I’ve never thought of myself as a racist—I believe in equality and diversity and I see the beauty of all ethnicities... I speak lots of languages, I’ve been to lots of countries, eat all kinds of cuisines, read storybooks from all cultures—sheesh, I’ve even got a fancy degree that says “anthropology” on it, someplace. I don’t harbor a secret aversion to any group of people, I don’t tell racist jokes, and I call people out on it if they do. I’m an all-around PC gal.
But living in Hawaii, I get to confront the truth about my past racist behavior. It’s uncomfortable. So I thought I’d share. Because discomfort loves disclosure. (Somebody should embroider that on something. Maybe a hospital gown with an open back.)
The thing with my life in Hawaii is that, over here, for the first time in my life as an American in America, I’m not a member of the majority ethnicity (which here is mixed!) or the majority culture (Local!) and I don’t speak the standard dialect of English (Pidgin!)—at least not very well. So, I kind of stick out wherever I go.
I don’t think about it most of the time—after all, I don’t have to look at my blond hair awkwardly standing out in the crowd, or hear my grating East Coast American accent cutting through the ambient pidgin chatter. I don’t SEE myself sticking out… until sometimes I realize that people are treating me a little weird. And I realize, with an embarrassed shock, that they are treating me the way I would treat somebody I felt was really different from me.
I’m not saying I’m persecuted or oppressed, humiliated or tortured—nothing so dramatic. It’s just that, over here, I’m the Other.
And it’s painful and humbling to realize that, for the rest of my life, living on the mainland of the USA, I was not the Other. I was just myself. Just normal. Blank. Unlabled. Just an ordinary person. In Utah or Maryland or California I was not marked by race or language difference, because I had the invisible privilege of belonging to the racial, cultural, and linguistic group that holds the distinction of being the majority. And, to my great mortification, I realize that the annoying little things that people do to me to highlight my otherness over here, are totally things that I would have done to people that seemed like "Others" on the mainland.
I had better illustrate.
Last year, at school, I was at a meeting, with parents, teachers and students all together. It was towards the beginning of the school year, and I didn’t really know anyone besides the kids in my classes, although I was beginning to get to know my fellow teachers, exchanging jokes and polite afterschool banter with some, and trying to thaw the new-hire ice a little. I was standing towards the back of the tent, and noted that there were only two white people in the room: me and another teacher who I didn’t know very well. I let my imagination flare and I realized that if the picture was inverted, and that if I was standing in a room with 60 white people and two Hawaiians, I would assume that the two Hawaiians were... on the same page. I would assume they were friends, or at least allies, and that they had some kind of common allegiance to each other because—well, they’re both Hawaiian!
My skin pricked realizing how stupid that assumption would be—here I was, one of two white people in the room, and the people I felt closest with, most akin to, were not the people who matched my Nordic skin color, but those who shared my awkward sense of humor and sardonic view of life.
So a late lesson for me, PAINFULLY obvious to spell out: Don’t assume that people with matching skin tones have anything BESIDES PIGMENT in common.
Another one. I have a favorite place to get poke—cubes of raw marinated fishy goodness for you uninitiated—and it’s about a 70 minute drive from my house. So, I don’t get out there too often. But if I’m anywhere near by, I stop in and stock up (Mmm, the one with the wasabi and the furikake and the sriracha on top, rrrrrrrr). One little problem. I CANNOT GET ANYONE AT THE POKE COUNTER TO TALK TO ME.
At first I wait politely at the counter for a minute to catch someone’s eye. When the aunties back there look over at me, their eyes slide right past. Somebody else walks up to the counter, and snap, there’s an aunty with a scoop and a half-pound tub. “Can I help you?” I look back and forth between the new customer and the Deli Aunty, incredulous. But still patient. I wait till they’re done, take a breath to say, “Can I get a---“ but the counter is deserted again. Am I having a 6th Sense day? Am I invisible? The heck? After two more iterations and it’s starting to get unfunny and I finally say, “Hi?! Excuse me? Yeah, can I get some poke?” And then someone wanders over like, “Hey, why is this haole lady being so bossy." And I get the, “this is raw fish, are you SURE?” line. Sheesh Ameesh. But who cares, it’s just poke, it’s just kind of funny, it’s just a little annoying.
