Written originally for a proposed collection of essays by ex-Californian’s in “exile” titled “Leaving California,” this piece eventually wound up in SanSan Kwan and Kenneth Speir’s book Mixing It Up: Multiracial Subjects (Austin: Univ. of Texas Pr., 2004): 91-106. The book’s cover is reproduced here, and limited copies of the book will be available on this site (click on WRITING picture above). A book review lauded this essay as one “in which an interweaving of autobiography and theory leads to unexpected and insightful commentary.” This is PART 2 of the essay. Read PART 1.
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.
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Not that California is an interracial paradise without its fair share of sin. Anyway, “paradise” overstates the case. It took the U.S. Supreme Court until 1948 to declare anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, and it wasn’t until 1967 that the last one was officially wiped off the books. That last law was in Virginia—it was brought down by a suit filed by a man with the marvelous name of Arthur Loving—but the effort to keep races from intermarrying operated as strongly, if not more so, in California than anywhere in the country. In 1910 California’s official anti-miscegenation law prohibited whites from marrying blacks, Mongolians, and mulattos. In the late 20’s, one Salvador Roldan sued Los Angeles County when his attempt to marry a white woman was turned down on the basis of his being a Mongolian. Filipinos are not Mongols he replied. He won both a lower court case and a 1933 appeal made by Los Angeles County to the California Supreme Court. So in 1935, to close the loophole, the California civil code was amended by adding Malays—which I suppose Filipinos are—to the list of people whites were forbidden to marry. The general sentiment was that while Filipinos might not be as bad as blacks, they led white girls astray more easily and therefore should be watched as closely, or more so. Vigilante groups roamed, threatening to lynch Filipinos if they were caught with white women, especially blondes. In January 1930, in Watsonville, a vigilante group attacked a group of Filipinos, killing one of them, after the group had rented a hall and invited white women to the dance.
My father roamed California at the same time. Coming over in 1924 at age 14, supposedly to further his education, he was, to put it mildly, led astray. A compulsive gambler, in love with song and dance, he would say with false braggadocio years later that he never made it past the seventh grade. Yet all the while, when he was in the Army and we lived at Fort Ord, he would take classes, which I thought were mainly hobby related. One day he came home and handed my mother a certificate. “Your father has passed his GED test,” she said to me. That was all. He said nothing. She said nothing more. It would be twenty years before I knew what a GED was. What I remember is my father’s almost apologetic sheepishness, a faint air of shame enveloping the modest proceedings. It has always been difficult to get my parents, my father in particular, to talk about the early days. “They used to mock me,” he once said. “They would shout, ‘Hey, monkey!’ But you know what I did? I read and read. I was reading some anthropology in the Los Angeles Library one day and realized that whites had more body hair than I did, and since monkeys are really hairy, who’s closer to monkeys, them or me?” Every time we visit California, I make raids on the photo albums and come back here to impose on my friend Linda, asking her to clarify the past by wiping away the cracks and reversing the fading with all the retouching magic at her disposal. The black and whites of my father show him as a startlingly handsome young Filipino. Even then, marks of natural leadership show through, and to this day he is one of the most respected persons in the San Esteban Circle, the organization named after our hometown in northern Luzon. At 5’8″ he is a full head taller than most of his compatriots. He has a charismatic smile, and an aura of silent-screen glamour surrounds him when he is not smiling. In one snapshot he and a white woman lie on their tummies next to each other on a typical California backyard lawn. They are both looking up at the camera, she turned slightly toward him with a look of delight, he mugging in contorted funny face. Their bodies touch. The shadow of the photographer slants across the picture’s lower right corner, and I realize with a start how many times my father must have run into, must even have been visited by, vigilantes. The rage and disesteem of this, the cold blunting of Filipino-white sensuality. Perhaps most of all the shame, and with that shame the heavy curtain of silence.
On my mother’s side of the family there was a Filipino-white marriage that always glowed glamorously in my mind. Her youngest brother with the wondrous name Amante, meaning “beloved,” had married a beautiful German girl named Heidi, who, even as a youngster, I thought of as a Marlene Dietrich, only sexier and with dark hair. In 1962 when the marriage broke up and Amante had hung himself in his kitchen with an electrical extension cord, my mother sat for three days after her return from New York in a straightback dining room chair, hands unfolded in her lap, lips tight, eyes searching deeply into the heart of betrayal.
