American Racism: perspective from a very minor minority
Back in elementary school, when we first began learning about America's history of racism, I remember our teacher talking about segregation with its water fountains for white people only, and its water fountains for "colored" people only. And there I was, the light olive-skinned child of a white father, and Filipino mother, trying to find myself in the story along with the rest of my peers. So at one point, I raised my hand and asked, “Which water fountain would I drink out of?”
My teacher responded, “Hmm… That’s a great question!”
Which, of course, is not a great answer.
Learning about segregation seemed to change things for us kids growing up in the Deep South. We always knew we were each different shades of brown, of course, but we were children of the optimistic 80’s! We were taught that diversity was beautiful, and that Jesus loves all the little children of the world, red and yellow, black and white. I always imagined little plastic Lego children during that song, because no humans were actually any of these colors to my knowledge, but it didn't matter! Jesus loved everybody, including Legos. So we weren’t really concerned about our different skin until we learned that these differences used to be a big problem. And then, we didn’t really learn much else about it after that, such as what we’re supposed to do with that information.
My first real experience of racial discrimination came in 5th grade, when I had a crush on this tall, popular kid named Enrique. He was mischievous, and funny, and loud—a real leader type as far as 5th graders go. And he was black (like human black; not like plastic black).
One day, word spread around our class that I liked him. I was being sassy and showing off, like you do when you're a little girl trying to impress a little boy. So Enrique laughed, but then he said out loud for the whole class to hear, “I like you, Christina. I would go out with you, if only you were black.”
Somehow, this must have been funny, because other kids laughed. I understand, now, that he was just a little kid living as he learned. But at the time, I felt crushed and embarrassed. It wasn’t enough for him that my hair was black, and I couldn’t help my skin color, but suddenly, I wanted to. I started lying and telling people that my great grandfather was black, because all of a sudden, in 5th grade, I desperately wanted to be black.
Looking back, I realize that what I really wanted was to have a people. You know, my people. The black kids in my school really seemed to have that sense of us, and they seemed so powerful to me—intimidating, even. I wanted that mighty us-ness. But if we were going to be a society that organized ourselves according to skin color, and defined our belonging based on our race, then I didn’t really have much of an us among my peers. I am a very minor minority—what the Filipino people call "Mestisa"—half Filipino, half white. Not entirely either, but completely inseparable from both. The only other Mestisa(o)s I knew were my cousins, and we got to have a little us-ness when we saw each other on the weekends, and at family events, but other than that, we each had to find other ways to define our belonging in society.
I’m not really complaining, though! Other than that embarrassing moment when I wasn’t black in 5th grade, and also a few other awkward instances here and there where I’ve been a Mexican who doesn't speak Spanish, for example, I’ve always loved being what I am. Mr. Rogers always told me that I'm special, and that me being special was a good thing, so I believed him.
The most frustrating challenge I face on a regular basis as a tiny olive woman is the whole "cute" factor. If there’s anything I know about myself from collective external feedback, it’s that I am sooo cuuute!! My Filipino-ness has made me an irreparably short, smiley woman with a really high-pitched voice. Apparently, this is adorable (or annoying, if cute isn't really your thing). Which was fine when I was a young girl, but now I have to work extra hard to be taken seriously as a grown woman, knowing full well that people see me similar to the way I once saw a tiny Yorkie trying to be a guard dog for his enormous mansion. "Well, now isn't that just precious?!" It's maddening. I’m telling you, once we get these major issues squared away—like racial equality and gender equality—the "cute" people of this nation will rise up with Peter Dinklage as the face of our movement, and demand respect.
