Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On Perspective and Inspiration

I have a very high opinion of myself. That probably goes without saying, being a blogger - thinking that "what I have to say" is important enough to justify a regular readership. But - sometimes - I just realize how not special I am. And it kind of feels good.

I just spend the last two hours reading over scholarship applications for the AAYLC (see sidebar for more information), and I've come away humbled. After poring over application after application by kids who've overcome difficulties that I never had to think about as a kid, I'm inspired.

These are first-generation kids that came to the States in their teens, not speaking a lick of English, living in poverty with parents that spoke no English (and thus could not help them navigate the education system), and were still somehow able to dominate, academically. On top of that, these are students who volunteered their time helping other students with similar backgrounds - giving back to their community for real (instead of the lip-service version that many other more-privileged students tend to do). All while working nearly full-time jobs to help support their families.

Not all of the applicants came from this type of background, of course, but very many did - and they all blew me away. Their level of maturity and strength at such young ages really gave me a perspective on my own privilege (my mother immigrated to the States, but I was American from birth, with parents that met in college).

My favorite? A young lady that mirrors the story cited above. What put her above and beyond in my heart (trying to choose who's 'more deserving' in this group is painful and unfair)* was her opening reference to our rich, white male-dominated society and the importance of underrepresented groups finding a voice as a community (I wish I could quote her, but I don't want to push her right to confidentiality). I imagine that - in some cases - that reference would come back to bite her (because who do you think runs the admissions process for most universities?), but it made me smile knowing that her bravery and raw honesty in addressing that found the right reader, in this case.

So I want to give a head-nod to these kids (all of them, really) for giving me a much-needed shot of inspiration and hope for the future this evening. I doubt somebody like me was their intended audience - or, certainly, who they thought they would be inspiring - but that makes it all the sweeter.

I shall sleep happily tonight - a much humbler CVT than when I woke up this morning. And that's very much a good thing.

* And I have to say that the fact that all of these kids don't get their college educations paid for is an f-ing injustice and a sad reflection on the state of "higher learning" and privilege in this country.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Hapa in Hawaii: Mixed Feelings

So, in my previous post (Hapa in Hawaii: Kumu Kahua), I covered how incredible it felt to be in Honolulu, surrounded by folks that actually looked like me, for one of the first (and only) times in my life. And - due to that - I kind of think of Hawaii as my adopted homeland in a lot of ways.*

But - being me - I wasn't able to just stop there and bathe in the warm glow of blending in. No - I had to go deeper. I had to really examine why this place existed - an island where a majority of the people resemble me, phenotypically-speaking.

And, of course, it comes down to history. Due to its position 3,000 miles from any continent (Asia, Australia, or Americas), Hawaii was able to avoid the earliest rushes of colonial expansion and empire. It wasn't until 1778 when white colonizers arrived on Hawaiian shores with Captain Cook.** Shortly thereafter, King Kamehameha I was able to unify the islands under his rule through a relatively quick war of conquest. Ironically, evidence suggests that Kamehameha was able to defeat his opponents largely due to his use of European guns and weaponry (brought by American and European traders).

A united Hawaii, in theory, should have led to furthering Hawaiian strength. Sadly, it was all downhill from there.

Over the course of the next 100 years, foreign interests (mostly white American businessmen) steadily gained a firmer foothold on the islands. By the mid-1800s, there were basically two opposing sources of power in Hawaii - the Hawaiian-run government that held political power and legal authority, and the American businessmen, who controlled Hawaiian economic power. We've seen this sad story a million times - so what happened next, when American capitalism and greed was pitted against an indigenous government?

Right. In 1893 U.S. marines landed and helped the American business interests (led by Sanford B. Dole, founder of the Dole fruit empire) overthrow the Hawaiian government. In 1895, Queen Lili'uokalani was arrested for treason when she attempted to regain power. Can I repeat that? The Queen of a previously-independent state was arrested for treason by American business interests when she tried to rule her previously-independent state. In 1898, President McKinley (I'm glad he was shot, but I should note here that Grover Cleveland - McKinley's predecessor - was actually opposed to annexation) signed the resolution of annexation to make Hawaii a U.S. territory. Notably, native Hawaiians weren't allowed to vote on the decision to petition for annexation. Upon joining the union, Sanford Dole became the first governor.

- Brief interruption - Dole becoming governor is like if Lee Scott, Jr. (Walmart CEO) took over the Phillipines and then the U.S. made him governor.*** Put that way, though - would you really be surprised if it actually happened?

Anyway. So - Hawaii was colonized by the U.S., had its freedom curtailed, and was forced to become part of the Union (without native Hawaiian input). Deep down, somewhere, everybody understands this, but let's just make it clear: Hawaii is a colony, plain and simple. And, just like with the U.S. mainland, it has never won its independence. The only difference being native Hawaiians are actually still visible and harder to ignore on the islands.

Okay - so where do all the Asian folk come in? Well, unfortunately for Dole and his buddies, Hawaiian annexation came 30 years after slavery was made illegal, so free labor wasn't available. So they did what American business interests have been doing for centuries (and continue to this day) - they found cheap immigrant labor to work under slave-like conditions. It's no coincidence that in 1865 - only two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the year of the end of the Civil War and realization that the North had won - ships from Hawaii arrived in China to bring back plantation laborers.

