‘It’s Like Porn: You Know It When You See It’

Race is an awkward topic.  The term was created by the government to categorize different kinds of people with an ease that benefits governmental procedure.  Even the multiethnic community has been plagued by it with the moniker of “mixed race.”

There’s that four-letter word again.  Hard to avoid it.  I, however, prefer ethnicity.  That’s how I better understand the rich veins of a person’s composition.  “Race” tells me very little.  I often wonder why so many think it’s the proper badge to put forward in so many instances.  We also should reflect upon what motivated the creation of race.  Here in the United States, the arm of the government that oversees “race” is an office that concentrates on management and budget; hence, perhaps the true desire to manage ethnicity efficiently as “race.”  Despite the fact that the term “race” is a governmental invention, it also has become entrenched in daily usage.

Let’s face it, however: it manipulates ethnicity into a category.  I have no race (“other” implies being different from ones already noted – so that means “other” is secondary, an afterthought to what is noted first).  I do not fit into any of the racial categories proffered by the U.S. government; moreover, I am not going to check boxes for four ethnicities and allow the U.S. government to calculate my “race” in its myopic view; that is an algebra that discriminates against my multiethnic culture.  Because that is what I am, at all times: multiethnic.  Always multiethnic.  I do not alter my ethnicity when I believe it will benefit me in a given situation.  Whatever your ethnicity is, that is part of my consideration of who you are – organically; it means more to me than whatever race the government says you are.  In fact, there is no race when I think about a person’s identity; I think of their ethnicity.  I remember a post-play talkback at Syracuse Stage.  A woman who might be termed as White by the masses connected with my play about Japanese immigrant women in international, interracial marriages because her grandmother was an immigrant from Germany, which means that she is German American.  I do not think about her as being White and me being Other.  I think of Germany and what impact its culture has on her life.

This is my husband.

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He looks like what the Western masses might call White and, indeed, is White with regards to how those masses put forward the concept of “race.”  In fact, in the Western mass eye, he possesses that brand of Whiteness that is deemed unquestionable because it is British Whiteness.  It is for me, however, the former descriptor, not the latter, that helps me to understand his navigation of life.  In our home, we talk about ethnicity, not “race.”  I know many make a distinction, opting to invest in the governmental invention of race, but I think more organically.  To me, my husband is not White, but ethnically English, Scottish, and Welsh – mostly English, he says, in the European perspective of defining identity by nation.

Many people whom I know who perceive themselves to be White say that I think about “race” a lot, that I am “sensitive” about “race.”  Having such a view is a luxury in our society, not one that people of color get to possess unless that color is invisible to the Western mass eye.

Naturally, I think about ethnicity a lot.  Every time I walk out the door and strive to navigate society, I am “raced” by just about everybody.  They will not always own up to this “racing” (or e-racing, as the case may be) because they fear intellectual miscarriage.  Who wants that?  It is much easier and perhaps prudent on their parts to dismiss “racing” people by saying that such people simply talk about race too much, that those people are merely sensitive and it has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the problem of “race” that permeates society, particularly in the U.S.

I am proud to say that I do think about ethnicity a lot.  Unquestionably, I have no choice because, when I look in the mirror, my reflection stares right back at me in a complicated, take-no-prisoners kind of way.   Good on destiny.

I have thought about ethnicity even more since the #metoo movement began.  That is because the #metoo movement illuminated gender ugliness, which for me even more brightly illuminated ethnic ugliness.  I realize, however, that U.S. society, a place where the “race” problem has grown into gargantuan proportion, is not yet ready to deal with ethnic ugliness, if it ever will be.  Focusing on gender ugliness takes the heat off the former.  If people speak out against gender ugliness, which they should and must, then ethnic ugliness can be put on the back burner and those speaking out can have their consciences marked as morally correct in society, which indeed they may be.  However, ethnic ugliness remains seething under society’s surface: police brutality against self-perceived and societally perceived Black and Latino Americans, immigration violence against people from what the U.S. administration deems as undesirable countries (is there a theme here?), Black and Brown people followed in businesses because they are assumed to be shoplifters, Black and Brown people going into meetings and assumed to be in the wrong place because, Oh my god, how could they possibly be in a position of authority; and so on and so forth.

