Greatness: The Bondwoman’s Narrative

I couldn’t believe I was holding it, procured so easily from the public library: “The only known novel by a female African-American slave, and quite possibly the first novel written by a black woman anywhere,” read the cover jacket of The Bondwoman’s Narrative. Harvard Professor Henry Gates, Jr. who laid hold of the original 300-page handwritten manuscript launched an extraordinary quest to unmask the pseudonym of Hannah Crafts. Taking the clues he left, Professor Gregg Hecimovich from Winthrop University located the novelist in history at the end of an assiduous ten-year pursuit. Hannah Bond was the mulatto house slave who fled a North Carolina plantation disguised as a man and lived to tell her story cast in part fiction.

BondwomanI have always felt a pull toward the African-American odyssey of slavery. The female slave experienced double jeopardy not only for her race but also for her sexual vulnerability. I beckon to light the invisible greatness of a woman who made her way out of bondage with pen as she did with her feet.

TIMELINE
To authenticate and date the book, Dr. Gates consulted experts of historical documents. The characteristics of the paper, binding, handwriting, the iron-gall ink that had been popular until 1860, the style of the narrative were some of the elements they studied. A sedulous search among federal census records turned up the “Mr. Wheeler” whom Bond had served. In 1855 John Hill Wheeler enjoyed more fame than he had sought in government when word got out that his slave Jane Johnson had run away. Hannah describes how she found herself filling the vacancy. So the manuscript would have been drafted after 1855. I was captivated by the rigorous intricacy of the literary archeology.

Dr. Gates reports the observations of the keenest scholars in slave literature, the cause for their excitement over this particular self-authenticating text: “Hannah Crafts writes the way we can imagine black people talked to – and about – one another when white auditors were not around, and not the way abolitionists thought they talked, or black authors thought they should talk or wanted white readers to believe they talked. This is a voice that we have rarely, if ever, heard before…For Crafts, slaves are always, first, and last, human beings, ‘people’ as she frequently put it.” (Gates’ preface to the novel)

LITERACY
How did Hannah learn to read and write? She enjoyed her first secret reading lessons from an elderly white couple until the meetings were aborted. Dr. Joe Nickell, a historical investigator, paid “close attention to Crafts’ level of diction, the scope of her vocabulary…the degree of familiarity with other texts, or literacy, that she reflects in word choice, metaphors, analogies, epigraphs, and allusions to other words, concluding that she had the [modern equivalent] of an eleventh-grade education.” She evidently had taken liberties with John Wheeler’s private eclectic library. The plantation also housed students from a neighborhood finishing school. In a news radio interview, Hecimovich said, “Bond would have been listening and waiting on the young ladies who were boarding at the Wheeler family plantation while they were practicing…and she would have intuited, like other slaves we have record of, when she came to write her own stories. She could tell her story in the way that she heard the other stories.” (What does this say, incidentally, about the impact of quality literature upon listening children?) She has a beautiful, bold hand in the word selection and painting of imagery: “The clear cold sunshine glancing down the long avenue of elms…” While Hannah’s multisyllabic words [magnanimity, obsequious] tell of a rich bibliodiet, the many misspellings [meloncholy, inseperable] reveal the struggles of one who was self-taught. The novel was printed with the spelling errors and revisions Hannah had made intact, offering a precious glimpse of the subnarrative where writers play out choices in the birthing of a tale. Scholars thrill to have broken new ground in the landscape of antebellum literature. Gates explains, “To be able to study a manuscript written by a black woman or man, unedited, unaffected, unglossed, unaided by even the most well-intentioned or unobtrusive editorial hand, would help a new generation of scholars to gain access to the mind of a slave in an unmediated fashion heretofore not possible.”

DEPRECATION
Hannah draws a distinction between house and field slave, one of class and levels of degradation. It is when she is forced to marry into the squalor behind the Wheeler home that she decides to flee. “Accused of a crime of which I was innocent…most horrible of all doomed to association with the vile, foul, filthy inhabitants of the huts, and condemned to receive one of them for my husband my soul actually revolted with horror unspeakable…” (p. 205) The relative advantages she enjoyed as a house negro and very light mulatto distill the institution of slavery to its unrelenting truth. Hannah wasn’t whipped to work faster under the sun, didn’t have to mind the hogs in their sty. But no matter how light her skin, she was a thing with no license to go where she chose, wear what she wanted, say what she thought. The day she woke to was not hers. She got out of a bed she did not own to meet the needs and demands of another. Why would slavers think she had intellect, talent, feelings, a soul? Hannah was sold and bought, had no say under whose roof she ended up. “No one ever spoke of my father or mother, but I soon learned what a curse was attached to my race, soon learned that the African blood in my veins would forever exclude me from the higher walks of life. That toil unremitted unpaid toil must be my lot and portion, without even the hope or expectation of any thing better.” (p. 6) And even house slaves were not immune to the prospect of torture, rape, or murder. Hannah recounts the tale of a beloved nurse of the master’s son who, after begging for mercy, chose to suffer rather than drown her dog. Woman and pet were gibbeted on iron loops for six days with no food or water, making it through a fierce storm that only revived them to agony. A drop of black blood — and you were no better off than a dog. The establishment of slavery ironically did not discriminate between the classes extant in the world of slaves. Hannah writes of a man who agreed to part with his young chattel for a handsome amount of money: “He reck[on]ed not that she was a woman of delicate sensibilities and fine perfections – she was a slave, and no more that was all to him.” (p.82)

