A southern state headquartering the infamous Ku Klux Klan seemed an implausible home, even as my husband's health care career landed us there. Our "colored" family lived away from this organization, in a nearby city that was relatively "hospitable" to diversity. A black native there warned us that the Caucasians here had learned to "smile on cue." His comment clearly implicated an underground racism, a seething foam of intolerance that bubbled under many lily white skins. This undercurrent reminded me of certain East Coast towns, where skilled verbal gymnastics masked explicit racism, perpetuating its existence under a cloaked culture of hate.
As an Asian female, I have often struggled against the riptides of discrimination, fighting the tricky tidal wave that will sometimes strike me down. Most racism today is found in blatant attitudes, not in legally incriminating words that proclaim, "Proud to be a racist." Yet, few undaunted leaders like President Carter threaten the latent system by acknowledging that its operations (such as caricaturizing President Obama in Nazi moustaches) stem from racist roots planted deep within the nation's psyche, particularly the Southern mentality.
Given this backdrop of Southern hostility, I have been far more startled to discover a budding segment of Southern activists who forthrightly advocate "racial healing," a topic virtually taboo on the East Coast. Their frank approach enables identification of racist undercurrents accurately as "hateful," versus evasively as "misperceptions" (a perplexing East Coast euphemism). Juxtapose to certain Coastal localities, our educated neighborhood here exhibits visibly greater numbers of Caucasians who adopt children from another race, travel internationally on mission trips, or befriend individuals from different faiths.
This embracing style is also reflected in values of certain educational institutions that promote multi-cultural awareness amongst predominantly white student bodies. My two children attend such a school. My youngest is only in Kindergarten, at a stage when many other children are too small to comprehend race and color.
Still, to my alarm, she recently expressed her frustration with her bronze skin tone. "Change my color!" she pleaded. "I want to be white too, like the other girls." Concerned, I probed her feelings about the grade she had started a week earlier in August, at the same school where she had happily attended pre-K before (with children who were mostly in other KG sections this year)
Looking ashamed, my daughter winced, "They did not want to play my games. Then I told them, I could play any game they want because I knew how to play lots of games, but everyone kept saying, 'No, we don't want you.'" After listening to other details of her teary account, I hypothesized that her classmates were perhaps exhibiting racial hesitation rather than hate, by gravitating comfortably towards persons who looked like themselves.
I developed a plan to test my theory. The next day, I joined the school recess to play with my daughter all those games she loved, boosting her pride as, per my expectation, the other children came in droves, eager to participate in our dynamic display. Within a day, her problem appeared solved, as her classmates normalized her status as a friend. Despite this advancement, she wanted to be white. I understood in her childish honesty that she was simply tired of looking different, now wary that color could disadvantage her in unanticipated future challenges.
Reaching into my memory pack, I tried to think of past lessons that might make for useful parenting now. Race relations had changed over time. When I was in school, some of my teachers had used the humiliating racial slur "Paki," and my classmates had played "innie Minnie mine moe" using the "N" word. Slowly, the political climate evolved, making these brazen practices taboo in public.
This gave birth to a wave of tacit underground racists who thrive today by demeaning minorities using a passive aggressive rather than an explicitly racist approach. Such persons, as President Carter noted, may include those like the belligerent Senator Wilson whose grossly uncivil outburst of "You lie!" in the middle of a Presidential address, shocked the nation. Sadly, Senator Wilson's behavior underscores the attitude that several minorities in white-majority communities endure perpetually, whether residing in demographically homogenous Southern sectors, or cosmopolitan East Coast type regions.
A community, by definition, consists of the immediate operational environment that impacts an individual's living. Hence, a community can be a workplace. Indeed, for some "cosmopolitan" locations, the plight of racism is more obvious because the culturally-rich demographics belie low utilization of minorities within numerous organizations compared to the same utility levels in certain "homogeneous" Southern cities. Even when hired, minorities are often spurned through a tacit racist network that: downplays their excellent output, ignores their presence at group meetings, faults them for "lacking team spirit," denies their promotions to avoid white subordination, and sidelines their development opportunities.
Ostracization has become the tacit vehicle of legalized racism. I remember a flagrant personal case in which a headhunter found that various corporations enthusiastically extended their interest in an anonymous Ivy League resume, yet immediately retracted interviews upon learning my ethnic name. These latent but blatant issues need to be rectified in organizations plagued with prejudice, so that minorities are not faced with a gripping downward spiral that might very well have started for many with symptoms of rejection overlooked right in KG.
I grappled with these thoughts as my car joined the school pick-up line on the afternoon of Tuesday September 8, 2009. My daughter's chubby hand waved excitedly at my sight. Entering the car, before I could articulate my routinely enthusiastic "How was your day?!" question, she announced exuberantly that she had seen Barack Obama, pronounced "Worak Ovama" in her 5 year-old accent.
"Oh!" I said, pleasantly surprised. The raging Southern hoopla about the Presidential student address that morning had virtually signaled to families that the school might steer clear of the speech altogether.
"He is the President and he spoke to us!" she continued jubilantly.
"What did he say?" I quizzed.
"He said, 'Stay safe. Study.' And when he was a kid, he would wake up and then, you know what, he would fall asleep," she said snapping her eyes shut. "Then his mommy would say, 'Wake-up, wake-up! I want to sleep too, but I have to wake-up. This is not fun for meee!' Then he would wake-up and study. So, we have to work hard in school, that's why."
"That's wonderful!" I exclaimed amazed that a five year old had grasped that much.
"You know what else?" she said.
"What?" I replied, amused.
"His skin was brown, just like mine," she stated matter-of-factly.
I was so stunned by this remark that I almost pulled over to process her words.
"And it had a glow" she continued proudly.
"A 'glow!'" I pondered. Sometimes, her precocious vocabulary stumped me. I caught a glimpse of her from my rear view mirror.
"And," she said, pointing a finger to her head "He had dots on his head"
"Dots?" I said puzzled.
"Yes," she said seriously. "He has dots for hair. I don't. My hair is straight. But dots look pretty on him, but not pretty on me. But they look very pretty on him"
"That's right!" I approved, trying not to laugh at her cute expression. "That is why every person is special just the way they are"
"And he is the president," she said gleefully, as if he had become President just that morning. I realized that this was the first time she had seen a "colored" person of prominence showcased in her social world, her school.
In the ensuing days, she has stopped asking me to change her color. Unlike before, she particularly notices pictures of the President and his family on magazine covers at the supermarket aisle. She admires his "pretty" daughters. To the confused bystanders, she will state out loud, pointing to the President, "He spoke to me!"
Her words highlight the need to conquer the psychological impact of racial division through ideals of compassionate outreach. Every person in a community can contribute to this goal by dispensing a lifeboat of inclusiveness towards those who are caught by a riptide of racial ostracization. Lifeboats can come in many forms: a boss who fosters diversity, a parent who invites a 'colored' child for play-dates, an outspoken leader such as President Carter who acknowledges rather than denies latent racial bias, a homogeneous school that welcomes diversity. These vehicles of tolerance can lift the wounded spirit from the depths of darkness to a future of hopeful prosperity.
President Obama's stature goes one step further. Like a torch that lights the way for many lifeboats seeking shore, Obama's "glow" helps bring them home. He can resurrect the damaged self-image of many children looking forward to a future of change in racial relations. While the race issue has persisted over the generations, children are finally learning to feel not just "tolerably" comfortable, but "respectably" comfortable in their very own skin.