Apartheid, Racism, & Mixed Race People

Comedian Trevor Noah is a very funny guy. But he can be very serious too. His memoir Born a Crime: Stories of a South African Childhood helped me understand apartheid, which he calls “apart-hate” for good reasons. 

According to Noah, “Apartheid was perfect racism.”

He describes the horrors of this system:

In America you had the forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of those things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.

In other words, American racist policies contributed to the suffering and oppression of black South Africans in the twentieth century. This is a legacy of shame for all involved.

NoahNoah was born in 1984, ironically in an Orwellian police state that was South Africa. His status was complicated because he was mixed race. This wasn’t supposed to happen with anti-miscegenation laws in place. As the offspring of an African mother and European father, Noah came into the world as evidence that a crime had been committed. He writes, “…[O]ne of the worst crimes you could commit was having sexual relations with a person of another race.”

While his stories are hard-hitting, they’re also heart-warming. He deploys his humor strategically. Despite his struggles and hardships, I felt uplifted in recognizing that his story is actually about how the love of his fearless mother contributed to his survival and success.

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In a racist U.S., mixed race people also face challenges. Not so much in Hawai’i although other racial issues persist.

Anti-miscegenation laws were designed to prevent different races, primarily Blacks and Whites in the U.S., from fraternizing socially and producing mixed-race children. Black people were not supposed to be equal to Whites; they weren’t supposed to be as human as Whites, so these laws were another attempt to dehumanize them, to mark them as “other.” In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled these laws were unconstitutional in the case of Loving v. Virginia. 

Hawai’i was one of nine states that never enacted such laws. In any case, they could not have been enforced, especially between military personnel and the local population when hordes of white men arrived in the islands in the late 1930s in advance of a likely war with Japan.

James Jones’s novel From Here to Eternity features these relationships. While his depiction of local characters are flat and caricatures more than realistic, I believe he accurately describes the predictable racial tensions. 

Another view of these racial tensions is recorded in Local Story: The Massie-Kahahawai Case and the Culture of History. In this book, John P. Rosa, professor of history at the University of Hawai’i, reveals the tragic consequences of racial conflict and the resulting racial injustice when military personnel accused several local boys of murder in the early 1930s, subsequently killing one of the boys. 

According to Rosa, these events galvanized the different ethnic groups into what has become Hawai’i’s local culture. Hordes of white servicemen, a transient population, arrived from the mainland where segregation laws and racist attitudes toward nonwhites were in place. How the military conducted itself in this case was a precursor to events during World War II when martial law was imposed in Hawai’i. I believe a case can be made that such military control was racially motivated.

An undercurrent of tension in varying degrees between locals and White people continues today. Male White privilege that justified colonization of the islands and eventual removal of its queen in order control the government to promote business interests, as well as the above incidents, provide the context for such tensions. 

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Remembering a Beloved Author

Toni Morrison (1931 – 2019)

Toni

She made me think about our country’s dark history of slavery, the American identity tied to these atrocities and other acts of emotional and physical abuse against nonwhite Americans, and the legacy of these events. She made me think hard and deeply. Her words pierced my body, compelling me to comprehend the pain of those oppressed.

I don’t remember where I first heard about the novel Beloved, but I tried to read it twice and had to put it down. Morrison’s words were incomprehensible, full of such power and generational pain I was not accustomed to at the time.

In 1993, I was a working adult determined to complete my B.A. at the University of Washington, Bothell. I elected to take an Independent Study course on Black American Literature. Reading The Bluest Eye introduced me to Morrison’s literary ethos and gave me a context for appreciating and completing Beloved.

Here’s an excerpt from a response paper to Beloved for that class:

Can any form of violence, even one based on a mother’s love, be a real solution? In this novel, Sethe chooses one form of violence (death) over another (slavery) and ends up with another form of violence that harmed all the people she loved (Baby Suggs and her children) with alienation, fear, and mistrust. And yet, given the history of violence that is synonymous with slavery, which was the context for her decision, did Sethe really have any other choice? Furthermore, what does this history of violence against blacks say about America and present-day problems that black Americans confront?

Reading Morrison is often challenging. She asks readers important questions, some they’d rather not think about or might not have ever considered before. She requires critical thinking beyond her characters and stories, often pushing readers into uncomfortable places, forcing their minds and hearts to open in new ways.

Reading and re-reading her words are often necessary to appreciate the complexity of her characters and the unfolding story.

Morrison writes about black lives that hold true for many people of all colors. She appeals to our humanity while revealing our inhumanity to each other. Her truth-telling often promotes discomfort, yet it’s a necessary discomfort that can result in transformation. She gives us darkness so that we can recognize the light.

I, like so many, have been changed and blessed by Morrison and her fearless commitment to the truth about our violent history, women’s lives, and issues of equality that still haunt us.

In a Washington Post article (August 9, 2019), Michelle Obama says:

For me and for so many others, Toni Morrison was that first crack in the levee — the one who freed the truth about black lives, sending it rushing out into the world. She showed us the beauty in being our full selves, the necessity of embracing our complications and contradictions.

Here’s a link to an interview of Morrison with Pam Houston from Oprah.com: “Precious Moments a Writer Lives For.”

Note: Thank you to artist Nina Krebs for giving me permission to post this portrait–a painting/collage with book titles on Morrison’s blouse and excerpts from pages of her books haloed in the background.

Hawai’i and Racial Diversity

NY Times journalist Moises Velasquez-Manoff wrote a thoughtful article about race in Hawai’i, specifically about mixed-race people.  Regardless of the headline “Want to Be Less Racist? Move to Hawaii” (New York Times, June 28, 2019), Velasquez-Manoff does not paint Hawai’i as any utopia free of racial bias nor suggests that anyone should move there.