FREEDOM
The act of running away, of plunging into the harsh vicissitudes of threat and want, is obviously a bravery all its own. What impresses me as much are the battles Hannah won first in the deepest places of self. She was bold enough to envision not only her escape but well before, to have broken through the low, hard ceiling that kept slaves from the daylight of dreams. Taking the words that had come alive to her on paper, she would compose a novel that revealed truth. I find the vast verbal blueprint she was able to draw up in her mind astounding. It appears Hannah had not been “writing this for herself,” as “it was not an internal sort of story [in which she grows or changes] which makes me want to think of her imagining a public for it.” (Preface, lxiv) The pen at work was a soaring of the mind, a declaration of will. She did not heed the holes in her learning. A full imagination, insight, and instinct for the framing of words would do. Her sense of worth, not mollifiable, told her she was capable of attempting what no hand of woman had as of yet and that she could secure readers. This anchor is what impelled her escape, for “rebellion would be virtue, that duty to myself and my God actually required it, and that whatever accidents or misfortunes might attend my flight nothing could be worse than what threatened my stay.” (p. 206) I love the duty to herself. Her body, her spirit, her dignity were worth protecting, and she would see to it.

COST
Some things are not worth fighting for. “Marriage like many other blessings I considered to be especially designed for the free, and something that all the victims of slavery should avoid as tending essentially to perpetuate that system…I had spurned domestic ties not because my heart was hard, but because it was my unalterable resolution never to entail slavery on any human being.” (pp. 206-207) Hannah decides it the wiser course for slaves to forgo certain pleasures. The sweetest of them – creaturely comfort and family – promise in the grander scheme only to embitter their own existence, feed the very beast of their anguish. So how far do you go to protect your child? Hannah describes the response of a young black woman forced to sell her children by their father, the master of the house. “Her eyes had a wild phrenzied look, and with a motion so sudden that no one could prevent it, she snatched a sharp knife…and stabbing the infant threw it with one toss into the arms of its father. Before he had time to recover from his astonishment she had run the knife into her own body, and fell at his feet bathing them in her blood. She lived only long enough to say that she prayed God to forgive her for an act dictated by the wildest despair.” (pp.177-178) This despair was no drama out of a writer’s fancy. Hannah likely knew of the publicized infanticide of 1856. Margaret Garner was fleeing a Kentucky plantation with her husband, their baby and two-year-old daughter Mary, and his parents when she was pursued by her master. Margaret slit Mary’s throat with a knife to spare her the waiting travail. It was a doomed attempt to solve the lesser of two impossible evils, and Margaret’s act of desperation articulates Hannah’s own conviction to refuse helotry another generation of victims. So accustomed to the relative comforts of the wealthiest nation in the world, I can’t imagine what would compel me to extinguish my son’s breath.

GREATNESS
To run away is to face the real possibility of torture and death, but the road before holds out the irresistible hope of autonomy and birthright of dignity. To stay or go back is to assure oneself of a living death. The Underground Railroad saw many, though not enough, lives to freedom. But literacy liberates the mind and creates its own opportunity of voice. The depths to which Bond pursued her art yielded a remarkable achievement. She reached for access to that forbidden code of the written word we call reading, and went on to add her own undimmed testimony of good, evil, and the true to the dark pages of the human heart we call history.

The Afterlife We Call Legacy

I wondered why Bill Clinton’s and Michelle Obama’s tribute to Maya Angelou sounded so familiar. The eulogies were beautiful and compelling, but it felt like I was hearing the speakers replay a long conversation I’d just had with them on color, courage, and identity. It hit me. They were talking like contributors to my Race Around the World. I grinned thinking Yeah, Michelle would’ve written for the Race. Anyone have access to her for my next series? I felt awe seeing the ripples of Maya’s influence upon people who would become pillars of the most powerful nation in the world. When Maya was a little girl she was afraid her voice had killed a man after the rapist she’d named was found dead. She quit talking for six years. Maya didn’t know she would find it again, a voice that would bring life and healing to those who listened.

Here’s Bill: I first encountered Maya Angelou as a young man when I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” It was written in 1970 about the time I started law school, and shortly after it came out, I read it and I was the one who was struck dumb. She called our attention to things that really matter — dignity, work, love and kindness — things we can all share and don’t cost anything. And they matter more than the differences of wealth and power, of strength and beauty, of intellect. All that is nice if you put it to the right use, but nothing is more powerful than giving honor to the things we share.

I got chills hearing Michelle. I was struck by how she celebrated black women’s beauty like no one had ever dared to before. Our curves, our stride, our strength, our grace. Her words were clever and sassy, they were powerful and sexual and boastful..but she also graced us with an anthem for all women, a call for all of us to embrace our God-given beauty. And oh, how desperately black girls needed that message. As a young woman, I needed that message. As a child, my first doll was Malibu Barbie. That was the standard for perfection. That was what the world told me to aspire to. But then I discovered Maya Angelou, and her words lifted me right out of my own little head. Her message was very simple. She told us that our worth has nothing to do with what the world might say. Instead, she said each of us comes from the Creator, trailing wisps of glory.

Dr. Angelou’s words sustained me on every step of my journey, through lonely moments in ivy-covered classrooms and colorless skyscrapers, through blissful moments mothering two splendid baby girls, through long years on the campaign trail where, at times, my very womanhood was dissected and questioned…Words so powerful that they carried a little black girl from the south side of Chicago all the way to the White House. She touched me, she touched all of you, she touched people all across the globe, including a young white woman from Kansas who named her daughter after Maya and raised her son to be the first black president of the United States.