By the early 1880s, 22% of the islands' population was Chinese. Enter the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1884. The Chinese well dried up as Chinese laborers were no longer allowed to come to the States. Suddenly, an influx of Japanese workers appeared on the scene. Then, when the Japanese island population became too large (and deemed a "threat" by white Americans), the Filipinos began to roll in. The first large wave of Korean immigration began around that same time.

So, by the early 1900s, Hawaii's ethnic demographics fell out like this: 24% "colored" (which would include Filipinos and other Asians, as well as black and other ethnicities), 23% white, 22% Native, 21% Japanese, and 8% Chinese (that Exclusion Act sure was effective). As far as the hierarchy went, you had the Asian laborers at the bottom with indigenous Hawaiians, and the white folks running the show at the top. So - as usually occurs with such distinct class divisions - some racial mixing began with the "lower" levels. Various Asian ethnicities began to mix (a little, there is still a lot of intra-Asian cultural hostility) with each other, as well as some mixing with native Hawaiians.

So - 100 years of racial mixing led to the racially-ambiguous look of the people living in Hawaii presently. Few with native blood aren't mixed to some degree.

But we're not finished yet. Because we still haven't explained the explosion of "hapas" that hit the islands some decades back.

Interestingly, along with the Asian laborers coming in at the beginning of the 20th century was a large population of Portuguese immigrant laborers. At that point, Portuguese wasn't white, they were on the same class-level with the rest of the laborers, and a large numbers of mixed folks in Hawaii with white blood have Portuguese ancestry.

But wait - there's more. Starting in the 1980s, Asian economies (specifically Japanese) began to gain momentum. And, with the increase in economic power of these Asian peoples came with their increase in political power (and levels of acceptance) in Hawaii. So, as Japanese (and some other Asians) began to mix, politically and socially, at the highest class levels, they also began to mix their bloodstreams. Et voila! The birth of the modern "hapa" movement.

Whoo! So here we are - present-day. "Hapa pride" is a catch-phrase, and the majority of mainland Americans think "Hawaiian" folks look like me. If we're talking about people living in the state of Hawaii, then that's true, of course. But if we're talking about indigenous Hawaiians? Not at all.

And so, after putting all these pieces together, I realized that my "blending in" as a hapa-haole in Hawaii is actually a consequence of racial privilege. The majority of the hapas on the islands come from a relatively privileged background in comparison to the indigenous Hawaiians. The only reason folks of my mixture exist in such large amounts on the islands is due to American colonization and Asian economic dominance.

So, really - my "look" is a symbolic representation of American empire and the rule of capitalism. My "blending in" in Hawaii served as a bridge for further connection from myself to native Hawaiian issues, but, in a way, I am a cause of those same issues.

What do I do with this knowledge? How does this affect my excitement at the opportunity to see people like me all over the place?

I'm not really sure. My first step is open acknowledgement of it. I'm not going to hide from it. I will examine it, deeply, and accept whatever I find. And then I'll share it. Through my writing on this blog, as well as artistically (I already performed a piece that addresses this). The second step is to allow myself to still appreciate my opportunity to be "normal" - no matter the historical significance of that. Being any kind of racial mixture is a remnant of cultural expansion and empire, and there's no avoiding it. In spite of how people with my particular phenotype came into existence, I still have the right to feel a sense of normality.

And, finally - I will continue to look for ways to rectify past wrongs. It isn't my fault that things are the way they are, but nor is it my subsequent right to allow things to remain that way. As a direct recipient of benefits wrought by privilege (however small and fleeting, in this case), it is my responsibility to do something.

And so I will. Because I refuse to hide in ignorance, no matter how soothing - even when it comes disguised as something I've longed for for so long.

* China being the "motherland," literally, but obviously not really my place. The mainland U.S. more or less the "fatherland," but - again - not fully my place in a lot of ways. My "homeland," then, being where both sides meet.

** At this point, y'all don't need me to explain why I qualify "white" explorers . . .

*** I use the Phillipines as an example, because their current state of being a quasi-U.S. colony with heavy military presence mirrors that of Hawaii before the overthrow . . .

Friday, March 27, 2009

On Donors and Board Members

I know, I know - more Honolulu posts promised, and I just haven't done it yet (haven't even gotten to the dark side, the real history). But my life is ridiculously busy right now, so I'm doing my best.

I'll take this moment to reference the sidebar - please read up on the AAYLC, any kind of help would be most appreciated.

In the meantime, I wanted to drop a quick post on an experience I had last night:

I don't know if I've mentioned it on this blog, but - on top of teaching - I work for a non-profit youth arts organization (primarily at the camp in the summer, but we run year-round programming in schools, mentoring kids and working with their families, etc.). So - last night - I found myself helping out at a fundraising event.

The event was - basically - a casual (but high-quality) hors d'ouvre-y kind of thing consisting of possible private donors (individuals with money, basically) and board members (also, coincidentally, individuals with money) shmoozing it up, watching a little video about the program, and listening to the founder (and one ex-camper) talk a bit. Relatively small (about 60 people).