When I showed up four years later with a white girlfriend, her mind did not have to search long before fingering a cautionary node of pain. One month later, I came home to find her sitting in the same straightback chair, her hands, lips, and eyes set as they were in 1962. “You cannot see her again,” she said. “Her father thinks I do not speak English.” Stunned, then enraged, I flew at her with a mixture of imploring and accusation. A graduate of a Philippine Normal College, my mother had worked as a teacher, largely of English. In America, however, she was painfully shy, rarely attending any public events in the world outside our Filipino associations, even when her sons, in whom she took enormous pride, were key players. When my girlfriend’s father, a minister, called on my parents for the first time, he could have interpreted her deep silence in any number of ways. Unfortunately, he chose to ask her if she spoke English. I think of this every time someone thinks I myself do not speak English, or speak it badly, but react mainly with irony and chagrin, perhaps because I became a professor of English, and, as I said, because I sometimes relish surprising people in their misperceptions. My mother, however, took the question with an offense that struck the deepest core of her being. After days of apologies, her position softened. She grew to accept my girlfriend, and introducing her to relatives would say as an explanatory aside: “She eats rice.” Granted, rice carries a sacred aura in many cultures, but I still marvel at the calming effect these words had on my mother and perhaps many others in the Filipino community. We became a certified item, and though we received several major honors between us when we graduated from Tennyson High School, I still deeply regret losing Cutest Couple to Janet Milan and Bob Calaway by four lousy votes.
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I write about sunny California in one of the sunniest essays I’ve ever written, knowing full well not only the biases of my maleness and the power of my nostalgia, but also the California of Watts, and Rodney King, and O.J. Power shortages and the Gary Condit saga had steered California’s current governor Gray Davis away from race as a headline issue. September 11th brought it back for him and all Americans. It brought back the fact that though it was subsequently struck down as unconstitutional, California had passed Proposition 187 to block access to many essential services for its significant illegal alien population. It brought back memories of former governor Pete Wilson, whose fondness for announcing how much it took to imprison illegal aliens who commit crimes (upwards of $490,000,000) echoes louder now than when he was saying it a few years ago. This is also the California of the University of California, Berkeley, my alma mater, which was at the forefront of the battle to eliminate affirmative action. Bill Bagley, a regent of the university system and senior partner in the law firm for which my brother works, courageously broke with several fellow regents and his old friend Pete Wilson over this issue. His fight led to the anti-affirmative action resolution being repealed for the U.C. system. However, Proposition 209, partly a result of the battles at Berkeley, is still in force and bans affirmation action state-wide. Bagley’s victory may be more symbolic than real—which is still a very important thing—but the fact that such issues replaced the radical vision of the U.C. Berkeley of the 1960’s reveals how deep the turmoil over race in California is.
What’s the sunniest face I can put on this? For the past few years I have begun thinking that the growing backlash over race and gender in particular might be the last desperate gasp of an old order. I come to this thought from many places, like James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village,” a work that seems to breathe behind at least half of everything I write. In it he tells of going to live in a Swiss village where people had never seen a living black. As he walks through the village an air of astonishment follows him. The village’s biggest attraction is its hot spring waters which attract many cripples who come to “take the waters” hoping for a cure. Baldwin uses the village as a metaphor for the Western world’s yearning to go back to simpler, more innocent times, to times before issues of race revealed darknesses and crippling sicknesses in the Western soul that that soul has always been loath to face. He ends his essay this way:
“The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too. No road whatever will lead Americans back to the simplicity of this European village where white men still have the luxury of looking on me as a stranger. I am not, really, a stranger any longer for any American alive. One of the things that distinguishes Americans from other people is that no other people has ever been so deeply involved in the lives of black men, and vice versa. This fact faced, with all its implications, it can be seen that the history of the American Negro problem is not merely shameful, it is also something of an achievement. For even when the worst has been said, it must also be added that the perpetual challenge posed by this problem was always, somehow, perpetually met. It is precisely this black-white experience which may prove of indispensable value to us in the world we face today. This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.” (148-49)
This essay first appeared in October 1953. Near the end of his life, Baldwin himself began to lose hope. Now, as the gap between rich and poor in America grows, as 20 percent of America’s children still go hungry each day, as the prospects for the lowest half of our lower class drop close to absolute zero, there seems more to lose hope over than to build hope on. And if, as I have implied, California is to America what America is to the world, it is entirely appropriate that California be wracked with the racial struggles it currently faces, for, to modify Baldwin slightly, nowhere have peoples of all colors been so deeply involved in each others’ lives than in California. Nowhere have they settled so much, become so comfortable with each other, and thereby won the right to discover what more needs settling. “This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.” This sentence seems to sound loudly in the imagination of the old order, causing it to lash out in denial, causing it to cling to notions of racial and ethnic purity even while most of us realize more each day what violence and death result from such ideologies. Things change in the imagination first, I tell myself. You cannot change until you imagine not only what that change could be, but also the very possibility of change itself. And yet Baldwin’s sentence is not merely imaginative. It is a sentence as real as blood.
Our continuing social crises will give rise to more initiatives to curb violence, increase job opportunities, deliver food, shelter, education, and the like to those in need. Most of these will be necessary. Meanwhile something else, something totally outside the programmatic, continues to rise and change the very nature of our racial vision. When Baldwin wrote about the creation of new blacks and whites, he meant this not only figuratively, culturally, but literally as well, referring to the history of white masters raping black slaves that goes back to the dawn of slavery in the U.S. In his essay “Junior and John Doe,” James Alan McPherson describes “older Anglo-Saxons” who “when pressed or drunk” might tell you in private: “We’re all cousins. The only difficulty is that most people don’t understand just how we’re related” (178-79). Genuine interracial marriage has also continued the mixing process, and the numbers have risen steadily.