As a kid, I kept to peers who were bicultural and shied from those more Asian than I out of a sense of superiority. Not thinking that I myself was above those who were more traditionally Asian but because I had bought into the myth that white culture was superior. The blonde on TV was cooler than my parents. I’m obviously over that. I wish I were the measure of my mother.

When Oprah took her turn to speak at the memorial service, I saw more clearly than ever the power and need of role models for all children. Being able to see ourself in the mirror of a hero gives us hope to dream bigger than our circumstances. I marvel at God. I am just in awe that I, a little colored then Negro girl, growing up in Mississippi, having read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” for the first time, read a story about someone who was like me. I was that girl who loved to read. I was that girl who was raised by my southern grandmother. I was that girl who was raped at nine.

I remember when I opened my school in South Africa and I said to her, oh Maya, this is going to be my greatest legacy. And she said, not so fast. Your legacy is every woman who ever watched your show and decided to go back to school. Your legacy is every man who decided to forgive his father…Your legacy is every person you ever touched. Your legacy is how you lived and what you did and what you said every day. So true, sister Maya. I want to live your legacy…Each of us who knew her, those only touched by her words or those who were able to be blessed to sit at the kitchen table, we are next in line to be a Maya Angelou to someone else. It’s a challenge that I embrace with my whole heart.

I caught philosopher Stephen Cave on radio last month when he maintained that all fears, like those of flying or driving, really come down to the fear of death. He said we can’t imagine not being. In the post What If You Weren’t Afraid?, readers brought up the matter of healthy fears, what some consider necessary survival mechanisms. We’d better be afraid of anything twice our size wielding a weapon – fangs or knife. I’m no evolutionist but oh yes, we do want to live and keep living. I believe our wish to leave a worthy legacy is the desire to live on beyond death. Our afterlife.

At The Finish Line: Asian American In Thailand, Part 16

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.

I consider myself Asian American, or as I like to say, American Asian. The latter description came from digesting people’s perceptions of me. Depending on circumstances, I’m either too Asian or not Asian enough. I just go with Asian American because it’s the title folks are saddled with. It’s the convenient box I check. But I think Asian American means different things to different people. My father and his family made their way to the United States after fleeing China during the Cultural Revolution. My mother met my father during the Vietnam War when he was stationed with the US Air Force in Thailand. Interestingly, I was almost born in Thailand, but my mother boarded the plane nine months pregnant with me so I could be born in the US. Yeah, she’s crazy, but I’m thankful.

Six years later we returned to Thailand on family vacation. My father died in a motorbike accident. Our lives changed in ways I would never have imagined. My mother never remarried but stayed with her Caucasian boyfriend for pretty much my entire childhood. I refer to him as my step-dad, out of convenience. Like my mom, he was from a poor working-class family. When I got older I would jokingly refer to me and my family as “Asian white trash.” Now that I look back, there was something in that. It was never meant as self-deprecation but just my way of recognizing the uniqueness of my family.

My ethnic identity is important to me in as much as it gives me some sort of foothold. I’m part of a tribe, so to speak, but my ethnicity is also not that important in light of the experiences I’ve had. My experiences have left me to wonder what identity really is, and I’ve decided it is a fickle friend.

2) What was your first language? What did you grow up speaking with your parents, especially until your father passed? How much Thai do you understand and speak?Lani

Had my father lived I feel Chinese and Thai would have been taught us, but this is just a guess. My brother and I grew up surrounded by the Thai language but interestingly enough, Mom spoke English with us (even though hers is poor and has not really improved because she had many Thai friends in Hawaii). So I started learning when I arrived in Thailand about five years ago. I have functional Thai, but the goal is to be fluent.

3) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I live in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Before that I was in Ecuador, Alabama, Southern California, Oregon, Hawaii, and Colorado. I was born and raised in Hawaii on the island of Oahu. My family moved to Barstow, California when I was around 12 years old. We were in the armpit of America for only 2-3 years, but they were formative years. It was the first time I was a minority, and I felt every bit different. It has seemed my identity would get redefined with each move. Like a potato, I can be cut up and served as fries, or be put in soup, stew, or curry. In other words, depending on the context (the dish, to stick with the analogy), I will be perceived accordingly. I’m still a potato though, you know?

4) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

Very diverse. It was a motley neighborhood due to the vast Asian population of Hawaii and the US military presence on the islands. But there was and still is racial tension, ironically enough. When I was growing up Caucasians often complained about feeling like outsiders and being called haole (Hawaiian for foreigners), especially when expletives accompanied the word. Can’t say that I blame them. Actually, I like to say that Hawaiian culture is a confrontational culture because there was a lot of fighting in the schools. It didn’t necessarily have to do with race, but all the races were involved. This isn’t to say we didn’t get along, because most of the time we did.

And then we moved to Barstow, California – a big change for me with no Asian kids around.  It was also the first time I was confined to the great indoors due to the harsh desert climate and environment. So I fell in love with books and writing during this period. When we returned to Hawaii I was a very different girl. I had become passionate about reading, writing and theatre. These are not “Hawaiian” qualities, like zeal for the beach or mall which back then were all that mattered.

5) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity?

