This is PART 1 of a piece originally written for a proposed book called “Leaving California.” It eventually wound up in SanSan Kwan and Kenneth Speir’s 2004 book Mixing It Up: Multiracial Subjects. The book’s cover is reproduced below, and the book itself will be available in very limited quantities on this site (click the WRITING tab above). Reviewers lauded my essay as one of those “in which an interweaving of autobiography and theory leads to unexpected and insightful commentary.” A link to PART 2 is at the bottom of this page.
For a take on current opinions about interracial relationships, look at this short video on reaction to a 2013 Cheerios ad featuring a black-white couple and their child.
On August 24, 1973, my first wife (Alice) and I packed two-thirds of all we owned into a blue-green Dodge Dart and headed south from Hayward, California, then east at Barstow and across the Mojave Desert to travel to Virginia along the southern tier of the United States. Two years later, my brother and his Nikon camera came to visit. Charmed by the small, spidery waterfalls along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in contrast to the gargantuan pouring of the California falls at Yosemite, he crept too close to where the Tye River spilled over a forty-foot drop and fell over the main cascade of Crab Tree Falls. I heard his scream as he went down and, running back up the trail along the river, shouted his name again and again until I found him sitting upright in the pool below, water up to his armpits, his hands held high to keep the Nikon out of the water. It was too late for the camera. It would have to be disassembled and dried and re-oiled, and for the next three days he was condemned to sit on an inflated donut pillow. But when he sent us copies of the pictures he had taken before his fall we cursed our luck at having traveled so far two years earlier with nothing but a Kodak Instamatic. We went into hock to buy a Canon TLB, itself a relic today, and the Instamatic disappeared leaving behind a handful of pictures, one that has haunted me for years.
The railing of the mansion porch at Oak Alley provided just the right height and angle, so after positioning the Instamatic on the rail and walking my wife forty yards down the lawn, I walked back up to the big house. “When I get out to her and take her hand,” I said to another person touring the estate in St. Francis, Louisiana, on August 30, 1973, “could you please snap the picture?” And turning around again, down I went, thinking less about the picture than the humidity. Leaving California means discovering that the rest of the country doesn’t dry to a golden brown during the summer. But the price of summer greens is close, smothering air. I remember a cartoon of two sinners talking in Hell. Everything is flames and perspiration, but one says to the other, “At least it’s a dry heat.” The 110-degree Mojave had worn two of our tires bald and fried a sensor, so that our temperature gauge always showed us on the verge of boiling over. Slowed by false reports, we crept fifty miles, two or three miles at a time, until at some mirage of a Shell Station a man named Frank discovered the error. Overjoyed by the news and Frank’s apparent honesty, I bought from him, besides a new heat sensor and two new tires, a set of helper springs to buoy our back springs which rode perfectly flat under the weight of our possessions. For years later, without a heavy load, we always bounced along. We had planned to make the Grand Canyon the first day, but settled for Kingman, Arizona, where it was still arid. On August 28th we stepped from our motel room in Austin, Texas, into a steam bath of heavy air and drawling accents. By the time we had reached the Oak Alley estate in St. Francisville, Louisiana, two days later, this had become my private mantra: “I shall never draw a clean breath of air again. Never ever again.” This was slogging through my mind as I walked back down the lawn and grabbed her hand and the picture was snapped.
“Out of the blackest part of my soul, across the zebra striping of my mind, surges this desire to be suddenly white. I wish to be acknowledged not as black but as white. Now—and this is a form of recognition that Hegel had not envisaged—who but a white woman can do this for me? By loving me she proves that I am worthy of white love. I am loved like a white man. I am a white man.” (63)
This begins Chapter Three, “The Man of Color and the White Woman.” On days when I’m feeling bad about myself and the world I grasp this idea as Truth, and the degree to which we accord this idea Truth, says Fanon, is an index of how sick, how deluded, we are.
Despite labored breathing, my brain was in full symbolic stride when I set up the Oak Alley picture. Backs to the camera, she and I walk on verdant green between twin rows of towering live oaks towards a faintly visible Mississippi levee. Our backs are to California. We are walking away from some personal problems, and the hectic, motorized grind of the Bay Area. When we reach Charlottesville, Virginia, where I am to begin a doctoral program, when we see the rounded, forested mountains of the Blue Ridge, something inside seemed to say, “Welcome home.” But you never walk away from something without walking in to something else. In the Oak Alley picture: my black hair, my Filipino brown hand holding her white hand, her blonde hair draping down to the middle of her back. We were walking away from a place where those combinations did not mean that much to a place where they meant more than they should, where the foreignness of interracial marriage hung humid, close and thick around such couples, and the complexes Fanon described seemed smothering, especially to me.
