Friday, August 10, 2007

Blog Against Racism: The Sequel

More musing on racism.

I'm mixed race. I don't look it. Most people looking at me spot the generations of Irish my mother's family brought to the table. A rare few spot my paternal grandfather's Scot's contribution in certain family features.

It came up once, when I won an essay contest and should have been given the family tree inspection to see if I qualified for the DAR. The committee ladies were taken aback when they saw my father.  Once my parents admitted they knew of no branch of the family coming to America until well after the revolution, everyone relaxed.

The only places I routinely get spotted as mixed race are where a good portion of the people present are people of color. Black people may or may not spot it. Hispanic and Caribbean folks catch it less than half the time, though they do note another anomaly in my 'passing' (which I'll mention later.) I've had Native Americans casually enquire as to which tribe I belong. 

For a couple of years in my twenties I lived in Hawaii, my father's birthplace which he hadn't seen in two decades. It was like my magical passing cloak disintegrated in the tropical sun. Small packs of boys pelting by on the beaches addressed me in pidgin. Little old ladies selling wares at roadside stands would stop in mid-spiel, eye my cheekbones judiciously and demand to know 'who are your people?'. WheneverI gave them my father's name they would give a crack of laughter.

"I know alla bout dem boys! My (brother, husband, father, grandfather) go school with them!' Yeah, I wasn't passing here. It didn't bother me, but when my father came for a visit he found it uncomfortable. The seething mass of cousins wanted to come around and drink and dance and eat and talk story... to do, in short, the things he had left Hawaii in order not to do. My mother found the food too strange. The stories of my father running wild in the sugar cane fields and cutting school to take his board to the beach bewildered her.  And it turned out I knew nothing of Hawaiian art or culture.

It was a strained homecoming, never repeated. I didn't fit in. I had been raised to be white. I didn't know how to be Hawaiian. Back on the mainland I passed again, but now with a niggling awareness of what I was doing.

Fast forward. My two oldest grandchildren are half-Hispanic. Their mother makes a concerted effort to see that they hear and speak at least some Spanish, an effort aided with good will and gusto by their paternal grandparents. Theirs will be a different experience in growing up mixed race in this newer America. And now I sometimes use endearments in Spanish when talking to the treasures  by phone.   Most white people don't even notice it, but Spanish speakers do.

The thing I have done differently from my parents it to be out about being mixed race. When white people say things, the things they would not say if any of Them were within earshot, I call them on it.

Sometimes it's polite. "That chain email you sent around about how all schools in America will be teaching in Spanish? My grandchildren, the ones you've met and had to Christmas dinner?They're Hispanic. Their father's family has been in this country longer than yours, by the way."

Sometimes I'm less polite. "That kind of language is not allowed in this house. Nor are those kinds of jokes. We'll talk about this later, when I am sure I can be calm. Right now, I'm going to have to ask you to leave." (Yes, I had to make that speech in the middle of a party I was throwing-to a very old friend. My hands shook for an hour after he left.)

So I'm like a human stealth fighter jet. I get in under the radar because no one sees it coming. That friend mentioned above? When  asked what the hell he was thinking, his defense was he had forgottenI am not white and my grandchildren are not white. He couldn't quite explain to me why words like nigger or jokes about wetbacks were magically made okay if there were only white people present.

Racism lies pretty lightly across my life, but it's still there, and I'm one of the 'lucky' ones who can pass. And I know perfectly well I have only been brushed by the destructive force racism can be. But because I can pass I hear things said, in casual conversations that make me doubt the airy assertions that racism isn't a problem any more.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Thank you for sharing that. These posts and living in Northern Virginia in general has led me to a closer examination things that I say or think when i'm with someone of another race. Sort of along the lines of "Can this be taken the wrong way?"