After my father’s death I woke up from any kind of childhood dreaminess. I often heard how much I looked like my father, which made me feel I looked “very Chinese” and made me aware of my ethnicity. In fact, I actually resented it when anyone said it was my younger brother who looked like him because I had become proud to look so Chinese and take after my father. I was Daddy’s girl.

6) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity?

I consciously gravitate towards outsiders or folks perceived as different. When I was 11, we had our first dark-skinned Black student at my elementary school. We had plenty of brown-skinned students, but no one looked like her. Nobody liked her, and for some reason I immediately made friends with her. I remained her friend even when my peers teased her. She eventually made new friends and left me behind.

I kind of marvel at my younger self. I certainly didn’t get that openness from my family. My mom was sometimes racist and judgmental against all races that were not Asian. Yet for some reason, my younger brother and I knew better and would usually respond by laughing. We didn’t take her seriously. Her remarks were so archaic. As far as being around people of my own ethnicity, there is a certain kind of comfort that comes with being with your own kind. I used to hate sticking out in any crowd. Then I came to enjoy it, and now, well, I like blending in. After all, I live in Thailand where I merge into the landscape.

7) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

No, it doesn’t work that way for me. With other Asian Americans I have met abroad there is a certain understanding we share for the similar experiences. Many expats form their own little communities. But most of my relationships are unique unto themselves. I also enjoy meaningful friendships across the ages (20s-70s) and with folks from around the world.

8) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest?

I actually feel a sense of belonging in many groups. This makes me easy to relate to or identify with, which is important to me as a teacher and a writer. Although I do think being Asian American helps me belong to the American and Asian communities readily.

9) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

It’s something I’m aware of, but these kinds of things ebb and flow. These days I don’t really have to make much of an effort because I’m an expat (and my Thai family is a few hours away). But here’s a quick example of what I mean. For my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training in Bangkok, my class consisted of a Mexican, Belgian, French, Cambodian, Filipino American, British-Thai, Indian, a third-culture kid (American raised in Brazil, China, and the Philippines). My trainers hailed from Australia, South Africa, and Romania. I’m still friends with and in contact with all of them but one.

10) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

Moving around a lot has given my identity a few solid shakes. When I was living in Colorado, I had a Native American ask me, “What tribe?” I was shocked because I thought I looked so Asian. When I explained my ethnicity, he said, “Oh, I thought you were Najavo.” In Ecuador, I had a Bible thumper thrust the Good Book under my nose. He spoke in Spanish and the book was in Chinese. In Thailand, the people always try to guess my ethnicity. Japanese is a common answer, for the way I dress. Sometimes when I’m walking down the street, people speak to me in Chinese. Yesterday, a new friend asked if I was Korean. And since I teach English, I’ve made a game out of students’ guessing where I am from. So I think I’m just used to people thinking whatever they want to think about me depending on where I am. I can be outgoing or quiet. I think it helps that I like to make people laugh. There have also been times and places where I haven’t had friends and I’m okay with that, too.

11) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?

I don’t know if it is fully possible, but I hope it is possible to be more compassionate and culturally sensitive.

12) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

These questions were hard to answer because HW obviously put some good old-fashioned thought into them! I guess it’s because we live with our ethnicity and race, that we don’t often try to explain to someone else who we are and the conditions that have shaped us. I also think that some of the questions (or the answers!) might make folks feel uncomfortable. Which is not a bad thing, I liked the challenge. Thank you.

Lani at Life, The Universe, and Lani

 

The Race: Australian in Singapore, Part 15

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you?

I’m Australian. I simultaneously know and can’t really explain what that means. I think it’s something about how we speak or dress, our body language, our sense of humour. It’s funny – I can often pick an Australian (of any ethnicity) from a crowd in a foreign place. Even from a photograph.

Bronwyn2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I live in Singapore (six years now, on and off), have lived in the UK, briefly in China. In China I was generically foreign. In Singapore and particularly the UK, Australians have a more defined role, not the role we play in Australia. In England, for example, I had to be The Straight-Talking Australian, which involved being much more blunt than I would ever have gotten away with back home. People relaxed when I was blunt, as if the world was turning as it should, whereas back home they probably would have felt like punching me in the face. Sometimes being foreign feels like a superpower – you’re allowed to break local etiquette. Of course, all it really means is you’re expected to stick by a different set of rules.

3) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

Not all that diverse. Predominantly white, middle-class Australian, second or third generation, which was considered to be about as died-in-the-wool as you could get thirty odd years ago. There were a few people of different ethnicities, but it never seemed to be a big deal. The only time I remember it coming up was when a teacher spoke to some kids who were using a racial epithet as a nickname. All the kids, including the guy who’d acquired the nickname, seemed baffled and amused that anyone would find it insulting. He kept the nickname. “But that’s just my name, Miss,” he said. “It’s what everyone calls me.” And they went back to playing ball.

4) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?

When I was around five I asked mum if my cousin was “from another country”. I’d obviously noticed that our cousins didn’t look exactly like the average kid on our street, and someone must have told me people looked different in other countries. That was confusing since I’d played with my cousins all our lives and I was pretty sure they’d been born at the local hospital. My mother gave me a brief introduction to evolution and genetics coupled with a history of human exploration – pausing along the way to point out that our white skin was originally adapted for northern Europe – and then explained that my cousins had got their different skin colour from their Chinese father. Then I think she told me to put on a hat and reapply my suncream. That was pretty much that. As a sort of bonus, it explained why we always ate Chinese food when we were with them.

