Saturday, May 1, 2010

Interlude: Do I look Illegal?

Rachel and I have similar experiences when it comes to racism. We have the unique opportunity to see the most internal, secretive, illogical racism that exists. Family, friends and coworkers, who would normally avoid racial remarks at all costs, feel comfortable making them when only white people are present.

Or so they think.

Rachel is half Venezuelan. Actually, her father is Italian Venezuelan, so I guess that makes her a quarter of each. She has porcelain pale skin and gorgeous red hair. She has been called beautiful and exotic, but rarely a racial or ethnic minority. I, on the other hand, have both Mexican and Japanese blood running through my veins. I grew up in a household that embraced the Japanese culture and when my mom walked the streets of Miami, people spoke to her in Spanish because she looked like a native speaker. I have brown hair, brown eyes and very light skin. Even when people find out I am of Japanese and Mexican decent, they often don’t believe me.

The event usually unfolds as so:
I am sitting in a room, on a plane or in a meeting with people that I consider friends, or at least, acquaintances. They know me well enough to call me by my first name, speak to me sarcastically and ask me for help. Some have known me for a very long time and we might even be related. They know where I went to college, where I grew up and often, have met my parents. Then, a story, maybe from the television or from their personal experience, references Japan or Mexico and the people within those countries.

This is when the conversation gets uncomfortable…for me, and, if I’m in an argumentative mood, for them. The least hurtful comment is the use of the word “oriental.” Rugs are oriental, people are not. Occasionally, the term “Jap,” used regularly in WWII, comes up in conversation. Most recently, a cousin of mine posted a warning on my mom’s Facebook wall about “those oriental nail salons.” My mom was bewildered. “You know I’m Japanese, right?” she responded. “Oh, no offense,” was followed by a detailed essay on why what my cousin said “really wasn’t racist.” When I was in eighth grade, my social studies class spent the better part of an hour watching footage of the atom bomb. “Cool!” the other children exclaimed. The teacher did not intervene as the video promoted the American perspective of the war, depicting the Japanese as terrible, harsh fighters with no regard for human life. Fifty years after the war and we were still dehumanizing the “enemy.” Even at 13, I felt discouraged.

When I defend my heritage, which is 100% of the time now, I often receive the excuse, “I never would have said that if I knew you were Japanese/Hispanic.” That doesn’t change the fact that you are racist, I want to reply. Careful racism is just as bad, if not worse than outward racism. It makes you wonder how many people have these prejudices inside and how many friends to whom they feel close enough that they can express their biases. Unfortunately, this internal fear they possess has ended many relationships for me. I can handle discussion over political beliefs and even open-minded conversations on race. What I will not do is have a relationship with someone who dehumanizes my friends and family. There is a line that needs to be drawn and those of us who like to debate need to boycott those who cross it. I wonder if Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had sat around and “talked” as long as we do sometimes, would civil rights have happened? We need to stop convincing and take action, stop listening and take charge, stop buying and start affecting.

The immigration bill in Arizona has started a movement called “Do I look illegal?” To me, that is like asking, “Do I look like an alien? Do I look non-human?” And though the revisions to the bill state that officers of the law may only ask for documentation if they can find another law violation, the first thing the police will do is look. A light-skinned man and a brown-skinned man are standing in front of a convenience store. Which one will the police approach regarding loitering and then proceed to ask for documentation? This bill, just as so many subconscious bigots did when they found out my heritage, makes excuses for discrimination. It is no different than the laws imposed on African-Americans that were full of evidence and arguments and justification.

As I ponder the question, “Do I look illegal?” I put my passport, a copy of my birth certificate and my social security card in my wallet. Every time I use my credit card, go to the bank or get pulled over for speeding, I can offer up all of this information. When I get carded at the bar or club, it will be easier if I just shove evidence of my whole life into the open. And then, I can pleasantly state, “You look illegal. Can I see your documentation, please?”

1 comment:

  1. So interesting! I think you have a great perspective to address this issue. People who "pass" as something else (heterosexual for example) often have the opportunity (how I see it) to change hearts and minds.