In 1970 my wife and I were one of just 300,000 interracial marriages. Just over 30 years later there are over 1,300,000, about 20 percent being black/white marriages. In late 1991 a Gallup Poll reported that for the first time in history more Americans approved of interracial marriage than disapproved. And there are the children of these marriages. Somehow, many years ago in Virginia, our schedules never meshed, so James Alan McPherson never did get to see Rick, our first born, who is turning out fine. I admit the bias of thinking that Filipino/white marriages produce the most beautiful children of all; and we had four, in part because they are all boys and we kept chasing the elusive girl. I also went to four, though I still feel twinges of environmental guilt, because I felt there needed to be more of “us,” not just minorities but interracial minorities, if we were to live, as we did, amid the whiteness of the Chicago suburb of Naperville. When the push for zero-population growth was at its height, one black radical labeled it a white ploy to wipe out minorities. Though not a conspiratorialist thinker by nature, I understood immediately both what he meant and what he felt. David Duke and Pat Buchanan, those who shot Amadou Diallo and Ricky Birdsong, those who dragged a man to death down in Texas—these and countless more, to say nothing of the institutional racism that still grips us very firmly, make it hard to clear the haze of conspiracy from our minds. Yet as we become more “one blood” the whole concept of race is being called into question once again, and it has begun to dawn on more of us that “race” and “ethnicity” are social constructs more symbolic than actual, even for people of color. The sociologist Mary Waters writes that, “The ultimate goal of a pluralist society should be a situation of symbolic ethnicity for all Americans” (167). To see ethnicity, and even race, more symbolically is to see them as more open, fluid, and complex, a situation allowing people to construct identities which are also more open, fluid, and complex, yet also warm and fleshed out by ties to, hopefully, the best that ethnic and racial identification has to offer.
Such a prospect, however, brews its own battles. For example, the racial categories that appeared on the 2000 U.S. Census hadn’t changed so much that the “Other” designation had expanded into a true “Multiracial” category, but it was the first time you could identify yourself as two races, and that was enough for me to think that my boys might one day be able to list themselves as Filipino-Spanish-English Americans, which is what they are at the very least. Looking at the 2000 census, Margo J. Anderson, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and specialist in census issues, identifies interracial children as one of the big “sleeper” issues of this census and the future, agreeing with reporter David Mendell that “racial lines in America are blurring more with each decade” (qtd. in Mendell 2:4). Such multiplication of racial/ethnic choices, such blurring of racial lines, isn’t without huge downsides, however. The cover story of the February 13, 1995 Newsweek highlights this growing multiracial movement in America. “Solidarity is hard to find,” reports Tom Morganthau. “One third of African-Americans polled say that blacks should not be considered a single race” (64). And in a related article Civil Rights activist and professor Julian Bond fears that the multiplication of colors may dilute “the power and strength of numbers as they affect legal decisions about race in this country” (qtd. in Cose 72). But there are already college groups (Prism at Harvard, Specturm at Stanford), magazines (New People and Interrace), a growing body of impressive research and writing, even support groups like the Biracial Family Network of Chicago dealing with this key phenomenon: amid the avalanche of ethnicity, it is the increase in interracial marriages and children that is shattering racial barriers in ways that we had only dimly foreseen, and in ways that no program or legislation ever could. “This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.”
Perhaps no place understands this more than California, and this explains in part why the Oak Alley picture haunts me. The ghost of another picture has begun appearing to me when I look at it, and it is simply that I also see myself walking back the other way, towards California, accompanied this time by a throng of others so large I appear to lose myself, happily, in a national surge of walkers who are in interracial relationships or the children of such relationships. Every time I come back to California, every time I see the depth of the interracial there, something inside says, “Welcome back. You’re home.” More Americans seem to be hearing that same salutation, that same multiracial welcoming, whether the California they are walking towards is that actual western reach of land or a symbol that describes what more and more places in America are becoming like.
—This is the end of the essay. Read Part 1 of essay.—
Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. New York: Bantam, 1964.
Cose, Ellis. “One Drop of Bloody History,” Newsweek, 13 February 1995: 70-72.
Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove, 1967.
McPherson, James Alan. Elbow Room. Boston: Little, Brown, 1977.
__________. “Junior and John Doe,” in Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation, ed. Gerald Early. New York: Allen Lane/Penguin, 1993: 175-193.
Mendell, David. “As face of American changes, statistics provide a mirror.” Chicago Tribune, 15 July 2001, 2:4.
Morganthau, Tom. “What Color Is Black?” Newsweek, 13 February 1995: 62-65.
Mura, David. Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei. New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1991.
Waters, Mary. Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America. Berkeley: Univ. of California Pr., 1990.
West, Cassandra. “The New Mix.” Chicago Tribune, March27, 2002.