It hasn't been written for a very long time becuase I haven't had that elusive combination of time and words to write about it, but also because it's a very deep-seated and intense topic for me, and it involves reliving painful memories from a third of a century ago.
I've had more than a few times that I first meet someone in person after talking to them online for years, and the first thing that comes out of their mouth is, "Dude, I thought you were a white guy!".
Now, I can pretty much laugh that off these days, but it wasn't always so easy.
The deal is that I'm actually half-white, half-Asian-American. My mother's parents were medical doctors, coming here from Japan in the early 60's to teach medicine at the University of Kansas, where my mother went to school and met my dad. I am a Jayhawk because not only did I go to school there, I was born there.
Growing up in Kansas in the early 70's when you look Japanese was definitely no picnic. I had no idea that I was supposedly "different" than anyone else back in preschool, but then we moved to Kansas City in 1974 and I went to kindergarden in Kansas City, Missouri where I would pretty regularly get teased and even beaten up for being a "Jap". I didn't understand why the seething hate flowed from kids over a war that ended before even our parents were born, one that I or my relatives had absolutely nothing to do with.
I remember my mother coming to pick me up from school when I told her what happpened, and I could see her tearing up-- she hugged me harder than I'd ever been huugged and said, "They're just jealous, because you are so beautiful!". I was bewildered. To a 5-year old, mom and dad can solve anything. But this was a problem bigger than even mom, and I had never seen her cry like that before. She would have been all of 25 years old at the time.
I had never heard of racism or understood hate, but got a full dish of it in the first few weeks of kindergarten in Kansas City. (It also didn't help that this school was K-4, so the fourth graders held a reign of terror overthe smaller tykes).
My Mom started teaching me how to read and write Japanese characters, and I even was doing pretty good with my workbook, bringing it to school, until one of the angry haters in my class took my workbook away from me and threw it out the window in the rain. He told me learning Japanese was "wrong".
The message was clear : Your culture and your way of life have no value. You should all be stamped out. Go back to Japan, you f'ing Jap.
Right after telling me this, they went off to watch Speed Racer and Ultraman in the TV room, which they watched avidly.
I didn't appreciate the irony of this until years later.
I'll never forget running downstairs to get my Japanese workbook that had been thrown out in the rain, the ink streaked across it, unreadable from the puddle it had landed in. I never learned how to write Japanese after that. I begged my mom not to pack onigiri rice balls in my lunch any more. I tried to be as white as possible in a society where being anything else got you beaten up.
About four years later, my Dad finished his doctorate at KU and got a postdoctoral job at UC Berkeley, which is how we ended up moving out to the Bay Area. Having never really seen the world outside of Kansas, it was a real adjustment to move to the Bay Area, where race is much less of a big deal. I was surprised, going to places like Japantown and Chinatown, that local Japanese and Chinese Americans celebrated who they were, after years of hiding from half of my own heritage.
Children are not born with hate. Hate is a learned behavior.
The kids in my kindergarten weren't born with that rage against Japanese, it was taught to them by others and by cartoons we saw on TV like "Popeye Nips the Nips". I'll never forget the beating I took from the kids at recess after we watched that one in the TV room. Say what you want about political correctness, but I for one am glad they don't play stuff like that on TV today.
Those that hate like this tend to dehumanize and demonize their targets, in caricature or extreme.
We must always stand up and speak out against hate.
Being from two worlds but accepted by neither meant that it took me a long time to get past the whole race thing and figure out who I am. I went to Japan in 1979 with my grandparents, and got to see the world they came from. All I had been told about Japan before then was that these evil Japanese tried to destroy the entire world, and that the Japanese couldn't be trusted. I got to see an entire world I had no idea existed, and a culture that had been around for thousands of years. I had relatives in Japan welcome me with open arms, even if I was a gai-jin American.
I heard stories of how they survived World War II, as civilians and innocents that were just trying to get by.
My grandfather and grandmother surviving the firebombing of Tokyo. How my grandmother survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. We went to the Peace Memorial Museum there. I got to see how hate, when left unchecked and even amplified, leads to war where good and innocent people die.
I have been to Japan four more times since then. You can learn a great deal by visting another society, another country and seeing their point of view. The White-bread American Way of Life isn't the only way of life out there!
Most people never get to find that out.
Years later, when I returned to Kansas to go to college, I was shocked by how in the late 80's, racism was still alive and well in the Bible Belt. I didn't mind all the people that said, "Welcome to America", when I moved in the dorm as a nonwhite person, but I was really surprised at how differently I was treated than in the San Francisco Bay Area. There it didn't really matter what your racial background was, nobody really cared where you were from. But this was a very different deal. I still remember angry looks and comments, from both the white and black sides of the fence, and slurs I thought people didn't use any more. At best, I was "that Oriental guy" again. On Campus and in Lawrence people were were pretty tolerant, but Kansas City was a very different deal, and it didn't get any better if you ended up out in the country. I'll never forget the country bar I went to with friends where I was asked to leave because "they didn't serve my kind there."
It wasn't until my senior year that I took Anthropology class and found out We Are One People.. If you believe that Adam was the first man, then he was a black man. All this hate and anger and war over tribes and races and religions was totally stupid when you realized that all 6 billion people on Earth came from the same place and had the same bioligical origin.