So the last couple of times I went to this great place, I had students with me because we were on our way out to work in the taro patch. Because, Hawaiian immersion school. Taro patch. That’s how we roll. That’s how we pound poi. Anyway, I go in and I tell my students, “hey, watch this. I’m invisible at the poke counter. “ I go up and I wait at the counter. And wait, and wait. The usual thing happens, somebody else walks up, gets helped right away. My students are surprised. Then I go and grab a student, “Hey, stand next to me, watch this.” He’s next to me and the lady says to him, “What can I get you?” He points at me and I get my pound of fish flesh.
Later the student asks me, “Does that happen every time? What do you do if you don’t have a local person with you?” I have to jump up and down and make a scene! I just have to wait.
The next week we stopped there again on the way to the taro patch and my same student said, “hey, let’s do it again.” So again, he watched from a discreet distance as I was ignored, and then came to my rescue, just by standing next to me and when he was asked what he wanted, he pointed at me.
This kind of thing? Being just a little bit invisible? Happens all the time.
It’s a silly little thing. Like I said, it’s not some huge persecution—and it’s not malicious. It’s just that I’m not who local folks expect to interact with. I don’t look like their other customers. I make them… just a little bit uncomfortable. Not that these are folks who hate all white people—it’s just OBVIOUS to them that I am different. And that difference means that I am unpredictable. Better leave me alone until my intentions are a little bit more clear. Am I one of those white people who can blend in? Was I raised here? Do I speak pidgin? Do they know me from high school? Am I a tourist?
And, I’m ashamed to admit, I totally get that "wait-and-see" stance towards difference. Being someplace and seeing somebody who really sticks out from the crowd—it’s not that I’m judging them, it’s just that I don’t expect them to behave like everybody else. I should probably just keep an eye on them, just to see what they’re going to do. Aaargh, how stupid.
So there’s a lesson: Really, truly. Treat people the same.
Over here I get the weird experience of hearing people code-switch to talk to me. At the park, a mommy will talk with her friend in her natural pidgin, and answer me in an affected Midwestern accent. The conversation dies right off—who can maintain that fake “proper English” accent for longer than a minute?
Have I code-switched like a racist before? Probably. Yes. For sure. Have I talked down to people I perceive as other, or awkwardly tried to match my style with what I’m guessing is theirs? Quite possibly. Ugh, how mortifying.
So another lesson: Don’t dumb down your conversational topics with people from other countries. Don’t over-annunciate when you’re talking with somebody with an accent. Don’t focus your conversation on your perceived differences. "So, where are YOU from?" It’s boring.
What sparked this train of thought tonight was a party at my daughter’s preschool. It’s a nice little school—it demands a lot from parents. We all have to volunteer time to clean and fundraise and help out, so all us parents see each other at weekly meetings, and in the daily pickup and drop off rituals. Tonight was the first time that the school came together just to socialize. Families set up cute little trick-or-treat tables around the school yard and the kids got to rotate around, collecting temporary tattoos and lollipops and glowing bracelets.
I haven’t really gotten to know many of the other parents—I wondered if they were just a particularly shy or serious group. But tonight I walked around with my kids and we were like the wrong end of a magnet—quelling conversation, dispersing groups whenever we came near.
Again, I really don’t think most of these folks would outright say that they hate white people. Some would, because it’s a Hawaiian immersion school, and that whole the Hawaiian-Kingdom-Was-Illegally-Overthrown-by-da-Haoles is a tetchy subject.
It’s just, I’m different, and difference makes people uncomfortable. It’s easier to interact with people who share a common language, history, and culture with you. It takes a little bit of extra effort to deal with people who talk or look different from you. It takes a bit of concentration to examine the way you deal with people you think of as “us” and people you think of as “them.”
And being a them? Not that fun. I have to just keep showing up, and hope that my consistency and predictability will put folks at ease. I have to prove that I might look or talk differently, but I'm "normal." Well, "normal-ish." I am a major geek, but still. Geekdom transcends all boundaries.
Living over here, where I’m not integrated into the privilege of Local belonging, makes me realize how pervasive and invisible my privilege was on the mainland. And hopefully, having my eyes opened to the irritation and isolation of being perceived as other will help me be less of an ignorant jerk to people who I otherwise might have judged as Different From Me.