In Charlottesville we moved mostly in university and church circles where adjustments to us were made more easily, where we sought all kinds of shelter and found most of what we needed. I studied and taught. My wife worked on a masters and as a teacher’s aide at Clark Elementary School, where one day I went to pick her up early. Because I am nervous, I dress in black sweater, taupe sport coat, and jeans, an ensemble I fancied as somewhat dashing. There is a palpable stir as I enter the lunchroom. A few hours later my wife tells me that one of her teacher friends had said, “If you don’t want him, I’ll take him.” Like my wife, she is blonde and pretty, and my ego gets boosted like any man’s would. I mention this, however, because of how rare that feeling became for men like me once they left California. “For years, in the States,” writes David Mura in his book Turning Japanese,
…each beautiful white woman had seemed a mark of my exclusion. The stereotype of Asian women is of a doll-like submissiveness and a mysterious exotic sensuality, qualities which make them attractive to Caucasian men who have trouble accepting women as equals. As an Asian male, I was placed in a category of neutered sexuality, where beauty, power, and admiration were out of the question, where normalcy and acceptance were forbidden. None of the women I saw on television, in the movies, or read about in books dreamed of a lover like me.” (148-49)
In rare instances, like Mura’s, this impotence changed. After high school, says Mura, “Without knowing how, I have gained this knowledge—I can create desire, I can make them want me. Even while I fear they will shun me, even though the small voices still echo inside me, the voices of difference, of the years without power…” (150). Here is the world Frantz Fanon critiqued, a world where sex rides to the supposed rescue of the powerless. One would like to look past this entangling of sex and race, but the influence of this tangle is undeniable, sometimes unbearably so. What we had, and still have to a large degree, is a Manichaen vision which sees the world arrayed in oppositions—spirit and flesh, black and white, evil and good—and believes order depends on keeping these opposites clear and separate. Sexuality always plays big because it blurs the lines, undermines neat categories. In a world struggling to keep whites and people of color strictly separated, it helped to keep a yearning for each other alive. Those who crossed the dividing lines for love—even though that love might have contained more lust, cruelty, selfishness, or delusion than it should have—have had their part in creating a new world we now glimpse at a distance, a world more interracial, and nowhere more alive in the U.S. than in California.
But I had left. And David Mura grew up in the Chicago suburbs just a few miles from where I now write. The shame of the Japanese concentration camps aside, Mura’s feeling of sexual neutering would probably not have been as great if he had spent more time in California. To put it bluntly: I and other Asian and Southeast Asian men are sexier in California than anywhere else. Less bluntly: our human reality—which includes our sexuality—is a more everyday, acknowledged fact, and we can more easily dream that we enter the dreams of women, even white women.
In Charlottesville, however, I am sitting at a bus stop outside Martha Jefferson Hospital, where our first child would be born three years later, when an elderly Southern lady, sits down at the opposite end of the bench, and, eyeing me gently, says, “You’re at the university aren’t you?” Growing up in California, no one I knew said, “Yes, Ma’am,” “Yes, Sir” as a matter of course, but faced with this woman, the very archetype of Miss Daisy, I say, “Yes, Ma’am,” as if I had said it all my life. “What are you?” she says. I tell her I am a graduate student and am about to tell her in which department when I realize the question is more basic than that. “What are you?” I tell her I am from the Philippines after quickly calculating that telling her I am from California would not have done either. “Yes,” she says abstractly, “you have that pretty brown skin, those dark eyes.” This with all the charm of that melt-in-your-mouth drawl, I hardly realize how deftly I have been put into a certain place. I would experience such placings, some wreathed with a similar charm, over and over. Or I would experience the opposite, which would amount to much the same thing. At Clark School a few minutes after my entrance has caused such a stir, for example, I sit with my wife waiting for her and others to finish eating when a little girl who has been eyeing me, and us, finally says, “He sure is more different than you!” She exhales this with a quick droop of the shoulders, overtaken by utter bafflement. This exhaled air of astonishment follows first me, then my wife and I, in the South and elsewhere. Even if innocent, it breathes these thoughts: that I, we, don’t fit in any world they can imagine easilty, that people don’t know quite where to place me as a sociological, much less human phenomenon. In such an atmosphere I realize how often one is granted only the choice of how one will be dehumanized. If, for example, I had the choice of choosing to live with the stereotype of animal sexuality still commonly attributed to black males, or the neutering proffered to Asian and Southeast Asian males, I think I’d chose the former seven times out of ten. This goes beyond the dubious male fantasy of wanting to be studly. It puts me on the scale of the living. Never mind that it may be subhuman. Neutered, I feel I am nowhere at all.