Throughout history, unhappy and hateful people have chosen to follow the pack and marginalize and scapegoat those minorities that couldn't fight back. The Jews in Europe during World War II. The Japanese-American internment in this country. The hatred and prejudice against Arabs and Muslims in this country after 9/11. All of this is totally wrong, and utterly contrary to the ideals of justice and equal protection under the law that this country was founded on.
I don't have kids, but if I did, I want a world where it doesn't matter that they're multiracial. I want a world that doesn't throw them hate because of the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes. And I don't want to be the parent that has to tell his child "they're just jealous becuase you're so beautiful", when he gets called a "f'ing Jap".
Cause if that ever happens, I'll raise Holy Hell if I have to.
We don't get a world like that by standing idly by and asking nicely for it, we have to fight for it.
"Those Gay People"
When I was seven years old, I went out to visit my cousins in Philadelphia. (Actually, in Berwyn, about 20 miles outside of Philly). I actually got to attend one of my cousins' school, since the school year ended earlier in Kansas than it did on the East Coast. We were in a lecture hall in her history class, and she leaned over to me and said, "See that kid? He's one of those gay people."
I didn't know what that meant. Huh? What's that mean? I had never heard of the word.
"I dunno, but it's wrong."
She couldn't tell me why it was supposedly wrong, but had someone else tell her it was, and accepted it as fact.
This is exactly how intolerance gets started. I didn't say anything at the time since I was a guest at her school, but I remember wondering how this was any different than being told my trying to learn to Japanese was called "wrong".
I doubt high schools have gotten any better, but even as a nice straight boy from Kansas, I got to bear witness to rampant homophobia. All you had to do at that age of course is call someone a "Fag" and call into question their masculinity. In the Darwininan world of High school, that's how you asserted your alpha status, besides that and the usual physical violence. If you spoke out against someone that was being mistreated because they were gay, you were accused of being gay yourself, or called a "gay-lover". And so the intolerance becomes institutionalized, and acted out in society at large.
Sometimes even getting written into law.
When hatred and intolerance become legitimized by the government, then society suffers as a whole.
In the course of my life I found that white people, Asian people, black people, and plenty of others were all the same. They were really no different than me, and all this prejudice, racism, and fear that is all too common in our society is just wrong. And I found out that people, straight or gay, are no different either. They both love, work, have hopes and dreams, productive lives, and even have kids. Marginalizing, criminalizing and denying basic rights to a minority goes against everything that we as Americans believe in with our constitution. And yet, if people stand by and let it happen, it tends to.
The Fight for Equality
It is never lost on me that if I had been born only 24 years earlier, I would have been rounded up and put in an internment prison camp in this country for being one-quarter Japanese. It is never lost on me that my own parents' marriage would have been against the law in Missouri, where most of Kansas City is, if they had gotten married two years earlier, when a white man marrying an Asian woman was illegal. My own Grandmother lost her Japanese citizenship in Japan in 1948 because she married a Taiwanese man, and was kicked of her family for doing so, before she left for America. Not allowing people that love each other and want to spend the rest of their lives together in marriage is not only wrong, it's futile. Love tends to find a way, even in the worst of circumstances.
The fight for equality has never advanced when people quietly accept what is wrong. It is punctuated by moments where people stand up and say, this is going to stop, and we're not putting up with this any more. All the Jim Crow Laws were finally overturned not just because they were contrary to the principles our Constitution was founded upon, but because people stood up and spoke out against hatred and intolerance. Laws that prevented nonwhites from owning property. Voting. Marrying white people. Eating at the same restaurant as white people. Going to the same school.
Our United States Constitution has a very important amendment, passed shortly after the Civil War. The Equal Protection Clause provides that "no state shall ... deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws". This means employers can't post "Irish Need Not Apply" in want ads, and it also means that the Federal Government and the states can't grant constitutional rights to one group of people and deny it to another. The California Supreme Court ruled, in the only rational interpretation as their duty to interpret the Constitution, that people are entitled to equal protection under the law, even "Those Gay People".
Proposition 8 is cut from the same cloth as the Jim Crow laws struck down over two generations ago. It tries to deny a fundamental right to a minority group of people by stirring up a toxic stew of homophobia and relgious dogma. In 2008, a proposition to prohibit Japanese from marrying whites, for example, would never get on the ballot-- but because we as a society are not nearly as far along in getting over homophobia as racism. But they both are born of intolerance, and are cut from the same fabric of predjudice and hatred.
(and religious arguments were used to justify laws against interracial marriage too, back in the day)
This country is not perfect, but the big advantage we have over most societies is that we have a free society guaranteed in a Constitution that we as citizens must fight for and be willing to defend, even against those of our own that would turn it against us. But we have to speak out, and we have to vote against what is wrong.
Freedom means the moral duty and obligation to speak out and oppose those that would take away our hard-fought rights, our liberty, and our pursuit of happiness.
Exercise your freedom on November 4 and vote NO on Proposition 8.
And make sure to vote in the first place, people died for that right in the fight for equality!