Thursday, October 16, 2008
On the Politicization of the CVT
I haven't always been like this. I haven't always thought long and hard about race in America, or about globalization, or "humanitarian aid," the education system, etc. I haven't always written treatises and essays on the subject-matter to share with the public (apparently with enough skill to have people agree with me and want to read more). I haven't always written highly political (and angry) spoken-word and hip-hop lyrics (also shared with a public audience). I haven't always been willing to stand up and speak my mind loud and true. I haven't always been so passionate about how I feel about anything - let alone these specific matters.
So how did it happen? WHEN did it happen? When did my self-adopted moniker of "CVT" change from a tongue-in-cheek reference with one white friend to an identifier for a politicized, mixed, Asian-American man of color in America?
I don't think it started in the Bay.
I grew up in a world that was actually somewhat diverse. My public high school didn't have the highest number of black kids (it didn't QUITE have the lowest, either), but it did have an interesting mix of races. Specifically, it had a number of other mixed kids. There was a good amount of Asian kids. My close circle of high school friends constantly joked about our diversity in terms of "the most diverse" fill-in-the-blank when we were together (Indian, white-Filipino, white-Chinese, black, Mexican, white, Jewish, white-Mexican - all represented). Sure it tilted more towards white than anything else, but I didn't stand out in my group of friends for my race - because we all kind of stood out for our race.
So I didn't feel weighed-down by race (consciously) through my high school graduation. Sure, my first real fight was because a white kid told me to "go back to where (I) came from." I had Asian kids at school call me a "third-rate Asian sell-out." But I didn't analyze it too specifically - and definitely not on a bigger-picture level.
But then I went to school in Michigan. And I think that's where it began. Because there, races didn't mix a whole lot. The Asian kids chilled with each other. Same with the black kids and the white kids. People hadn't been exposed to other races in the same way that I had been in the Bay, and I started to see things. I was paler there (longer and colder winters), and I often got to hear people talk ish about other races in front of me (including Chinese) as if I was another white kid that wouldn't care or be bothered by it. When my mixed Mexican-white girlfriend came out to visit from California, I found myself having to give "friends" the heads-up, so they wouldn't say something stupid in front of her. When some of my black friends threw a party, I had to deal with the aftermath - a white friend getting all riled up because he felt "unwelcome" there, and how "unfair" it was that they gave him looks like that "just because (he) was white."
But I kept my mouth shut in Michigan. I thought about it some more. It burnt me inside. But I still didn't digest it fully.
So then I went to study abroad (and then live) in Tanzania for a year and a half. I watched the white kids on my trip go off and freak out about standing out so much. How the Tanzanians needed to just "get over" the fact that the students were white and foreign. All the while, it hadn't really phased me - because I was used to it. When I was working for an NGO out there, my boss apologized to me for all the Tanzanians calling me "Mchina" (basically the equivalent of "Chinaman") instead of "Mzungu" (which is what they called all the white foreigners) - as if that was an insult.
And I watched how the (generally white) ex-pats working for NGOs to "help" the people of Tanzania lived the colonial life while doing so. Staying in their own gated homes with satellite televisions and electricity and running water while the locals had none of the above. I fought with my "boss" from the NGO over how the Tanzanian teachers we worked with were treated. How the white folks felt that it was okay to tell the black folks how they should do things in their own country. And I stopped keeping my mouth shut. And ended up getting (more or less) fired from my "volunteer" NGO job.
I came back to the States fired up, but still not fully politicized. I had this anger and a knowledge of how things were going wrong without a real direction for it. I didn't know how to speak it. The people I had known had no way of understanding my experience.
So I randomly moved to Portland, Oregon. The whitest city in the U.S.
When I moved here, I mostly listened to indie-rock music. I played guitar. I bought a keyboard to play and record "funny songs" on a cheap sound program on a beat-up laptop. I started writing sarcastic "raps" because I couldn't sing. I came up with a "funny" stage-name of "Count von Triloquism" for my faux-hip-hop. I lived with two white guys (one a conservative we found on Craisglist). I was a lab assistant at the VA hospital.
And I lived my life. I walked through a world that was SO DAMN white. I went to pot-luck parties with self-proclaimed "liberals" that surrounded themselves with more white folks and listened to bluegrass, folk, and indie-rock. I met American-born white boys who played "traditional" Zimbabwean music.
I quit my VA job and started working with kids. I worked with white, middle-class youth workers who had good intentions, but thought they were "saving" poor kids of color. They forgot to mention that most of the kids they worked with (although still in poverty) were white (because it didn't sound as impressive, or "real"). I started writing an "entertaining" blog with posts in the form of letters to inanimate objects.
And then I ended up working at a summer arts camp that actually employed other people of color. I assisted a mixed white-black (ex) slam poet who had no problem speaking her political mind, and who convinced me that poetry was meant to be HEARD, not read, and that it could actually be cool. When I got back from camp, I got hired to teach math at an alternative middle school.
I fell in love with a Jewish girl as she started questioning the "liberal" hippie social circle that surrounded her. She actually wanted to hear about my struggles with race and identity and supported my conscious push towards more colorful social surroundings and a hip-hop cultural standing.
I went back to work at that same summer arts camp, and I got a little more serious. I started writing rhymes about my racial identity. I started to stand up and speak for the kids (and staff) of color involved with the camp where I saw points being missed. I began to appreciate the importance of my role as a male youth worker of color in an occupation where we're decidedly lacking.
And now I'm here. Turning that "cheeky" faux-rap moniker of "Count von Triloquism" into the CVT by which I'm now known in certain creative circles (the blogosphere included). I see myself as a racial translator in multiple areas of my life: translating the perspective of kids (and adults) of color into language that my white co-workers can understand. Translating that same perspective into a lyrical form for Portland audiences (relatively diverse, considering, but always guaranteed to house some "liberal" white folks). And doing the same for an internet audience. In a matter of weeks, I'll finally live with another person of color (for the first time since Tanzania).
And I feel like it's finally coming together. I'm almost ready to bring my artistic side (music and lyrics) to this blog world and vice versa. To share these - my real thoughts, my passion - with people who know me, personally (other than a very select few). Tonight, my mom will hear me perform my poetry for the first time - and I imagine that will be an interesting conversation-starter, for sure. The next step is to finally talk to my dad about how my racial mix has affected our relationship.
And this is only the beginning. I still feel raw and amateur. I can only imagine how the next five to ten years are going to go down - and how loud my voice might get by then. And I hope some of you reading this now come along for the ride to see where it all ends up.
No more cheekiness for me (mostly). "Count von Triloquism" is no longer what the CVT stands for. Maybe some of you out there can figure out something more appropriate - but, for now, the CVT stands for a raised voice, questioning "the way it is," and sharing my particular perspective with a larger public. And I think that's how it's going to be for a long while . . .