When I arrived in the UK as an adult, several people asked me if I was “true” Australian. When I said yes, they said they’d asked a lot of Australians and it turned out their grandparents or great grandparents were actually from somewhere else entirely. The first time I heard this I think I burst out laughing, because (remember) second or third generation was died-in-the-wool as far as I was concerned. When I told one person my full pedigree she proclaimed me British, and I replied to the effect that the British passport office saw things differently. But some Aboriginal Australians see things differently again, so I didn’t feel I could press the issue.

When I have to go there, they have to take me in. That’s the bottom line for me personally.

5) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?

I’m definitely more at home with some people than others, and yes, they are often Australian. My jokes don’t fall flat (as often) and we understand the same cultural references.

That said, it’s not that I’ll automatically get on better with other Australians (or consciously gravitate towards them), it’s more that the probability I’ll feel comfortable with a randomly-chosen Australian seems to be higher than the probability I’ll feel comfortable with a randomly-chosen non-Australian. There’s a greater chance we’ll have an overlapping world view. I like to keep an open mind, though – the people we run into are not usually randomly-chosen in any case. On top of that, there’s a whole list of things some Australians do that make me cringe, from getting obnoxiously drunk (affably drunk is ok) to a certain kind of bonding ritual based mostly on whining.

6) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

Yes, pretty much. I met my husband in high school – we were all pretty much from the same suburb, and then there’s my family.

7) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest? Think about the groups you are part of. Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?

Definitely shared faith or interest is of more importance than race. Class is a big factor, and education. I can relate to veterinary colleagues from other countries better than to people from my own country who live wholly differently. My colleagues and I share more similar day-to-day experiences by virtue of our similar jobs. I’m not sure it’s necessarily better this way, but at least education and class are things that can sometimes be chosen or changed.

8) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

Not consciously. Singapore is a melting pot, and we end up crossing paths with a mixed bag of nationalities.

9) Optional. Children seem color-blind. How have you explained color and culture to your children or grandchildren as they got older? Did you ever have to handle a situation where they were a victim of racial slight or slur?

Five-year-olds are not colour-blind. Just in the past month, we’ve started having a lot of discussions about this. My eldest has come out with comments like “white kids should play with white kids and brown kids with brown kids” which is hilarious in a way, because ninety percent of the kids he plays with (including his best friends) are “brown”. I pointed this out to him and he had a quiet revelation. Obviously I didn’t immediately think it was hilarious. I had to collect myself, and I probably would have felt differently about it if he was part of the majority racial group where we live. Of course I’ve wondered where he picked up these attitudes, but he’s also come out with a whole slew of sexist comments as well, so I would say five-year-olds are equal-opportunity bigots. I don’t think it’s a coincidence he’s the exact same age I was when I first started asking about our cousins’ ethnicity. It’s as if he’s just starting to think about and figure out his wider community. He’s picking up on obvious differences, drawing conclusions and testing them against my reactions, and then throwing them out and starting again with new ones next week. It seems like a really important and delicate phase when it comes to his ideas about race, class, sex, etc, and I’ve been reading a lot of articles on the internet about it, which is no doubt a dubious approach. I vaguely recall my mother saying one of my cousins had some trouble in early primary school with racial slurs as well, although it must be said that I (and others) had our own troubles at that age for reasons entirely unrelated to race. Kids can be mean those first few years of school, and they’ll latch on to any excuse, though race is a particularly obvious one.

10) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

I’m not sure I’ve ever got a handle on that. I will adjust my accent and word choices, but that’s more aimed at being plain understood.

11) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?

Our brains seem wired to make snap judgements on some basis. If it wasn’t race it would be dress or accent. I’m not sure it’s possible to entirely stop the profiling – it’s probably more realistic to cultivate a habit of friendliness no matter what and to continually check our first impressions.

12) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

As time goes by, I think my identity as an Australian is weakening. I relate less to people back in the “old country” and more to those who share similar life experiences. To the extent that people stereotype me based on my race or ethnicity the conclusion they usually jump to is that I’m in some way privileged. This can be a bit frustrating if they’re trying to overcharge me or if they’re having trouble with what I’ve asked for instead of Stuff White People Like (ordering tea in Singapore can be a two-step process, where I have to first place my order, then affirm that I realise it’s “local” tea). But for the most part I get to make my own choices in peace. It’s easier not to focus on racial issues when this is the box you get put in.

Bronwyn at Journeys of the Fabulist

The Race: Asian Australian, Part 10

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.

I was born in Australia to very traditional Chinese-Malaysian parents. The word “Malaysian” refers to a nationality. There are predominantly three races living in Malaysia – Chinese, Malay and Indian. A very long time ago, the Chinese came and settled in Malaysia. My grandparents – and many generations before them – were born in Malaysia. My relatives and extended family don’t know where our ancestors originated. We don’t talk about Chinese history but the history of Malaysia. We’ve always considered ourselves Chinese people living in Malaysia. We don’t identify with China the country but with Chinese culture. Chinese Malaysian is similar to the term, say, Korean American.

Melbourne

Melbourne

When I was growing up in Melbourne, I always heard my parents speak Cantonese to one another. But when they spoke to my kiddy-self and chided me for running under the blazing sun and turning “ugly black”, it was always in English – with Cantonese words here and there. We celebrate the Chinese New Year every year. I always come home to rice and noodles on the table. In short, “Chineseness” has always been a part of my life. I would be naked without it.