So my job was managing the door. Since the event was held in a huge building (our offices are contained within a large advertising firm's building), we needed folks to help the donors and board members actually GET to the event upstairs. So my job was to greet folks as they came in, and send them to (and help them get on) the employee elevator (which needs an access key), where another staffer would be waiting, to accompany them to the event location.

Easy enough. Except the event, as I mentioned, was in a huge advertising agency building. At the tail end of work hours. So there was a constant flow of people coming and going - ad employees, visitors, etc. So I had to figure out which people were there for the fundraiser, and who weren't.

That should have made it difficult. Sadly, it wasn't.

I only asked one person who wasn't there for the event if they were there for the fundraiser. Every single other individual I was able to pinpoint the second they walked in the door, so I could go up to them and help them before they even asked for help. Every single one.

At this point, you may ask why (or you probably have it figured out)? Why was I able to do that? How? Do I have some incredible powers of intuition or ESP that others do not have?

Nope, I just leaned - heavily - on my own stereotypes of what a "private donor" or "board member" would look like and went with it. And it was 99% accurate, in this case. What was I looking for - more "fancily" dressed (perhaps "elegant" is more accurate - it wasn't a formal event at all, some people were in sweaters, but there was a particular price-threshold for what people were wearing, regardless of its formality, that I was able to see immediately). Then there was age - I assumed that they would be around 50 and older. I assumed race, as well - but that wasn't going to keep me from asking folks of color if they seemed to fit the other categories or looked lost.

But I didn't need to. Because not a single person at the event (with the exception of myself and a couple other staff members) wasn't white. Not one.

Not surprising, in the least, of course - but not exactly what I wanted to see. Considering the percentage (probably around half) of kids of color that are part of our program , it would have been nice to see a little bit of representation at the highest levels. It's harder to tell if anybody represented the kids' socioeconomic class (most from poverty) - I would assume no, but I can't say for sure that none of the folks that came hadn't "worked up from nothing." But knowing how often that actually happens, I have my guesses.

So - another stereotype that I didn't want reinforced held up to scientific rigour. 100% is pretty significant, statistically-speaking. It's a stereotype I know I hold - this one consciously - but I constantly hope to be proven an ass on this one; but it has yet to happen. It's the same with my school - the people that run things are white. Period. And so it's so hard for me to explain to any of them the importance of real diversity, as well as help them with some cultural competence in how they look at the program, and the changes they choose to make (or not).


But I want to end on a positive note:

At first glance, the founder of the camp (and subsequent programming) would seem like the stereotype, as well. An older white guy with a TON of money (half the people that come to these events are just trying to get near him because he's so high on the social-status ladder). Further stereotypes would follow, regarding his intentions, what he thinks is important, how he uses his money, etc.

But I am happy to say that that is not the case. He has positive intentions, of course - but we all know how helpful intentions are when poorly carried out. No - importantly - he still has humility, in that, in spite of all these reasons he could feel like he's a god walking on dirt, he just treats people right. And, even more surprisingly - considering, he is constantly trying to learn and better himself. He's probably the only person of his status and position that could listen to me do some of my more race-and-class-conscious political poetry at camp (you should have seen some of the "lesser" board members cringe), and I know he's actually hearing it. He's come up and talked to me afterwards - not in the manner that uncomfortable white folks with money feel like they have to ("politically correct" and all that), but to delve deeper.

It's cool. He's let me and other staff push through changes and have conversations about working with our kids (about class or race) even while he admits that he doesn't fully understand/agree with it. And that's really an amazing thing - because, obviously, he has the power to veto everything (it also says a lot that he spends a large portion of the summer at camp with the kids, as opposed to being too "important" to mix it up a little). He's not perfect, of course - we have our points of contention - but he's actually trying; and that makes all the difference.

So. That kind of came off like an ass-kissing session there, but I just feel the need to point out the positive when I see it. The instances of hope. The breaking of a stereotype that all too often seems so true. It's not always about race. Or money. With a little humility and openness, people can transcend those boundaries.

I just wish it happened on a statistically-significant level.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Hapa in Hawaii: Kumu Kahua Theatre

So here's the moment of truth - which guy in the above photo is the CVT? Maybe the one in the middle, getting held back - he is pretty fiery.* Or maybe he's the one grimacing as he tries to hold the main guy back - the CVT tries to quash conflict. The guy in the way back is too old to be the CVT. But it could be any of the other ones. From what you can see, any of these guys could be hapa (mixed Asian/white).

So which one is me?

None of them, actually. This is a PR photo for a theatre production in Honolulu. However, what is important is that, knowing what you all know about my physical appearance - any of these guys could be me.

Let's say that again - any of the actors in the play pictured could be me, in terms of phenotype. How often have I ever been able to say that about any live performance art (music, theatre, sport, or otherwise)? Never.

Until last Saturday night.

To kick off my little "Hapa in Honolulu" series, I'm going to start at the end. My last night. And my best night.