Often, people of color are not in positions of authority.  No matter how much our society talks about equity and inclusion, it often does not walk that talk, especially in corporations and institutions.  Often, society shovels equity and inclusion into a wheelbarrow called “diversity” and dumps it in a place where it will not be recycled.  When a character in a play recently produced in a Los Angeles-area equity theatre proclaimed that diversity is a dirty word, several White audience members applauded and one said, “Bravo!” It was disquieting.

Despite the fact that I grew up in the U.S., I was raised with Japanese values; not the kind that exist in Japan today, but Meiji-Era Japanese values, the kind with which my mother was reared by my Meiji Era-born grandmother.  Due to that, I developed a way of being that simply does not cut it in the U.S.: when bad things happen to me because of my ethnicity, I sweep them into the recesses of my consciousness and move forward with a smile.  The problem with that is reflected upon in biracial Langston Hughes’ poem, “Dream Deferred”:

“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?…
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?” 2

If one buries negative ethnic experiences internally, they accumulate and, at some point, must shatter.  Because I am a writer, my ignitions can occur in journals or in a blog like this rather than me getting a machine gun and bump stock and mowing people down, like that man in Las Vegas and his awful actions.  No, I will not go down that route, although some, figuratively speaking, have done that to me.  Take note that there are many people of color who, despite ethnic ugliness in their lives, also choose not to go down that route.

Here is an example of just how ugly racism can be.  This happened to two Black male university students.  About five years ago, they expressed their concerns that a White professor frequently called them by each other’s names.  Sadly, he could not tell them apart.  They reported that, while the professor knew the names of White students in his class, he did not know their names.  When one of the young men explained their identities to the professor, the professor came and asked for my help, stating that he had two “angry Black boys” in his class.  He did not stop to think that he had done something that had created the Black men’s disappointment – what he called their “anger.”  It seemed that any questioning of his lack of knowledge of their names or his inability to discern their distinct identities meant that they, not he, were lacking in decorum.  This kind of scenario happens repeatedly in U.S. society: anti-Black behavior occurs, Black people respond to it, Black people are seen as being “angry” (or, Lord have mercy, racist themselves).  It is a convenient methodology.  Imagine how I feel when I go into the faculty club on the campus where I teach and the hostess thinks I am someone else in that “they all look alike” tradition.  She does not mean to insult or diminish me, but….  It is interesting to experience individuals trying to guess what I am; it’s like watching them trying to reach a destination without GPS.  Micronesian? Tongan? Samoan? Filipina? Sri Lankan? Indonesian? Black?

Walk a mile in my shoes.

In my shoes.

A mile.

Sensitive about “race”?  You betcha.

The mirror and experiences foisted upon me by well-meaning and not so well-meaning people force me into being sensitive about race.  That, however, does not mean that race is not problematic and that racism doesn’t exist.  Maybe one grows sensitive because of repeated incidents of ethnic unkindness, especially if one lets the impact of that ugliness fester inside.  Sensitivity may be a symptom caused by racism, rather than a weapon for Whites to use against people of color.  Maybe the response to the accusation of sensitivity is, Yeah, why don’t you help eliminate the things that force that sensitivity into being? (#methree)

When I am confronted with racism, I experience stress that manifests in physical health problems such as urticaria, edema, and eczema. One says about allergies that sufferers have a sensitivity to certain allergens; they have a sensitivity to things that make them sick.

photo of urticaria 2018-06-14 at 9.38.46 PM copy

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Racism makes me sick.