This discussion of mixed race people and multiracial identities is especially timely and instructive. He reminds readers that race is a “social construct,” a fabrication by humans, not nature, for the purpose of categorization, which then determines behavior between groups. Racism establishes hierarchy to promote economic and political self-interest, advantage, and power. These are important concepts to keep in mind as Americans battles over diversity vs homogeneity. 

NYTimes articleHawai’i is a reminder about the value of diversity. And its people reflect this. In the islands, people are likely to refer to President Barack Obama as mixed race instead of African American. This acknowledges his dual heritage and genetics in both White and Black cultures. In contrast, most Americans want to categorize people as if a single label can define the whole person.

In my memoir, I face this American mindset and struggle with how to define myself. Chinese or American or Hawaiian? These are the cultures that impacted and defined me. I felt pressed to choose one of these labels to conform to American ideals and reject the others.

Consequently, mixed race people present a conundrum in American society. The blurring of recognizable physical markers in many mixed race people seriously subverts racist attitudes. However, questions like “What are you?” and “Where are you from?” are often tainted since White people don’t generally ask such questions of each other. 

While the aloha spirit contributes to an ethos of racial harmony in the islands, equally important is the Hawaiian value of aloha ‘āina, or love of the land. People and land, including natural resources, are connected. If people take care of the land, the land will take care of them. This belief in mutual reciprocity is both simple and profound. Resources may seem unlimited, but they aren’t, especially in island communities.

This is where Hawaiian and local island cultural values diverge from White cultural values—American capitalism that privileges White males and justified colonialism. By no means are Hawai’i’s local communities devoid of conflict; wherever humans cohabitate, there will be conflict. However, island people may be more conscious about the need for conflict resolution. There are incentives, or a “geographic motivation” since islands are generally small.

Velasquez-Manoff has done his research to begin an important conversation. Hawai’i  is special to many people. Their racial diversity and acceptance of mixed race people offer additional reasons for why this is so.

Reader responses to this article can be found at this link: Opinion | Is Hawaii’s Racial Harmony a Myth?

Hidden Figures

What a great title for a missing part of American history. This is the untold story of the vital contributions of African American women to American aviation and the NASA space program. Untold because historically women have been diminished or ignored, moreso women of color. In other words, this is a story of inequality based on race and gender.

Hidden FiguresStill playing in movie theaters after opening last December, the feature film based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly has struck a resounding chord in our culture. It captures the American can-do spirit with female protagonistsintelligent, strong women of color who don’t take “No” for an answer. I can’t think of another movie in recent years with female main characters working in a math and science environment.

I was mesmerized watching Taraji P. Henson in the role of Katherine Johnson writing math equations and solutions on a blackboard with supreme confidence. She was simply demonstrating what she knew, but also informing the room full of men that a black woman has just as much intelligence as they have. And maybe more.

The film has adapted a small section of the larger story of these women who worked as human computers verifying the computations of white male engineers. This was during the time of segregation so they worked as a separate unit from white men and women. Some of these hidden figures later advanced to work as peers with the men. The encouragement of their forward-thinking, enlightened parents permitted these girls to study and enjoy math. Most ended up as teachers; some heard about better-paying jobs in the federal government aviation program in Hampton, Virginia, which later became NASA.

After seeing the movie and reading the book, I experienced feelings of immense triumph for these women and women in general.  A sense of sadness followed. I was thinking about many other girls and women who don’t have opportunities for education and therefore can’t discover their talents, skills, and passion. This is a loss for individuals, yes, but also for our society and country. The women in Hidden Figures made significant contributions to their families, communities, and our country. How many people’s ambitions and potential are thwarted because of racism, sexism, and other biases?

Imagine if each American child has the same opportunities for education regardless of class, race, and gender. 

Imagine if they have the freedom to explore their talents, to challenge their minds without fear of failure and shame.

Imagine if each female is unhindered by sexual harassment or assault or any kind of sexism that would make her doubt herself.

Our current rape culture on campuses, in our armed services, in our families is destroying lives and compromising human potential. Many women don’t report these crimes because the system does not provide fairness, support, or justice to most victims. Few perpetrators are punished. In fact, victims are often blamed and punished for being raped.

The April issue of The Atlantic Magazine features an article that reveals how qualified women are still facing gender bias in the workplace, specifically in computer science. “Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful to Women?” reminds us how slowly attitudes are changing. As we’re encouraging girls to enter STEM programs to provide skilled workers in science, technology, engineering, and math, thus providing higher-paying jobs for women, the work environments in these fields sound all too similar to what Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson faced in the 1940s and 1950s.

The old boys club is alive and well, with all its ploys to keep women “in their place.” Women    in male-dominated fields today, like technology, are finding a hostile work environment where they are being blocked in getting promotions and creative opportunities. The article describes a survey of women in technology: “84%…had been told they were too aggressive; 66% had felt excluded from key networking opportunities because of their gender; 90% had witnessed sexist behavior at conferences and company off-site meetings….” And so it goes.

Gender bias still exists and is detrimental to individuals, society, and our country. It pulls everyone down, wounds and weakens our democracy. It’s true that there have been moments of success and triumph when a woman has stepped forward out of the shadows and been recognized for her talent, courage, or contribution. But many of these stories are still hidden. I wonder what would have happened to John Glenn’s space flight if Katherine Johnson had not provided the accurate computations for his return to earth. She did and he became an American hero. Only now decades later, she is receiving the recognition she so rightfully deserves.