Monday, June 2, 2008

This campaign season has forced into the open a topic many of us would rather ignore. During my five month stay in China, I learned that when the Chinese think of an American, the face they picture is Caucasian. I suspect that is true for most foreign countries. Our leaders are mostly white men, so it’s not really surprising. If you only visit selected American places, especially small towns away from the coasts, or West Virginia (apparently) you could receive and hold indefinitely the impression that The United States is a white, Christian country.

Yesterday, at Tacoma Mall, I saw two people walking together who embody my idea of America. I noticed them because one of them was absolutely stunning in a floor length, purple gown and stiletto heels. The rich purple complemented her deep brown skin. Her hair was swept up into a feathered crown. She seemed a bit overdressed for the mall, but even more overdressed when compared to the woman walking with her. She wore jeans, a sweater with wide horizontal grey stripes, non-descript sneakers, and her mousy-brown-straight hair was shoulder length. As they walked together, they were clearly engaged in comfortable, friendly conversation. Their smiles were genuine, their friendship shone clearly; an aura of conviviality surrounded them. A glamorous, slim black woman and a very average white woman walking along as natural as could be, and that, to me, is one of the best things about America. It is time that the leadership of America reflects the citizenship of America.

There’s been talk in recent years that we are really two Americas, and they’ve been color coded into red and blue. Maybe that’s code for white and blended. The heartland of America, the interior, seems to find it easier to identify “us” and “them.” If you’re white and you can manage to live in such a style that you never see people of color, or if you do they are easy to ignore as part of the landscape, as a gardener, perhaps, then you might actually think of America as a white country. The actual statistics of our ethnic diversity would be meaningless if you are insulated from an ethnic experience. Tacoma is a city of diversity, but there are communities very near Tacoma where a monochromatic lifestyle is indeed possible. The existence of these Caucasian enclaves does not change the fact that they are aberrations. Any American’s everyday reality of a mono-white America is in reality unreal.

A recent Bloom County comic in the Sunday paper involved the regular cast of characters beginning a debate centered around the current presidential primary campaign. Their first question was, “Is Barack Obama a black man with a white mother or a white man with a black father?” When no one in the strip had an answer to the question, they ended the debate and went swimming. I was immediately reminded of a student I had years ago, a very lovely young woman with creamy beige skin tones, very curly light brown hair, and a hint of Africa in her features. Her father had one black parent. For Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, she received an invitation to the breakfast for all of the African-American students in the school. I innocently handed it to her in first period. She flew into a rage. “Why do I have to be black? Why can’t I be white? Almost my entire family is white. I hate that side of my dad’s family! They have never been nice to me! Why can’t I choose the white side of my family?!?” I had no answer for her, but it reminded me of the scene in Showboat when Julie has to leave the boat because according to Mississippi law, a person with “one drop of black blood” made one black. The problem is that Julie is married to a white man, which was illegal in the state. Her husband takes some of her blood into his mouth in order to split hairs, saying there is at least a drop of black blood in him, too. Naturally it doesn’t work and Julie leaves the Showboat. It still seems to be true that in America, the great melting pot, if you have any non-white relatives anywhere in your family tree, you are not white. Tiger Woods is considered by most people to be an African-American golfer despite the fact that he is more ethnically Thai than black.

We do not seem to have moved very far past Julie having to leave the Showboat. In our human need to define people, we have left no wiggle room. The census did not allow people to choose multiple ethnicities until 1997 as if before that time we could all easily be plopped into clearly defined racial categories of Asian, black, Native or white. It’s past time to move beyond defining people in these narrow terms.

In his speech in Philadelphia, Barack Obama said, “Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” He’s right. We have avoided an open discussion about race for quite some time. 60s civil rights legislation was a step in the right direction but clearly we cannot stop there. There are still inequities and misconceptions from every corner. Jon Stewart’s take on Obama’s speech was relief that we finally had a politician who would talk to Americans about race as if we were grown up. Let’s truly grow up as a country. Let’s bring the issue of our ethnic diversity on to the table and let’s elect Barack Obama so that an important face of America more accurately reflects America.