To end my trip to Oahu, I decided I wanted to soak up the "blending-in" good feelings as heavily as possible. So I found this local theatre company, Kumu Kahua Theatre (KKT), that focuses on plays about Hawaiian people, written by Hawaiians, casting Hawaiian actors. From my research, it became clear that this was not going to be like every other theatre experience from my past - watching a mostly-white cast confront mostly-white issues for a mostly-white audience - and me standing out alone in the middle. No - this time, I might actually blend in.

And the second I walked up to the theatre to get my ticket, I knew I wasn't going to be disappointed. The audience was waiting outside for the doors to open, and I couldn't help but get giddy as I looked at them. It was a collection of Asian, mixed-Asian, mixed-other, and Hawaiian folks waiting. I slid in and nobody really noticed, while a couple random theatre-goers stood out like sore thumbs, visually - the handful of white folks.

It was a complete 180 on any other audience experience I've had in the States (except maybe in the Bay, but even there, white is the noticeable majority). I wanted to run around hugging people. I couldn't stop smiling. All these people kind of looked like me! Amazing.

So the doors opened up, and I walked in. One of the troupe members was showing people the way, and he could have passed for my brother - very clearly hapa. A bit Asian, a little white, maybe something else. I greeted him enthusiastically (and probably freaked him out a bit - I might have been a bit too eager about it all) and entered the theatre.

I was one of the first people in, so there were plenty of seating options and - for the first time - I actually chose to be in the front row. This matters because - in a small local theatre like this - being in the front row would put me almost literally in the play, in full view. Since I usually feel out of place at things like this, I generally choose to hide in the back, in the darkness.

But not this time. This time - I was going to be right up there, making sure I had the maximum amount of similar faces surrounding me.

The rest of the crowd rolled in, and two older ladies chose to sit in the seat next to me. There were other seats available - they could have sat with a "buffer" seat between us like what always happens anywhere else I've been (literally - always - if there is an option to not sit next to me, that's what happens).** The family on my left was an Asian family (Japanese). The ladies on my right, probably Hawaiian. I wasn't isolated in my private little space with buffer seats around me, obviously alone. No - this time, I had people choosing to sit next to me. And even better - a random observer would never have known I was alone, because it was just as plausible that I was with either of the groups sitting around me - as I could have passed as a relative of either group without anybody questioning it.

I was home. I was comfortable. It was like being back in the f-ing womb. I honestly don't know if I've ever felt like that before. I was part of the audience on a level that I had never experienced before. I felt so welcome. Like I actually belonged. It very nearly brought tears to my eyes.

And then the show started - and it only got better. Because the staff was made up entirely of folks like the crowd around me - Asian, Hawaiian, or mixed. The lone exception was one white actor playing the secondary role as one of the main character's boyfriend - the butt of "family" jokes about how bad he stood out, how "different" he was. A complete role reversal - and I loved it.*** I got to laugh along with the crowd. I was part of the joke.

And the thing is - had it been the worst play in the world, I wouldn't really have cared. I was there for the company and the experience. The play and the acting was secondary to my motives.

But the play was good. I mean, really well done. There was some impressive acting, humor interspersed with more serious material that actually made you think, and the lighting and sound was professional and smooth. All far beyond what I have come to expect from most "local theatre" I've seen (not to say that I go often, for obvious reasons, but still). Maybe I thought the play was so good because it resonated with me in a way that no other play ever could. But, mostly, I think it was just because it was good. ****

The play was "Whatever happened to John Boy Kihano?" by Susan Soon He Stanton (not the one pictured, actually). In brief (because I don't want to ruin it), the story was about a Hawaiian family and how they deal with the disappearance of the youngest child. It deftly touched on race, class, abuse, tradition, and culture without feeling contrived. Without hammering any of them. In fact, it handled all those as aspects of family, with the focus remaining on family - raising questions without righteousness or a need to "tell" us what to think about it. Making a note of it all, honoring it all, without moral lessons or the trite overindulgence of mainstream art. Native Hawaiian spirituality and culture was part of the story without spite, theft, or noble savagery.

A white playwrite could never have written this. Could never have done it with such respect and raw reality. Neither could a white director have put it together. And neither should they - there is plenty of great art to be made without trampling non-white culture (if only more artists understood that). And there are plenty of great non-white artists to make this kind and more (if only the world understood that).

And so the play wrapped me up and took me along. It harmonized with my own experiences and sang with me. Watching a play written by somebody that looks like me, about a family that looks like me with experiences that echo mine (in certain ways), portrayed by actors that looked like me, while sitting in an audience that looked more like family than my actual family does.

So when the performance finally ended, I wasn't ready. I wanted to hold onto that feeling, knowing it wasn't one I was going to repeat for a very long time, maybe ever. But it was over. There was nothing I could do.

And so I walked out, enveloped in a bubble of personal silence. The warm night air wrapped me in comfort and an uncontrollable sense of rightness as I walked down the street. I walked for five or six blocks through a completely abandoned downtown Honolulu with the darkness resting on my shoulders like my childhood blanket. It was too perfect - that experience had been all for me, something I needed so badly, and I didn't see a single other soul in the street as I walked - nobody to distract me from my moment. Nothing to keep me from contemplating the feelings and thoughts rushing through me - things that no blog entry could ever explain sufficiently.

