will be back here a little more often, for you’ve been missed! I hope the break has been a time of renewal and refocusing on your dreams of writing some childrens’s books.

  2. Yes, Miguel, I’m delighted you’re back too. And what a powerful post, in particular the story about the incident with your neighbour. This insidious, ‘shadow’ racism that I certainly understand and which you identified in yourself is hard to combat. It is spiritual, inward work, as intimated in your final paragraph. Thank you for this.

  3. Great post. Thanks.

  4. Oh, you are such a good writer. It’s so great to have you back, even if only for this moment.

    Cheers!

  5. MIguel: this is a wonderful post, full of wisdom. I, too, have missed your writing, and am glad you joined this discussion in particular. Thank you.

  6. What the others have said. I’ve been thinking of you the past few weeks, and to “hear” your voice again is wonderful. That it’s speaking so movingly on a powerfully difficult subject is an extra gift. Thanks.

  7. Thanks, everyone, for the comments. Nice to know that people still drop by; after all I’ve neglected everyone for quite a long time!

    The whole Blog Against Racism exercise has gotten me thinking a lot about the way I see others and my own role in the whole shebang. I think it is important that those who so often see others as bigots (non-whites, feminists, righteously religious, patriots, wronged elderly, the handicapped…) stop and take a good look to see if they themselves have perhaps crossed over into the world of intolerance. But so few people are willing to be completely honest and admit that they harbor quite a few prejudices themselves, often militantly so.

    Take the idea of “anger” at those they see as blocking their “empowerment” (an empty word I passionately hate because it is arbitrarily used for any situation where the one who is using it sees an advantage over another and often uses it blindly and interchangeably with “equality”, “compassion” and “understanding”, which it shares no relationship with). When the anger gets so vitriolic, or at times even violent, and that person no longers sees the person they are directing their anger at, are these “wronged” people not doing exactly the same thing that they accuse their so-called oppressors of?

    I think it is very dangerous for anyone to consider themselves outside the human capacity for cruelty and injustice. The moment you do so you set yourself up above others and thereby take on the exact characteristics of a bigot.

  8. I’ve been thinking about this post for awhile, since you wrote it. Thanks for writing it, by the way. It touched me very much that you sat with that woman through the night. It so often happens that there is no one to call, or no one to be “trusted”. Probably you made a difference to her, in her ability to trust in the future. That’s no small thing. A real gift of love.

    I’ve also been thinking about what you said about racism. It’s true that sometimes in living here, I’ve reacted to others racism with a kind of momentary anger that seems like it might also contain some racism. I guess we are all guilty of generalizing from particular incidents. I try to remember that everyone is different and try to accept each one on their own merits, but I don’t always succeed. I think I can do it best with people I have come to know here. I can clearly see their differences, and there are many. Not many would have treated you like that man on the train. Not everyone calls me “foreigner” all the time after I have let them know I don’t like it. Many are so kind, like one of my students, a busy housewife and worker, who will hand deliver homemade o-sechi to my house today, making a special trip from her home miles away. I think of her when I have to hear mutters of “eigo this and eigo that” on the train I travel to work each day and want to immediately find the nearest airport and exit Japan once and for all. But I guess I would have to exit the world if I wanted to escape racism because it’s still alive and well in the country in Canada. too, though it seems to be growing a little less over the years.

    Since there is no real escape from racism, either being on the receiving or giving end, I guess we had better do as you suggested, use some time to think about it and consider what we can do, rather than congratulating ourselves on our tolerance. I know I have been thinking since you wrote this and probably will continue to for a long time. So I am saying that your writing is important and probably does much more than you realize.

    May 2006 be a year of reading more wonderful writing, thinking and more thinking, and doing what we can. Happy New Year to you, and to all who write words of inspiration.

  9. The idea is cute and a rare idea. However, it wouldn’t work. Those who reap the benefits of their cultures advances would never ignore their identity. If that was the case you would have folks changing not their hair color to blond, but darkening their skin color when they went for job interviews or to apply for loans, etc.

    You would have more folks not buying houses they can’t afford in groups but moving into neighborhoods that they could afford on their own. They wouldn’t take a job washing dishes even though they know they got the one they have because of someone they or their family member knew or because of their culture identity. Let’s be real here.

    If folks were up for this idea when they know they gained things because of their culture identity but someone else deserved it more, they would pass the plate. Never heard of any of these cases. SWEET

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