My mother used to proudly tell people, including her children, that she was part black, or whatever term she used back in the day, probably colored, maybe negro. She said she was a direct descendant of Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia. She explained this by telling us it happened during Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in the early 1930s, which was when she was born—but in San Francisco. Not Ethiopia, not Italy.
I don’t know why she told us this. I like to think it was to teach us a lesson. I like to think that she was as appalled by racism as I am, but I really don’t know. Maybe she just liked messing with people’s minds. Closed minds, small minds. Her prejudice was for stupid. Like me, she was guilty of her own stupidity, but had little tolerance for the stupidity of others.
It could have been a believable tale. She had big brown eyes and beautiful full lips. Her auburn hair wasn’t curly but had a lot of natural wave. Her skin, naturally olive, would turn chocolate brown in the sun.
My mother never blinked when I introduced her to my Japanese boyfriend, and later, when she found out I was going to have his baby, she was thrilled. She never mentioned mixed race, or any of the issues that might come up-- that did come up, due to crossing some line that some people drew. Her own kids looked like the League of Nations and she often said so. My older sister is dark with a Latin appearance, like my mother’s Southern Italian ancestors, I’m a blue eyed blonde like my father’s German grandmother, my little brother was more olive and Italian like my mother, (She was French and Irish on her mother’s side and Italian on her dad’s.) then later my little sister, who is a nice blend of Northern Italian from her dad and Southern Italian from my mom. For a short time when I was very little, we had two Korean foster children—my auburn haired mother turned many curious heads when we were all with her.
When I was pregnant with my son, people I knew asked me what I was going to do as a single mom with a mixed race child. That was such a crazy question to me. I just thought of him as my baby, not a race. It never occurred to me there would be any issues. And for me… there were no issues until bigotry crept into my life. When people would stare at us on the bus or in the store and shake their heads in disgust, or ask, “Did you adopt?” No, I’d tell them, I have the scar to prove he’s mine. And while that question alone is not overtly bigoted, the implication is. This was in the melting pot Bay Area. I could only imagine what it was like in different parts of the country. The thought scared me.
Since 9/11/1, I have seen the same kind of hate for the Muslim religion and /or anyone that may look like they are of Arab descent. Never mind that most people don’t know the difference between a Sikh (not Arab) and a Muslim (maybe Arab maybe not), don’t know the difference between an Afghani, Iraqi or Iranian, don’t know the difference between Farsi and Arabic, everyone that looked like they were from any part of the Middle East became an instant suspect. People who had immigrated to the US to flee their war torn countries, to have religious freedom, to have human rights, were shunned because of the way they dressed or talked. It hasn’t gotten much better 13 years later.
With the recent events surrounding the racial intolerance of the Clippers Basketball Team owner Mr. Sterling and the crazy cowboy in Utah, Mr. Bundy, I have to wonder how far we have come as a country in regards to racial equality—since the Civil War. Not far at all, I’m afraid.
I am sensitive to it because I see it through my son’s eyes. I’m sensitive to it because my niece has three little girls that are half Mexican. I’m sensitive to it because my mother, in her infinite wisdom, or maybe unknowingly made me aware of the ignorance many people have regarding race and cultural sensitivity.
Trying to have a frank conversation about race relations, religious freedoms, and sexual orientation freedom is difficult. Sometimes I think the freedoms my son went to war for are nonexistent. He came back from Iraq with a better understanding of freedom and of the cost of freedom, but to a country that didn’t get it.
I read a great essay Pretending Racism Doesn’t Exist Doesn’t Make it Go Away the other day written by Jeff Yang. The last two paragraphs wrap it up nicely; the whole essay is worth reading more than once.
“But denying racism doesn’t delete it. It simply allows it to live on in obscurity, drifting in the shadowy margins or lurking beneath the polished surface of polite society, where it can erode our most cherished shared values in secret, or erupt in fits of dark and terrible rage.
As Cliven Bundy and Don Sterling have demonstrated, as much as we claim that something is “not racist,” the “but…” continues to trail on behind it, keeping a foot in the door for the things we’d rather keep hidden.”
· I’m not racist BUT, a black president, no thanks.
· I’m not intolerant of any religion, BUT this country was founded on Christian beliefs we should not allow Mosques to be built here.
· I’m not a bigot BUT, two men should not get married to each other.
· I’m not a bigot BUT, I don’t want Mexicans living in my neighborhood.
· I’m not a bigot BUT… FILL IN THE BLANK.
I wish my mom were here so I could talk to her about this. I would ask her why she told everyone she was part black and why sometimes she wore a Star of David even though, she was baptized Catholic. I would ask her if she thought she was ahead of her time in bringing these issues to the forefront, or did she just like to mess with minds of stupid people? Either way, I have to say, she is my hero for this lesson. I hope I’m living up to her expectations as a human being and a daughter—I certainly am trying.
My mother, if she were still alive, would be the grandmother of seven, one is one-half Japanese, the others are a mixed bag of nuts, like me, a little bit of everything, and great grandmother to four, three of whom are half Mexican girls. She would have loved all of them and they would have loved her.
Happy Mother’s Day Mom, I miss your beautiful brain.