* * *
Our first child, Rick, was born near the end of our Charlottesville stay under near-celebrity conditions because my wife was one of the one in ten thousand women who suffer no labor pains. Waking up on June 30, 1977, she felt merely constipated, but a push or two and the baby’s head was already crowning. Weeks of Lamaze training instantly slammed into reverse, so that now the special breathing patterns became ways to help her not to push. Once in the hospital, the baby was fully born in about ten minutes. For the first few hours, Rick’s head was somewhat misshapen because of staying in the birth canal longer than normal. Among my first pronouncements about him was: “You could use the kid for a pencil.” Thus my reputation for the inability to formulate endearing phrases.
One of the nurses on the floor that morning was Sarah McPherson, an Irish redhead then married to the African-American writer James Alan McPherson. Contemplating a family himself, McPherson said to me a couple of times in the weeks following, “I’d like to come look at your son.” It was, is, and perhaps always will be harder for black/white marriages. When my family moved to California from Missouri in 1956 a sign posted at the gate of Hayward’s newest subdivision said, “Whites and Orientals Only.” Interracially, the sentiment still stands even though it shows signs of weakening. Though not technically Orientals, Filipinos eventually became close enough, as have other minorities, largely by virtue of not being black.
The McPherson’s had their child, and you may read a fictionalized account of the whole issue of interracial marriage in what I consider the most brilliant short story every written, “Elbow Room,” the title story of the book for which McPherson won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978. At the end, shortly after the main characters have had a son, the narrator says this in response to an editorial voice that has continually been breaking in to ask him to clarify the meaning of the story:
“I lack the insight to narrate its complexities. But it may still be told. The mother is, after all, a country raconteur with cosmopolitan experience. The father sees clearly with both eyes…I will wait. The mother is a bold woman. The father has a sense of how things should be. But while waiting, I will wager my reputation on the ambition, if not the strength, of the boy’s story.” (241)
The editorial voice says, “Comment is unclear. Explain. Explain,” but the story ends here, scant on clarity, so much hope placed on a child, the offspring of a black mother and white father. David Mura’s book Turning Japanese ends similarly. A Sansei married to a white woman of English and Hungarian Jewish descent, Mura says this about their daughter Samantha:
“This split I have felt between America and Japan, this fusion of two histories, will reside in her, in a different, more visible way. I would like to think she is part of a movement taking place everywhere throughout the globe, our small planet spinning along in blue-black space. I would like to think that the questions of identity she faces will be easier than mine, less fierce, less filled with self-neglect and rage. That she will love herself more and therefore be more eager for the world, for moving beyond herself. And I know how little control I have over these wishes and their outcome.” (372)
To the old story of the mixed-breed who, rejected as not “pure” enough by both sides of their heritage, McPherson and Mura offer a counter story, and who is to say which is true? Looking at our children now, hoping the hopes parents do, I incline towards the counter story. More accurately, perhaps we are at the clashing of two ages, one waning, one coming to the fore, our children walking into the age of the interracial, the mulatto, the half-breed—these last two terms now losing the overwhelming negativity they once carried. At such times, it is possible to interpret things cynically and hopefully at the same time and be right both ways. You could think that Lisa Bonet, or Jada Pinkett, or Haley Berry, for example, are seen as beautiful because they are blacks with mostly white features, or because they represent a mix, an exoticism, that’s becoming more acceptable in its own right. You could think that exoticism is just another white ploy to colonize people of color, or that multiraciality really is not only more acceptable, but something to be desired in and of itself as a human quality. There may be a kind of ease to this transition—a walking, as I said, not a marching—though interracial couples must still face degrees of astonishment and danger. This is not a colorblind world, but love may be as colorblind as we have always thought it was just plain blind, and in this case that may not be all that bad. What I know more clearly is that there is a kind of desperateness, a fore-grounded interracial anxiety to my world now—to Mura’s, to McPherson’s and Fanon’s—that I can only hope fades to background for our children, as it was for me growing up in California.
