by Anti-Racist Parent Columnist Michelle Myers
“Yeah, it’s a race and I’m running,
but somewhere along the lines I lost you—
among the clueless browns,
the clueless blacks,
the clueless yellows—
and what’s worse,
the just bought-into-its.”
-I was Born with Two Tongues, “Race, and I’m Running,” Broken Speak CD
A few weeks ago while watching “Dancing with the Stars,” my husband tried to get me riled up over a routine that Kristi Yamaguchi and her dance partner were performing which had him dressed in a military uniform and she, his Asian lover, swooning on his shoulder.
I had cringed inwardly when I saw the set-up, but I wanted to just enjoy the moment—just relish something for pure entertainment without the brooding presence of racial stereotypes and hegemonic ideologies.
So when my husband whispered suggestively to me about the “soldier savior” and “What was she thinking?” I shushed him and said that I didn’t want to be Yellow Rage all the time. “She just happens to be Asian, not playing ‘Asian,’” I retorted. But when Bruno, one of the judges, referred to Kristi’s character portrayal in the routine as being a “Madame Butterfly”—which he meant as a compliment of the romantic qualities of their dance—my husband’s head snapped towards me, and said “See? You can’t give white people a pass.” And I could only sigh deeply.
Bruno’s reference to the Puccini opera reminded me that really only white people could find romance in the story of a Japanese woman who gives birth to an American sailor’s baby and then commits suicide when he abandons them and marries a white American wife. But even then, I tried to excuse it. “He didn’t mean it that way”—meaning she wasn’t playing the passive, love-toy of a white man who sees himself as superior to her, her people, and her culture. “What’s happening to you?” my husband wanted to know.
Honestly, I’ve been getting tired. I’m tired of fighting against racism and injustice—it’s a never-ending, exhausting battle. And what’s worse for me is that after years and years of harping and exposing and teaching, I see very little to indicate that any of the work I’ve done has made a difference. Why the hell do our poems “Listen Asshole” and “I’m a Woman, Not a Flava” still resonate so strongly after eight years? Because nothing has changed. Asian and Asian American people still feel dehumanized, exoticized, demonized, invisible, misunderstood. It’s made me bone tired, and I’ve been going soft. A part of me just doesn’t want to be angry anymore.
Not long after the “Dancing with the Stars” incident, I came across a comment in the Letters to the Editor section of The Philadelphia Daily News on Monday, April 21, 2008. It was the day before the Pennsylvania primary and people all over the media had made much-to-do about Obama’s “bitter” remark. Vicki Goodyear from Mantua Township, NJ took issue with another statement allegedly made by Obama:
Here’s another quote from Sen. Obama during his now-famous fundraiser on April 6:
“When people tell me they’re all stressed out about racial discord, well, you know, try slavery for a while.”
Doesn’t that remind you of Pastor Wright? It’s a racist remark if I ever heard one.
And who is the “people” and “you” he refers to—”typical white people,” perhaps?
He needs to brush up on his history. African tribal chiefs gave away their people to be slaves, as trades for gifts. White men wouldn’t have been able to do it without their help.
There are so many revealing ignorant and racist assumptions in this woman’s comment that I don’t know where to begin deconstructing it without turning this post into a dissertation-like, psychological and sociological analysis. What struck me right away, gut reaction-level, was just how defensive this woman was and how she, presumably as a white woman, needed to project her racist guilt somewhere else—asserting not only her racist innocence personally as a contemporary white person but that of her maligned white ancestors. So according to her logic, this is what screams out at me: “How dare Obama tell us to see how we’d feel if we were slaves—as if all white people can’t sympathize with black people or are racist against black people or are responsible for black people. He’s racist for lumping us all together like that and for insinuating we’re racist. In actuality, he’s showing how ignorant he is—isn’t he educated? He needs to hold African people accountable—they betrayed their own people. Black people enslaved themselves—gave themselves to us as gifts. Who doesn’t accept gifts? Nothing racist in that.”