2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I lived in Melbourne until I was six. Then my family moved to Malaysia and later Singapore when I was ten. Throughout school in these countries, my classmates clamoured to sit with me during recess and went, “Mabel is from Australia. Australian! She is my friend!”. They thought I ate fish and chips and went to the beach all the time, which was far from the truth. It was as if being Australian came with “white privileges”, that being Aussie was “classy”. The Malaysian/Singaporean accent rubbed off on me a fair bit. I returned to Melbourne for university. Australians pointed out my accent, asking me “Where are you from?” every odd week. Thus, I’ve always felt too Asian to be Australian and too Australian to be Asian.

3) Is “Asian Australian” a fairly common designation?

Very common designation used of someone who holds Australian citizenship and is of Chinese/Vietnamese/Korean/Thai/etc. descent. I have met a lot of people who identify with this label.

4) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

My preschool classmates Down Under were mostly Caucasian. There were a few Caucasians and Eurasians amongst the countless Asians I went to school with in Malaysia and Singapore. My first language is English and I think and speak in this language. I talked with all my friends in English. Although I know basic Cantonese and am fluent in Malay, rarely did we talk to one another in these languages.

5) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?

I was about six in preschool. One afternoon, I was sitting in class across one of my blonde, blue-eyed classmates who was a head taller than me. I always admired her – outgoing, confident and sporty. All the things I was Asian-stereotypically not good at but wanted to be. She looked at me condescendingly, brows furrowed, eyes narrowed. So fiercely, in fact, I was startled, thinking I had done something wrong. She demanded, “Why is your hair brown?”. I felt very small at that moment. I wanted to cry. Maybe this is why I sometimes still feel shy speaking to Caucasians today.

6) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?

I’ve always found it easier talking to those of Asian descent. Maybe there’s an underlying assumption that we’ll understand each other easily for the shared cultural values. That’s not to say I don’t like talking with people of other races. I do. When I meet someone, what they have to say about the topic of conversation piques my interest – given they’re from a different background, usually their opinions will differ from mine.

7) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

Of course there’s my family, and my closest friends are of Asian descent, those who have predominantly lived in Asia and/or Australia. Not too sure why this is so. Perhaps I’ve shied from others because of racism towards Asian Australians, which I’ve discussed here.

8) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest? Think about the groups you are part of: writers, homeschoolers, mothers, hobbyist, artists, colleagues, church. Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?

Similar racial values or shared interests don’t usually play a part in encouraging me to feel a sense of connection to a group. I don’t see how we can’t feel a sense of belonging and feel comfortable if we’re with people who respect who we are, our values and what we do. I connect most easily with those who don’t judge me, say, based on my speech or dress. It’s their nonjudgmental attitude that makes me want to spend time with them. I like hanging with those who have strong opinions too and feel there’s something worth learning from determined minds.

9) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

At university and work, I mingle with people of different cultural backgrounds pretty much every day. Very frequently I’ve met classmates and colleagues who aren’t from around Australia but grew up in Asia with their first language being, say, Chinese or Vietnamese. I never had trouble conversing with them in English, though I admit there are times when I can’t understand some of their English-mangled sentences. When this happens, I politely ask them to repeat what they say and usually get their point. When I don’t, I change the subject as seamlessly as I can so that the conversation keeps going.

10) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

As an introvert, I have fearfully kept my mouth shut in front of Caucasian after experiencing racism in Melbourne. After six years back here, I realised part of the problem was because I held the impression Caucasians frowned upon my culture and who I am – a minority, an Asian Australian. A silly, narrow-minded thought; surely not everyone is like that. Today, I’ve learnt to love who I am and am more confident talking to people.

11) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

I thought responses to these questions would come easily. I was quite wrong. It was a struggle to put reflections of my past into words. Race is a sensitive issue. This exercise reminded me we’re all culturally different, a beautiful thing. We should never judge others but embrace who we are as individuals.

Mabel at Mabel Kwong on multiculturalism.

The Race: White in South Korea, Part 6

South Korea was, and still is, a means of escape for me. On a practical level, it offered me a ticket out of my depressing neighborhood in Nevada (U.S.) with the meth lab across the street. On a slightly higher level, it released the contradictory pressures I felt as a refugee between two “racial” categories – educated white and white trash. I couldn’t really join the first group because I didn’t have enough money and I didn’t want to join the second because that’s effectively a death sentence for an ambitious person like me. In Korea, I rightly assumed these identity tags would fall away and leave me the space to carve out an international, upwardly mobile niche for myself and allow me to play to my greatest strength – the willingness to adapt. That attitude, I believe, is what made my transition from the deserts of Nevada to the megacities of South Korea so satisfying and now, such a huge part of my identity going forward.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I arrived in Korea in 2008, I found that roughly 50% of what I saw looked familiar and 50% like the product of a Martian civilization; I could walk into a totally familiar 7-11 and walk out with peanut-crusted squid jerky as well as a box of “placenta essence masking.” I found this incredibly exciting. The language became this wonderful puzzle, the 2,000 years of history a playground, the whole new cast of cultural heroes (like King Sejong) and villains (like the Japanese occupiers of 1910-1945) a great opportunity to look at the world differently. Korea, by being so different, almost forced me to broaden my perspectives and for that I am very grateful.

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.