In the 90's, I had a completely different experience spending my teenage years in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Silver Spring, MD. There, we were pretty much convinced we had conquered racism altogether. My school and my church were both model examples of celebrating integration and diversity. Not just for whites and blacks, but for everyone. I have a specific memory of hanging out with friends one day after school when we decided to change our plans. When we took turns calling home to tell our parents, on landline telephone of course, I realized that each of my friends spoke a different language to their parents—Russian, Spanish, Chinese, French, and yes, even English! We did not practice colorblindness, as if we had no differences—that would have been more like denial than acceptance. Instead, it was a true love for the diversity of human life experiences, a genuine curiosity and attempt to understand each others’ world views and perspectives. We could be different, and see that understanding our differences could help us identify how much we truly had in common.
These were my people. This was us. And I loved us.
After high school, I left DC for Tulsa, Oklahoma, and to my dismay, discovered that the entire country was not like Silver Spring. It took me a little while to figure out what was different about the panhandle state, and then it hit me. Generally speaking, I felt like I stuck out again. There were still white churches and black churches, white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods, white schools and black schools. And then there were the rest of us—the minor minorities—still wondering on some level, “Which water fountain would I drink from?”
But even in Tulsa, there were so many signs that civilization really might be moving on. I met my husband, a white man, in Tulsa. And it recently occurred to me that many of our dearest friends from Tulsa are interracial couples as well. There are pockets of change. Of forward. Of my people. Of us.
Over the past few years, as I've watched the racial tensions escalating in our society once again, I’ve been thinking a lot about my 5th grade crush, the diversity of my high school friends, our interracial couple friends in Tulsa, and water fountains. The best answer to my question that I've been able to come up with is that I wouldn’t have been drinking out of any water fountains at all during the segregation era, because my Filipino ancestors weren’t really present in that whole situation. Sure, there had been anti-Filipino riots happening elsewhere in the country, (which you won’t likely learn about in school, because whatever... We’re such a minor minority, why even bring it up?) but those were West Coast problems. There wasn’t much of a Filipino population in the Deep South during the segregation era, especially not half-Filipinos, so I guess if one of us happened to stop through, we just drank from the bird bath or something. Still not really sure.
Now, tragic events over the past several days have brought in a resurgence of friction between the water fountain races marked by deaths, and with my husband planning to become a police officer soon, I am overwhelmed. I think most of us, respectively, are overwhelmed. I see it in how we keep talking past each other, trying to be heard in a climate where precious few are actually listening with the intent to understand. And I just keep calling to mind the Prayer of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.
In all of my time spent learning about spirituality, and psychology, and what makes humans tick in general so that I may improve at ticking, I’ve become pretty familiar with this concept of reverting to old mental patterns, or “running something”. The term likens our minds to computers that automatically run out-dated files, like playing old movies over and over again. Sometimes, events in our lives trigger our responses, causing us to approach situations as we would have in the past. This can cause us to act like children, or adolescents, rather than the mature adults we could be now—complete with the potential for deeper wisdom, and abstract reasoning.
The remedy for running outdated mental files is to become present-minded, instead. To assess our current situations from the place we're at today, as who we are this moment, not who we have been before. Our past can serve in helping us understand how we got here, and we should always let it inform our understanding of the present, but we serve our past the best by being here, and not by thinking we’re still there.
It occurred to me that maybe running old files isn’t just something that only happens in the human mind, but in human societies as well. I think this is what many of us are doing—replaying old movies in our minds, black and white films from a time when I wouldn't know where to drink water in the Deep South.
But the thing is, Filipinos are pretty much everywhere in America now, along with many other minor minorities. And we mostly drink water from bottles, whether plastic or sustainable. And we watch movies in 3D. So clearly, we are not there anymore. We’re here now. I only hope that somehow my adorable, olive existence in this time and place can help serve as a reminder for all of us to be present. To stop reliving the old chapters of American history, and start writing the new one that we're meant to be writing now. The one where we are resilient and responsible. The one about true understanding and reconciliation, where we know what we need to hold onto, and what we need to let go of. The one that evolves rather than degrades. Gives life rather than taking it. It's the one with the mighty us-ness, where we have goals echoing the wisdom of St. Francis.
That is the story about my people. About us. And I love us.