I am darker than Obama. (Happy Birthday Oscar Grant)
My day to day experience as a person of color is a character study on the motif of ethnic ambiguity. I am often mistakenly identified as belonging to a myriad of various ethnic and racial distinctions which more often than naught are anything but my “true” racial and ethnic identity. I grew up in a neighborhood which saw a good number of Black folks come and go, so I’ve experienced enough Black folks asking if I might have a Black parent to lead me to believe that I probably look Black. In grade school I was asked if I was Chinese. Walking down the streets of my hometown I’ve been asked in Spanish if I had an extra cigarette to spare. Certain individuals have assumed that I was a Muslim. I often am mistaken for someone of South Asian descent.
I have at times attempted to rationalize these experiences by studying my physical appearance and “scientifically” comparing my physical attributes to people of other racial and ethnic distinctions respsectively. If you asked me to describe the color of my skin I would likely reply that it is somewhere between a cup of espresso and chocolate ice cream. My facial features are sharp and angular. My eyes are not quite “slanted” (and I do use this term facetiously) but not quite “round”. My almond colored gaze peers out from elliptical shaped recesses.
At first I felt ashamed about this inability to neatly fit into my “real” racial and ethnic distinction. As far as I was concerned I was a “Filipino” and I was an “Asian American”. I attempted to convince people that I REALLY was what I claimed to be. I grew irritated with people’s inability to correctly dicipher my correct identity. Eventually, however, I came to believe that race was less about how I defined myself and more so about the perceptions of other individuals particularly those individuals who have the power to define dominant narratives about race and ethnicity. Also, I have determined that my former desire to “fit into” a certain racial or ethnic distinction has very little bearing on my own sense of personal self-worth. The greater issue rather is how the white man’s ideas of race and ethnicity consequently force unwanted social meanings upon my body.
The problem is not that I was ethnically ambiguous. The problem is that America cannot tell the difference between people of color. In the eyes of this white man’s country “we” all fit into a number of narrow categories. Our bodies crammed into the spaces of the white man’s language too tightly for us to breathe.
To White minds we are the color of the mysterious and the unknown. The color of our skin has been likened to a fear of that which cannot be understood and or trusted. We are the color of night. The etymology of the language which describes us… black, dark, exotic, other… it likens us to demons, witches, supernatural evil from realms beyond the dominion of human kind.
We are all the color of shit, mud, dirt… we remind the white man of his filth and scum that stubbornly clings to the bottoms of his shoes. We are the dust which invades his living space and which must be swept out. We are the stains which imbue themselves into fabrics permanently corrupting the purity of what was once an immaculate linen. White America hates us and will do whatever it can to be rid of us. We are pushed towards the margins of society into tightly packed ghettoes where suffering and misery is so incredibly intense that we pray for oblivion. We are locked up in prisons and refugee camps. We are funneled into meaningless and harrowing professions and blamed for our own deaths. America hopes that we will be forgotten as we slowly waste away.
A pride in myself as a person of color did not rise out of a vacuum of racial ambiguity and equality but rather as a response to daily reminders that this nation did not, does not, and will not belong to me… unless I decide to claim what is rightfully mine.
In the mind of America dark skin is not a sign of nobility, pride, or dignity…
It is a mark of shame imbued upon the bodies of those unfortunate enough to descend from the ranks of peoples of who are considered to be less than human if not even comparable to human. If we are told that we are garbage and filth from the time of our births then what other recourse do we have, but to confront this slander of our very existence with an equally opposite reaction by expressing pride and dignity for who we are as people? Cultural Nationalism as I have so often heard used as a term to describe the aforementioned phenomena is not a process or ideal which I choose to associate with or participate in in the same way in which an individual decides to take up stamp collecting or following a favorite sports team. Pride in myself as a Filipino, as a person of color, is a matter of paying proper respect to those who have suffered and died at the hands of a system based on exploitation. Pride in myself as a child of a people who have spent their lives as laborers… Pride in myself as a descendant of people who scraped their fingers bare of skin and sinew and worked themselves to death in order to fatten the idle bodies of the obscenely wealthy. Pride in myself as the descendent of those who were willing to give their lives and everything they held dear so that future generations could have a chance to understand what it truly means to be free. This is not just empty rhetoric. This is a matter of life and death. This is about survival.
This is not just prose…
So, what does my experience with race have to do with a young black man in Oakland?
It has everything to do with a young black man who decided to spend time with his friends celebrating the New Year of 2009.
A Family man. Shot in the back by a police officer as he lay handcuffed and defenseless.
This incident marked the first year of a new era… The era of Obama. November 4th 2008 represented a new chapter in the story of how race is experienced in the United States. There is now a black man in the White House.
Yet, America reminds us that it still believes its citizens of darker complexions to be illegitimate children to be begrudgingly accepted as a bastards of the American dream.
What happens to a dream deferred? They do not simply dry up like raisins in the sun, nor do they explode. They are executed by gunshot at point blank range and bled dry into the streets. As the gutters throughout ghettos and barrios run red with the blood of murdered hopes and aspirations people cry out in anguish. They pray for retribution. Eventually they will realize that God helps those that help themselves (to revolution).
As I sit in the comfort of a heated room, protected from the elements, with food in my belly, I reflect upon what little separates me from the same fate which befelled Oscar Grant. In the streets of America a police officer will not stop to ask whether or not I have received a college education, what my IQ is, what books I have read, what recommendations I have received as a public servant. The Pigs will shoot first and ask questions later. At demonstrations expressing the collective anger of the masses for the murder of this hardworking, family man some people wore t-shirts that read: “I am Oscar Grant.” I thought to myself “Am I Oscar Grant?” perhaps the police cannot tell the difference amongst young men of color. Perhaps the police cannot tell the difference between myself and Oscar Grant. Bullets do not discriminate.
The police see that my skin is the color of shit, mud, dirt… yet my blood bleeds red. My dreams of providing a future for a family, surrounding myself with loved-ones, achieving personal growth, realizing self-fullfilment… could all have been ended by the same bullet which ended the dreams and aspirations of Oscar Grant. The fact that I am still alive though, leaves the responsibility on my part to honor his memory and the memories of many more individuals who suffer and die at the hands this white man’s country. I must make every day count as if will be my last and work towards a day where young people of color will look forward to a future rather than just hoping for tomorrow.