When I finally made it to my car, I realized I had parked almost directly in front of the old palace. It was lit up majestically from the outside - and completely dark inside. Because nobody lived there, anymore. And my thoughts returned to what had made that night's experience possible - the sad history that created modern-day Hawaii. And so I will write on that next.

But - until then - just like on that last night, I will shake that off for a bit and remain wrapped in the pure bliss of acceptance and belonging I was blessed with on my last night in Honolulu. Because that moment was all mine, and nothing can make me let it go. And - exactly because it's something that has happened so seldom in my life - I will always appreciate it on a level that so few others can attain.

* Actually, I'm totally serious when I say the dude in the middle kind of looks like my brother . . .

** Maybe it was because - for the first time - I was smiling and glowing with positive energy before the show, instead of silently counting the people of color in the room.

*** Not fully a role-reversal, because his character actually got fleshed out past being a stereotype, more than usually happens for the funny "foreign" roles played by PoC in mainstream theatre and film.

**** So to all those who claim that there just aren't enough high-caliber non-white actors, directors, playwrites, etc. out there - you're so full of sh--.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Hapa in Honolulu: Homecoming?

This photo pretty much sums up my return to Portland this evening: blurry, empty, blue.

Coming home is supposed to feel like a relief. It's supposed to feel comfortable and welcome. Something like how it felt for me to arrive in Honolulu. Not like my return to Portland.

I walked through the terminal towards the exit, and I kept looking around, expecting the people around me to turn around and look like me. Or be Asian. Or at least not pale and white. But my expectations were not fulfilled.

Welcome home.

But I don't need to dwell on the negative right now. Instead, I shall give a little preview of what's to come in over the course of the next week on this blog:

The "Hapa in Honolulu" series (that's right - I'm doing a "series," and it even has a cheesy-yet-catchy name to it). Most people go to Hawaii for sun and beaches - I went to relax on a more spiritual level (the relaxation of finally letting my guard down a bit and "blending in," phenotypically-speaking).

In just one week on Oahu, I was filled with probably a couple weeks' worth of posts about identity, racial politics, American government, immigration, and my own place in it all. I received a blast of inspiration to write like I haven't felt in quite some time (essays as well as lyrics). I walked with my head held high, pondered things big and small and just thought and lived in a way that I haven't really been doing in recent months. So I'm going to let it out in a slow trickle (or maybe more like a couple downpours) over my next few posts.

So that's what you all have to look forward to. If you're mixed like me, I'm sure you'll enjoy it, but don't worry - I've got plenty of thoughts that should keep all you monoracial folks involved, as well.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Going Home?

I'm in Hawaii right now. Honolulu. It's my Spring Break, and I needed a break from Portland, big-time. Done with the weather. Tired from work. Needing some color (in my own skin and outside of it) badly.

So I'm here. Which precludes me writing a full-on post before I get back on Sunday, but let's just say I have a lot to write when I get back (about Native Hawaiians vs. others; blending in; and more). Just wanted to let you all know not to worry, I'm doing great.

When I went through security to fly out here, the Filipino attendant with Hawaiian airlines asked me, "You going home?" And I almost said, "yes." God it feels good to look like other people . . .

More to come soon.

Until then, I'm going to go eat me some real Korean food.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Why Civil Rights?

Yesterday, we had a "Civil Rights" assembly at school. The whole school, in a circle, sharing short research papers about various civil rights leaders.

And the kids were antsy. They were bored. They complained. They didn't want to read. They hated the research. They didn't listen to anything.

And it killed me. While my co-worker tried to lead a short discussion on the "importance of Civil Rights," nobody had anything to say. They didn't care. They chatted amongst each other, cracking jokes. One kid answered her phone in the middle of it.

And I just watched it all. Tried to quiet kids. But it slowly suffocated my soul. Kids that are so directly affected by the fight for rights by race, or class, or gender in this country - so completely bored and disconnected from the topic.

And so I finally had to say something. Right when our principal was about to just cut the whole thing off to minimize the damage already done, I spoke out. I told them, flat out, "My mom had bricks thrown through her windows when she was your age because of her race. People thought she was Japanese, so they threw bricks through her windows at home. That didn't happen to me as a kid, because some people stood up. But I am still dealing with other racist actions, so now it is up to me to stand up, for my kids' sakes."

And, suddenly, the kids were with me. I went on - for a bit - about the present-tense of Civil Rights and how all the injustice and unfair things they suffer right now is only going to be improved by folks who stand up. Not just three or four token "Civil Rights Leaders," but en masse. And a discussion started. The kids engaged.

Now, I'm not going to say everything was "saved" and everybody learned a valuable lesson. But the whole mood shifted, and I could see the kids starting to see something. So much left unsaid. But it was a beginning. And I'm itching to continue it.

And so, tonight, I had to just sit down and write. I intend to share this with the kids tomorrow. It's not polished. I didn't edit it. No clever rhyme-schemes like I usually employ. But, sometimes, raw feels just fine.* So, some words by CVT:

The kids rolled their eyes and complained - 'Why Civil Rights?'
And I was shocked into silence
'Why do we have to learn about Civil Rights?'
Like it was a single set of facts that had to be painfully memorized
'Why Civil Rights?'