I define myself as white, though it’s not important to me at all. Frankly, the notion that there’s an ideal of whiteness that I should pursue is insulting. I am the product of my human agency, and reducing all my choices, all my work, all my individuality to an accident of birth like race is to treat me like a plant or deep sea sponge – a passive organism defined by nothing more than chance. It is to deny my humanity. My family name is from Spain and I believe most of my ancestors are from Europe.

2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I grew up mostly in Reno, Nevada, though I also bounced around California and the Midwest. Reno had a very diverse demographic, though not in the traditional sense. There were (some) blacks and (a few) Asians and (many thousands of) Hispanics, but I think Reno’s most important demographics broke down like this:

a) Immigrants. Mostly from Mexico, mostly illegal or illegal until recently, these people were omnipresent in Reno. When I first arrived in Reno from Central California I was 11 years old, patriotic and conservative, which means I despised this group for invading “my” country and stealing “my” jobs. My attitudes, to say the least, have evolved on this matter.

b) The rural poor. Mostly white, although sometimes Hispanic and occasionally black, these people are Reno’s underclass. The really scary attitudes in this class of people are the same attitudes that scare me about black ghettos in Sacramento or Los Angeles – a deification of ignorance, taking real pride in one’s race and deriving identity from said ancestry.

c) Rich people and the middle class. These people are, by virtue of their money, above racial classifications. If you’re Asian or Hispanic, you will fit in here without difficulty. You can even be black in this social setting, so long as you have enough money.

3) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

Some of them were very diverse, some of them were lily-white and, if you include my graduate school, overwhelmingly Asian.

4) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language. It could be a scene with strangers, the park, school, work. Could have been subtle feelings you recognized or a blatant attack of bigotry. If it was a season or chapter in your life, tell us the impact it had on your sense of self, confidence, or emotional development. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?

I made friends with a black kid in the third grade and this offended his mother, who accused my new friend of selling out. At the time, I took this to mean it was offensive to people of other races when a white kid tries to befriend them. I just wrote it off as my friend having a dumb mother. I’ve always been pretty comfortable ignoring or breaking rules I consider stupid.

I should explain what I think is the central advantage of being white – it doesn’t mean anything. I can be straight or gay, conservative or liberal, a businessman or a pimp and nobody is going to blink. White pride, to the extent it exists, to me implies shameful affiliations like the KKK, Neo-Nazis or whatever depressing nationalistic rally Vladimir Putin is currently hosting.

I know I said this before, but if someone were to make it clear they were accepting me because I’m white, I’d be offended. This is why [insert ethnicity here] pride has always baffled me. Why the flaming hell would you want all the expectations and limitations that a racial identity puts on you? Why would you want to stereotype yourself?

5) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?

I gravitate towards people who have the strength to reject the easy, cheap identities that come from the accidents of birth. If I think you are stereotypically white/Asian/black/Hispanic/whatever, I probably won’t respect you. If, on the other hand, you have the strength to build your identity from an act of will, I will be very interested in your company. I’ve found strong people of that type come in all shapes and sizes.

There is a social tendency in my national group, particularly white people, that I wish would go away. That is the assumption that, simply by virtue of being an American, everybody should listen to you. I call this idea inevitable superiority and I hate it. You were not born special, you were not chosen by God or anybody else, you are an American/European/whatever because your Mom and Dad decided to conceive you within the arbitrary boundaries of America/Europe/whatever – nothing sacred about it.. If you want to be special, earn your specialness and stop expecting people to listen to you just because of your passport.

6) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

Yes, and for obvious reasons. The two most precious people in the world to me are both members of my immediate family.

7) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest? Think about the groups you are part of: writers, homeschoolers, mothers, hobbyist, artists, colleagues, church. Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?

The idea I would need to use my race to find a community is pretty offensive to me. I’m a writer, thinker, educator, basketball fan, shade tree mechanic, second language learner and about a million other things before I’m white.

And Korean food is waaaay more delicious than most American food.

8) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

No. It happens naturally when you treat people as individuals and not as representatives of their particular birth accidents. It also happens pretty easily when you live in a foreign country and make most of your friends from the local community. I guess I only consciously do this in the sense that I try to make friends in Korea who aren’t going to leave after a few years – most of whom are Korean.

9) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

I rejected the accidents of my birth and presented myself as a creature of will. I expect to be treated as an individual. I expect to be accepted for myself and not as a representative for some identity group based on chance. I extend the same courtesy to everyone I meet.

This has proven invaluable in Korea. I can’t tell you how many times my Korean friends or acquaintances have said “you don’t act like an American, you just act like a person.” I’m very proud of that.

10) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?

I think the best way to defeat the effects of race or tradition is to do what the Romans did – move all around the world, borrow the customs and ideas that work and marry the locals. The trade-off between advancing as a human species and protecting the purity of one’s blood or traditions is a no-brainer to me.

This might sound like I’m advocating imperialism. Imperialism is the belief that Culture X should impose its inevitably superior ways on the inevitably inferior Culture Y. I don’t accept this at all, mostly because I find the idea that humans are destined, inevitably, to be anything, bothers me. I don’t like it because it’s an attack on our nature as self-determining beings.

My belief is that we should stop treating cultures and traditions as sacred or even innately valuable and start treating them like tools. If my American culture is a 5/8th inch wrench and I need a 14 mm socket of the type they make in South Korea, there’s no reason for me to agonize about how I’m betraying the proud heritage of 5/8th inch wrenches – I should just go get a different subset of 14 mm cultural norms.

11) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

It made me sad. A lot of people spend a lot of time fighting to preserve their proud racial identities. It’s like watching emphysema patients fighting over a carton of cigarettes.

Ben at Literary Adventures in South Korea

The Race: American Cities, Part 4

ElizCardamone1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.

I am white and so is my family. My husband is 100% Italian, first generation (his parents were both born in a small town in Italia) so there is an ethnic component to my family now. I am comfortable being white because I have known no other way of being. It is important to me.

2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I grew up in Providence, RI. I had lots of Jewish friends, as the upscale neighborhood where I lived was predominantly Jewish. After my parents divorced, my mother moved back to her hometown in upstate NY, and I visited her on school vacations. Because Providence is a city, there was more of an opportunity to mix with different ethnicities there than in Mom’s town.

I traveled the world as a girl with my father, and had an opportunity to observe differences between America and other countries: I was frightened by the poverty I saw and intrigued by the different ways of living. In Belize, for example, I had the privilege of dining with a Mayan farmer and his family. They lived simply, in huts with no doors, dirt floors, no furniture or appliances. The farmer’s wife cooked our tortillas on an open fire pit situated in the middle of the floor.

These experiences made me aware of my fortune being born white and American. These identifications ensured freedom, access to public education, fairly unlimited career and life choices. I came to appreciate this access from my travels, instead of take it for granted. However, I also witnessed a simpler way of life, one centered on survival rather than accomplishment and entitlement. There was an undeniable appeal to this way of living. Ultimately, though, I was glad both to be aware of these differences and of the access I had because of my race and nationality. My awareness of other cultures instilled in me an ongoing curiosity about other lifestyles.

I attended college in upstate NY at a small, private university with few African-Americans. I started dating my husband freshman year. After graduation, we lived in Philadelphia and a predominantly all-white Chicago suburb before we moved to my husband’s hometown of Lewiston, NY (a suburb of of Buffalo).

3) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

Although we were not wealthy, I lived in a rich neighborhood occupied by wealthy families, many of them Jewish. My public elementary and high schools were very racially diverse. In these settings, I hung out with girls from my neighborhood. I was the only non-Jewish person amongst friends. I attended a private Quaker middle school.  There was only one African-American boy in my grade.  Because I was not wealthy, I did not have many friends.

4) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language. It could be a scene with strangers, the park, school, work. Could have been subtle feelings you recognized or a blatant attack of bigotry. If it was a season or chapter in your life, tell us the impact it had on your sense of self, confidence, or emotional development. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?

I felt race differences most keenly in elementary and high school, which had higher percentages of African Americans.  I would have liked to become friends with several African American girls in my class, but never had the guts to approach them because of the hostility I sensed. I assumed they rejected me because I was white. In high school, I liked an African-American girl because she asked as many questions in class as I did. I wrongly assumed this commonality meant we could be friends, but she made it clear outside of class we were different.

At recess, while the African-American girls played double dutch jump rope games, I stood nearby, watching enviously along with the other white girls. My group even set up a double dutch game next to the African-American girls, but we never matched their finesse, as emphasized by their snickers and eye rolling.

5) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?

I consciously gravitate towards whites because of the hostility I sense from African-Americans. White acquaintances have made racial slurs, which I did not respond to either negatively or positively. This type of behavior makes me uncomfortable, and I step away when I can.

6) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

Yes.

7) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest? Think about the groups you are part of: writers, homeschoolers, mothers, hobbyist, artists, colleagues, church. Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?

I feel like an outsider no matter what group I am in. In general, my responses to events rarely coincide with society’s prescribed feelings (immediate fulfillment you’re supposed to have giving birth, instant intimacy with spouse after getting married, fulfillment as a full-time mother). I desperately wanted these things, but because of unresolved childhood traumas, was unable to embrace them in the moments they were happening.  It is only now, after years of treatment for depression and anxiety, and my own self reflection through my book, that I can honestly feel these things. I spend a lot of time alone, and with my family in the evenings, and prefer it that way. That is where I feel the greatest ease.

8) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

No.

9) Children seem color-blind. How have you explained color and culture to your children or grandchildren as they got older? Did you ever have to handle a situation where they were a victim of racial slight or slur?

Before we moved here, we lived in another conservative mostly white suburb in Wheaton, IL. There we went to a drive-in movie when our twin boys were small.  The place where we parked was paved with small stones, which our boys continued to throw. They reluctantly stopped at our reprimand.  A few minutes later, the boys observed some African-American children throwing stones, and became outraged.  They yelled: “Hey, chocolate people, stop throwing stones.”  My children are not prejudiced. They just wanted to get the attention of strangers and used obvious descriptive words. We were so embarrassed and explained why such remarks are inappropriate.

10) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

I usually stand alone.  My husband says the aloofness keeps people from approaching me.  I have been let down by many friends, so I prefer not to risk further hurt.

11) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?

No, I don’t think it is possible, but I do think our society pretends it is less racist than it actually is (hence President Obama’s encouraging speech to African-American men who, statistically speaking, have little opportunity in America.)  The worst word I know is the n word.  I won’t say it, and get so sick to my stomach when I hear it, that I have to move away.  I wish it could be obliterated from our language.

12) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

I live a very sheltered life, and while I sympathize in theory with the struggles African-Americans face (learned about through education, media and literature), I have done nothing to help them.  I don’t think I am that brave.

Elizabeth at Breaking the Cycle