Yes, I deal with traffic, office politics; profiling police, faculty and staff, students, administrators, neighbors, store personnel; people cutting line, a total lack of lines, noisy airports, people thudding your head when taking their seat in a theatre and not even noticing that they hit you, paying bills, the weather, unfriendly assistants, hostile medical office workers, slow service, etc., just like everybody else. I have the distinct pleasure, however, of also dealing with racism. “Race” may be a construction, but its “ism” is organically wired into the DNA of those who practice it, often without knowing that they are.  The application of it is subtle, sometimes insidious, but, as a university leader once said, it’s like porn: you know it when you see it.

What I have is not sensitivity, but instinct – survival instinct.  It is similar to being sensitive to allergens.  Sometimes when I look at a new food, it triggers my instincts and I know I should not eat that food; I know it will make me sick.  That is how it is with racism: when I see it or the possibility that, in a certain kind of environment, it might raise its head, I know to avoid that kind of environment.  If you are allergic to peanuts, the last thing you do is eat them ad nauseam.

I was reared to keep my head down and carry on, but I realize, especially living in the West, that you cannot carry on for too long or the cumulative effect can be annihilating.  I have to protect myself.

There will never be a movement in the U.S. that decries ethnic ugliness with the same fervor that it has confronted gender ugliness.  Lynchings, Jim Crow, police profiling and brutality, or even being an artist and scholar whose intellect and very right to exist in academia is questioned too frequently are not enough to make U.S. citizens say, Enough already, #methree.  In fact, I have found that the very people you think get it may be the first to say you have a “sensitivity” about “race” and/or that you talk about it too much.  That is not sympathetic or helpful.  In fact, it is the opposite of helpful because then the naysayers can applaud and construe that to mean, See? Even THEY think she’s out of line.

I refuse to stand behind a line drawn in the sand by people who resist ethnic progress. Thankfully, my world is far from that, full of individuals who are European American, African American, Asian, Asian American, Latino American, Latina American, Native American Indian, and multiethnic.  I will stay in what I perceive to be my lane and do my job.  I do not make assumptions about who people are, where they belong, what they might do, or what they might dream based on the color of their skin – even if they make such assumptions about me.  I cannot, however, grin and bear it as my ancestors demanded.  It is a new day.  My sensitivity to the scourge of anti-Black racism cannot be twisted in an attempt to turn it against me or e-race it by shouting SENSITIVITY as if it’s a four-letter word.  Please put those torpedoes away.

When you are what the Western mass eye considers as White you don’t have to worry about “race.” Of course, there may be exceptions — like the White male visiting Grenada, a nation that is eighty-seven percent Black, who believes that Black Grenadians are being racist towards him because he gets treated like everybody else.  In the U.S., he is used to being treated better than everybody else; he is used to being treated in a privileged way that he may not even know accompanies just about his every move in the U.S.  Without that privilege, he feels a lack in people’s response to him; they are supposed to uphold him.  What is wrong with them? he fumes.  Yes, such a man may think he has to worry about “race.”  In fact, he even may think he is being bullied, harassed, and simply not treated well because he is not special.  I understand, but time’s up.

With allergic sensitivities that make you sick, there are medicines that can be taken to help you feel better — antihistamines and, if that fails, steroids.  With other sensitivities, there are no prescriptions or over-the-counter remedies.

photo old shoes in the grass 2018-06-14 at 9.19.30 PM copy

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Anthony Bourdain said, “Walk in someone else’s shoes…. It’s a plus for everybody.”

Give me your shoes anytime.

May I give you mine?

 

 

 

 

 

 

CREDITS

1 – Photograph of Peter Henry Jones and Velina Hasu Houston. Property of Velina Avisa Hasu Houston Family Trust. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

2 – Hughes, Langston. “Dream Deferred,” Web. www.poemhunter.com. Retrieved on June 12, 2018 @ https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/dream-deferred/.

3 – Urticaria. Web. www.hivespictures.org. Retrieved on June 14, 2018 @ http://hivespictures.org/Hives-Rashes-Pictures.php.

4 – “Old shoes in the grass.” Web. www.publicdomainpictures. Net. Retrieved on June 14, 2018 @ https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/en/view-image.php?image=95749&picture=old-shoes. License: CC0 Public Domain.

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