I almost cried with frustration
But - instead - I chose to REPLY:

"Why do we have to learn about Civil Rights?
Might as well ask why we have to learn how to breathe
Because without rights - like air - you'd live a short life on your knees
Wheezing, gasping, choking - letting your 'superiors' keep you there
Accepting injustice because 'that's just how it is.'

Why Civil Rights?
Because my mom had rocks thrown at her due to the slant of her eyes.
Why Civil Rights?
Because our grandparents were alive when mobs lynching black people 'just happened.'
Why Civil Rights?
Because without unions, poor trade workers were poisoned on the job.
Why Civil Rights?
Because our great-grandmothers - of any race - couldn't choose their president.

But that's past, right?
All those problems have been 'fixed' now
By those four Civil Rights leaders you've heard of - who happen to be dead
So stop living in the past

And so I will, and I do, and so I will tell you:
Why Civil Rights?
Because an unarmed black man, lying on the ground, submitting to arrest, was shot in the back by a police officer days before Obama's inauguration.
Because this country - built by colonizers and immigrants - patrols its borders with guns to keep Mexican immigrants from crossing 'illegally.'
Because being poor means you can't afford to sue your employer when you're fired for being too sick to work - from the cough the factory smoke put in your lungs.
Because we can call a U.S. citizen an 'enemy combatant' and lock them away without trial.
Because we can let the education system heap advantages on the already-rich
Letting a budget-crisis close schools in the less-wealthy part of town
While spending a trillion dollars on defense each year.
Because 25% of the homeless in this country are the same veterans that we 'support' - while they're abroad.
Because - in most states - you are not human enough to love and marry if you're not straight.

Why Civil Rights?
Because you have been marked
By your race, or gender, or religion

You have been marked
By your poverty, or sexuality, or disability

You have been marked
For unjust treatment throughout your life
For powerlessness at the hands of those deemed 'more capable'
For fear, and frustration, and anger when what you were born to limits your opportunities

You have been marked
For all of these things - and more
Until you understand that Civil Rights is not dead, perfect leaders from the past
That Civil Rights is not a few random dates and facts
It did not happen
It is happening
Always occurring
Sometimes progressing

But only for and by those who hear the question: 'Why Civil Rights?'

And respond -
Because they're mine."

*Mental note, this isn't "poetry," but meant to be performed, spoken-word and all that . . .

Saturday, March 7, 2009

You're Not the Only One

I don't know what's up with my new kick on getting "unusual phenomenon" images to tie to my posts, but that's how it is. Anyway.

"You're not the only one."

Those can be words of support and comfort during dark times. They can be the beginning of a threat or hint at hidden knowledge. They can also be chastisement, on par with "get over yourself."

I'm going to start with the latter.

So I teach at a middle school, right? And part of that is the discipline process. There are various ways that goes down in my school, but, invariably, I have kids who are convinced that they are the only ones who get in trouble for certain things, and they make sure I (and the other staff members) know that.

There are a few reasons they believe that. The first is that they come out of a public school system where that might have been true, to a certain degree. I work with the kids that got kicked out of public schools (or were on their way) and, unfortunately, quite often those are the kids that get nailed with the "bad kid" label. And, in public school, once you have that label, good luck in convincing people that what you just did was "just a joke" or anything like that. Of course, it's not like the kids didn't honestly bring down a lot of those consequences upon themselves, but - as I often try to explain to them - a reputation tends to create expectations, positive or negative, and we often pay repeatedly (and sometimes unfairly) for our negative reputations.

Another things is the parents. Oh my. How often have I talked to a parent who battles me about "what happened to the other kid(s)" or how "he/she is just a kid, it's ridiculous for them to get in trouble for (whatever they did)." That's when I dust off my explanation (the same one I give the kids): I teach a full CLASS of students. Not just one at a time. Therefore, there come times when I must choose - one kid who's struggling, behaviorally, or the rest of the class? It's an easy choice. The funny thing is, the students understand that, generally. So many times they accept the consequences and are fine with it (because they know me well enough to understand why it happened) only to have the parent battle it.

Again - the parents aren't always unjustified in their defense of their children. Because they are used to school systems, teachers, and administrations that are culturally clueless (I'm not just talking about race here, but class, as well). They're used to their kids being judged from on high by folks that don't know how to interact with kids that aren't middle-class (or white, or both) and so unfair consequences do come down.

And, finally, the biggest reason the kids are convinced of their "only one who gets in trouble" status is that they are middle school kids - they're totally self-absorbed. Therefore, they aren't going to notice what happens with anybody else, unless they think it's evidence of their own self-centered individuality (in terms of treatment). The kids aren't going to make a mental note of when other kids get in trouble for the same things they do (often, they don't know about it, either) because it's not about them. So they are convinced that they are the only ones experiencing negative consequences.

But, for good and ill - they aren't the only ones. The kids aren't the only students in my classes. They're not the only ones to get in trouble. They're not the only ones to succeed, either. And it's helping kids find that understanding - the broadening from "me, me, and me" to an awareness and understanding and empathy for other people that is probably the major responsibility of teaching middle school kids.