I have heard this argument before from white people, the we’re-innocent-because-Africans-enslaved-their-own-people argument. I can’t even begin to explain to you how angry this makes me. White people who believe this and spread such simplistic and incomplete inaccuracies as historical fact not only are in denial of the true far-reaching and deep-seated ramifications of American slavery (vs. African slavery) as well as the ideological, economic, and political origins of American racist thinking and behavior but also are, at the same time, trying to justify why black people are to be blamed for the condition of their own lives. It’s a classic blame-the-victim rationale which is always rooted in and motivated by the very ideology it seeks to deny—in this case, white racism.
And I get angry because this dishonesty and information twisting and double speak is what my children have to inherit. I get angry because my daughter has to go to school and try to ignore white children teasing her newly cropped locks as an “Afro”—as a hair style to be laughed at or ashamed of—that she shouldn’t love her naturally curly hair. I get angry because my husband believes that in her predominantly white school she is learning to hate herself for having a black father. I get angry because I have to yell at my own white father for using the word “dotheads” when referring to the owners of a local gas station. I get angry because I know there are plenty of racist white people out there who won’t admit to being so.
Recently, I was reading the May/June issue of On Campus, the American Federation of Teacher’s national publication for higher education faculty and professional staff. In “Rolling Back Affirmative Action: State Ballot Initiatives are a Multiedged Sword,” Barbara McKenna discusses the Civil Rights Initiative and explains how, despite its name, it is actually a ballot measure intended to eliminate and outlaw affirmative action programs designed to ensure equal access to educational and economic opportunities for historically oppressed people in the United States. She describes how, in 2006, the measure passed in Michigan despite the attempts of One United Michigan, a bipartisan coalition, to educate Michigan voters about the real purpose of the Civil Rights Initiative (CRI). The surprisingly large margin by which the CRI passed (58% yes, 42% no) taught the organizers of One United Michigan a significant lesson about voters and issues of race. As Julie Matuzak, AFT Michigan political coordinator, asserts to McKenna, “[P]olls can’t be trusted on issues of race. People tend to provide the politically correct answer but behave differently when they vote.” Matuzak continues, “’Race is a complicated issue. . . . A political campaign cannot change a racially divided culture.”
I hadn’t meant to bring the post around to politics, but I think, whether he intended to or not—whether he’s been trying to be a racial bargainer rather than racial challenger (see Shelby Steele’s articles and book on this)—Barack Obama has forced people to confront and discuss race. And all the deep-seated hidden prejudices are coming to the fore, from elderly white people in West Virginia publicly saying they’ll never vote for a “Muslim” to Governor Ed Rendell’s admission that some white PA voters are not ready to vote for a black president to the Clintons’ various attempts to discredit Obama through race baiting and patronizing remarks to my dear Vicki Goodyear’s remarks acquitting white responsibility for American slavery.
The fear of black leadership as a real presence in this country has the white mainstream media scrutinizing the black church, the current state of black nationalist thinking and activism, and Obama’s identity as a black man vs. mixed vs. half-white. Just how much is he “one of us”? That “one of us” connotes so much more than physical appearance: it means “one of us” in thought, behavior, and action. And the war has just begun on that point, as Hillary Clinton and her supporters have made clear.
I know I have rambled a long way from “Dancing with the Stars” and defending my right to be race-free for 2 hours a week. But the point is, it’s impossible for me to be race-free. I see it in politics. I see it on the streets of Philadelphia. I see it in my daughter’s eyes. I see it in the multi-hued skin of my family. I see that race will become even more of an explosive issue in the months to come. And while I don’t have to be angry about it all the time, I know I must be vigilant. And when the time calls, no matter how tired I am, I must be ready to fight.
Michelle Myers holds a Ph.D. in English from Temple University, specializing in Asian American Literature. She is a founding member of the spoken word poetry group Yellow Rage, which was featured on HBO’s RUSSELL SIMMONS PRESENTS DEF POETRY, and which recently released its second CD: HANDLE WITH CARE, VOL. 2. She is also a founding member of the performance collective Asians Misbehavin’. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Community College of Philadelphia and Grants Coordinator at SEAMAAC (Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition). Michelle lives in NJ with her husband, Tyrone, and their three children: Myong, Victor, and Vanessa.