Nor is it only that I’m more acutely sensitive these days: the California I knew was a kind of interracial paradise. Cher Mueller, white, whose first child was by a black man I never got to know, used to call our church, the Free Methodist Church on Harvey Avenue in Hayward, California, a little United Nations. Besides various kinds of whites, there were several Chinese, Japanese, Native American, and Mexican persons who passed through the doors. There were two families from Tonga. There were several African-Americans as well, though when their numbers became large enough they left to form their own church, the Palma Ceila Baptist Church, in a rapidly integrating subdivision that, however, was where blacks were confined when we first moved to Hayward. The first time we went over to Palma Ceila Baptist to join their service after ours was over, the pastor, an immense man who delivered mail during the week, welcomed us with a grandiloquent speech which ended, “We now await your welcome.” After an awkward, silent half-minute I jumped up, said we were happy to be with old friends again and was glad Free Methodist and Palma Ceila Baptist were sister churches. And so we became. At the church I count Gail and Esther Wong who married interracially, as did Kathy Martinez, as did Melinda Chew (who married Roy “Cookie” Matsuda), as did Wilma and Wanda Chui, and more. At school Larry Tong, Karen Bassett, Harry Fung–these and many more also married interracially. Not that interracial dating and marrying were the norm, but they were not abnormal either. Nor was a racial minority whose English was “perfect”—that is to say, “unaccented.” Or, for that matter, whose German was fluent, too. Wilma and Wanda’s older sister Shirley Chui married Gary Fong, who taught high school German, his fastidious dress and speech—in German, English, and Chinese—at one with the fastidious care he took of his Karman Ghia, which he always covered even during rainless, California summer nights.
A few years ago back here in Illinois I was doing a writing seminar for Brown & Root, one of the nation’s largest engineering firms. Among the twenty engineers condemned to sit under my tutelage were four Filipinos—three men, one woman. Several times during breaks, drawn together by pro patria sentiments and the kinship of our bodies, we talked and laughed, sometimes about the irony of a dark man teaching English to whites. At the end of our third session, one compatriot, Mike, said to me privately, “Can you teach me to do what you do?” “What’s that?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “when you’re talking with us, your countrymen, you sound like us, but the minute you step before the whole group”—and here he snapped his fingers with a crack that still echoes in my mind—“you’re white!” he said triumphantly. Two days later the firm’s vice president called me aside. “Can you help Mike lose his accent? He’s the brightest engineer I’ve got, but I can’t take him on sales calls because people won’t trust him.” I could not. Mike had come to this country in his thirties, well past the age, seven or so, where the voiceprint of an original language can be rubbed off the voiceprint of a second.
When I was six I remember my father driving our blue ’53 Plymouth rashly up our driveway on Adams Street in Neosho, Missouri. Coming into the house and sitting down quickly at the kitchen table he announced to my mother that she was no longer to speak our dialect (Ilocano) to the children. He was breathing hard. I have wondered at the incident, or the buildup of incidences, that caused his pronouncement. As a result my brother and I speak an unaccented English, I lapsing into hints of foreignness only when I’m very tired. I no longer speak Ilocano, though I still understand it, and remember hearing my parents say, in Ilocano, to relatives or friends who would resort to it to try to hide something from me: “It’s no use. He knows everything you say.” My brother, being only two when the edict came down, neither speaks nor understands. But we are trapped both ways. Speak with an accent and for far too many Americans the confirmation of a stereotype breeds feelings of superiority and mistrust. Speak an unaccented, or otherwise perfectly “American” speech, and the shock, the utter novelty, breeds fear and suspicion. Or comedy. The Korean comedian Henry Chow walks on stage dressed in sport coat, jeans, and cowboy boots. He speaks, naturally, with a Texas drawl, saying in mock empathy, “I know y’all are thinking, ‘What is wrong with this picture?'” In the California I grew up in and still know, there is a more settled familiarity, almost a profound comfort, with a much larger range of accents, so that inflections of voice have lost much of their significance one way or the other. Here in Illinois and other places where migration patterns result in a higher percentage of first-generation immigrants, I know I am often seen as an accent on legs. Walking around to random garage sales or showing up at some more formal civic event where people don’t know me, I love to spy that look of surprise my articulate, unaccented speech causes. I used to speak up right away to chase off my own uneasiness, but now I often wait long minutes to make their shock that much stronger at this alien who suddenly walks into their world, the world not only of the human, but the competent human. Watching myself do this again and again, I hear my mind whispering more often these days, “I’m tired of this.”
—–End of Part 1. Read Part 2.—–
♦ Go to the TEACHING DIVERSITY main page.