Problem being - even though, developmentally-speaking, kids should learn and "grow out of it," it doesn't seem to be just a middle-school phenomenon. Because adults don't get this one very often, either, especially when dealing with race.

Here's an example:

I was talking with my co-worker and good friend (we'll call her "W.") the other day. And, during this conversation, we came back to the fact that I'm the first real friend she's had outside of her own race (she happens to be black).* She was talking about how - before knowing me - she never would have believed that a mixed Asian/white person could understand race and racism. When she mentioned that to Professor Griff (yeah - my friends chat about race with folks like Professor Griff, and I'll name-drop it), he told her that OF COURSE that's how it is. He pointed it out as an indication that racism is alive and strong, that folks who should have such disparate experiences of race can understand it at the same, base level.

She told me how some of her other friends (who also don't know me) don't get it, though - thinking that we must be hooking up or something (it's not like that), not believing that she can have these real conversations with a "white boy" (only time I've ever been referenced as that, for sure) like me. When she has tried to explain that they'd get along with me, as well, they don't buy it.

And this is not the exception. I think this situation is the general rule of race here in the States. We all do such a good job of being absorbed by ourselves and our own experiences of race that we don't see what's happening to other races. We don't see that we walk the same path, on a general level. White folks can't see their own privilege, only seeing themselves, and so they don't see that racism is so damn prevalent. Black folks get caught up in their own fight and struggle, only to ignore the parallel struggles around them, often discounting other experiences of race. Asians examine Asian life, Arab think Arab, etc.

All the while, we're all digging deeper down into the morass of race and racism (not to mention other forms of oppression by gender, sexuality, religion), thinking we're the only ones who are struggling. The only ones fighting. The only ones dealing with it or knowledgeable enough to DO something.

But we're not. Not one of us is alone in this. We are not the only ones. There are millions of folks (literally) fighting against the same things. And they may not look like us, but they can understand where we are coming from, if we let them. If we can grow up enough out of the middle-school mentality to open our eyes and let them teach us.

But, all have to do is go to Racialicious for a second and read the comments, and it's often this battle of "who is it more acceptable to be racist towards these days?" Or "no - this thing isn't racist towards -blank- it's racist towards -other group." A bunch of smart, knowledgeable, open folks - battling over racial semantics and trying to prove that their lot is the hardest, instead of taking advantage of having all these smart, passionate people in one (digital) place and bringing it together.

I've said it in other ways before, but what if people did just get over themselves and realize that they weren't the only ones? That they can actually learn about race and racism from OTHER races and be stronger for it. That there's so much common ground, it would be easy to champion all the causes at one go. What if?

Let's look at the data: about 300 million people in the U.S. About 221 million white. 37 million black. Much less every other race.

So - if black folks fight alone, they make up a bit over 10% of the population. A decent number, but politically, relatively insignificant. Now, imagine if all the races got over themselves and stepped up? That would be over 25% of the population - much more significant. Now, add in all the white allies and other white minority groups (LGBT, religious minorities) and you'd easily have a third to a half of all the people in the States. And that is politically significant.

But as long as we all stay middle-school about it all? 10% is the best we can hope for.

So keep telling yourselves that you're not the only one. Remember that. And then make it count for something.

*Not calling "W" out here, just celebrating and marking it as a conversation of note.

**Not to mention all the space aliens secretly "passing" as human beings . . .

Monday, March 2, 2009

On Being the Bigger Person

I know how this Giant died. I do. He just gave up. Got tired of walking around, always being the bigger person and dealing with other people's ish, until he just sat down and refused to get up ever again. Because it's so damn fatiguing having to be that much bigger than everybody all the time. If you ask me, that's why the whole race of Giants died out, when being so big should have given them an advantage.*

Most people in this world choose to be ignorant about some things. Conscious decisions - because they can't handle dealing with the reality of it all. We all do it. And, in and of itself, being ignorant isn't a bad thing at all. Certainly, there are now negative connotations attached to the concept of "ignorance," but if we stick to its true, dictionary definition, there's nothing wrong with it. In fact, by definition, all of us absolutely MUST be ignorant about a lot of things. That's just how it is.

However, when people use their conscious ignorance as a weapon, it ceases to be okay. When people fuel their own ignorance - and that of others - to try to bring others down, it's wrong. Especially when the means to ending their own ignorance is available to them, even offered to them - and they choose not to accept it.

Unfortunately, this is often how conversations about race often end - in ignorance-fueled, heated arguments. Name-calling, accusations, attempts to tell the other person what and how they think and are. Both sides end up walking away, angrier than before, and more convinced of their own righteousness than before they entered into the conversation.

And - oddly enough - I don't think that's the way it should be handled. I happen to believe that - in conversations such as these - it's so important to find each other's point. However, it is important to find their point, so you can find what you accept and agree on, as opposed to finding their point so you can shoot holes in it. It is important to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Because, in the end - the vast majority of people in the world really do want to be good. They want to do the right thing. They want to treat others well, be treated well, themselves, and have us all get along. I honestly believe that.

And, with that belief in hand, I am able to work with youth. Because, no matter what horrible things they may say or do to me or another (I've been called some amazing things), if I come to them and show them my belief that they can do it right, they are much more likely to go there. That doesn't mean I don't call them on their actions. It doesn't mean they don't have consequences for making poor choices. But it does mean that I hold their goodness and ability to change in mind, so that they know that I'm always going to be willing to help them fix it.

And guess what? It generally works. Abused kids. Homeless kids. Drug-addicted kids. Gang-affected kids. Hell - even white-supremacist kids. They all take out their frustrations in negative ways, expecting me to spit on them for it. But when I don't? When I don't yell at them or hit them or knock them down further? When I just say, "that's not okay, you've got to leave, and we'll talk about it tomorrow"? **

Not only do they end up coming back and talking to me about it - generally apologizing and taking responsibility - but they work to change. Slowly, for sure. But they do change. And improve. And become more like those "good kids" that they have always heard about, but never been compared to in a positive way. At least in my classroom. And in our school (because that's how our system works). But that's something, and I never claimed to be Mohammed, Jesus, or Buddha - so I'm not foolish enough to think I have the power to change their outside lives.

But, holy sh--, does it take patience. There are days when I get run ragged. When kids cross the line so far that it's all I can do to calmly ask them to leave. Days when I just want to flip a table and yell.

But they're just kids. So I can forgive them. Because I know all the terrible things they've survived just to make it to school at all. That what they do and say are founded in insecurity, hurt, and fear. And - often - ignorance. "Teachable moments" arise all the time when ignorance spurs an action.

And it's no different with adults. Yelling at them, insulting them, mocking them - it doesn't help bring change. Getting on a soapbox and berating them when they do wrong doesn't, either. Especially when you're talking about race.

I'm a teacher. And I know that trying to make somebody feel small for their ignorance (remember - just plain ol' lack of knowledge, ignorance is) only shuts their minds further. To open somebody up enough for them to learn, you have to reach them. And to reach them, you have to connect - to find common ground.

And so I do my best not to just go off on people when they say something that is offensive. Call them out, yes - but not attack. I have had folks - on this blog - berate me for putting on the kid gloves instead of tearing some folks a new one when they crossed the line. I get that. But - as my true goal is education - I don't see a knock-out blow as particularly useful for my cause. I'll be the first to admit that it feels better - but it doesn't help, in the long run.

Do I always follow through with this open-handed way of dealing with folks? Hell no. Because it's tiring. Much harder with adults, for me - because it's harder for me to forgive them. But most adults - especially when ignorant - are just big kids, and their ignorance is, surprisingly, not often their direct fault. And I try to remember that. The vast majority of hostile actions are just misdirected frustrations. And those frustrations are often real and deserved. How they are handled are not. So I hold that in mind when somebody pushes me.

But I'm not strong enough to do that all the time. I'm not strong enough to always gently call people out on their ignorance. So I'm not always gentle about it. Or, other times, I just bite my lip and let it go because I don't have the energy to handle it right, and I know the other way is going to be worse than pointless. I fail - often - in making my point clear. I get misunderstood all the time. Even when I do it right, not everyone wants to hear it.

And that's what being a conscious person of color is. A constant, moment-by-moment battle to keep an even keel and try to be the bigger person while surrounded by unknowing offenders, ignorant insults, and sub-conscious dismissal of our importance and humanity. And - mostly - we handle it. Mostly - we forgive and forget. Mostly, we take a step back and see the lack of overt malice in people's ignorant actions. Mostly, we do these things. Day after day after day after day after day . . .

But - once in a while, our fatigue catches up to us. We don't have the energy to be the bigger person. Our frustration rises up. And. We. Let. It. Out. It comes out as fire. As vitriol. As semi-automatic rage. As uprooted trees in a hurricane.

And that's when somebody who doesn't know any better steps in. Somebody who hasn't been worn out with being big all the time. Somebody who thinks race is moments in isolation and not an entire life lived. Somebody who doesn't know that they are in a privileged position to get to treat this one situation as just, one, situation.

And what does that person say? "Relax - it was just a joke." Or "why does everything have to be about race?" Or "I'm sorry that you were offended, but that's not what I meant." Then they mention "reverse racism" and various forms of evidence to support their "color-blind" attitudes towards life and how much better it would be if everybody else lived the same way.

And they walk away, never knowing that their words and actions just added more weight to a Giant's overburdened shoulders. That their lack of perspective and active ignorance contribute so strongly to the dying-out of the Bigger People. That, while all they noticed was the Giant's raw power and size (and thus, deemed it "dangerous"), they forgot to take note of its gigantic heart and how hard said organ must work to keep its owner alive.

All they "know" is that they would never "overreact" like that. And stereotypes and sub-conscious beliefs are reinforced.

So that when they stumble upon the Giant's bones one day, the only explanation they can come up with is that the Giant must have been "inferior" or "too primitive" and thus unable to survive, never realizing their own contributions to its demise.

* Yes, I know that this photo isn't real, by the way. It's pretty cool, though.

** It's a testament to our school that having to leave is a bad thing to our kids (the same kids who never attended and constantly skipped classes at their other schools).

*** I am, indeed, aware of the strange turn towards allegory that this post took at the end. But I kind of like it. So there.