Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Talking About Race, With or Without Coffee

It’s OK to talk about race if you have something to say about it and you’re not just talking about talking about race. I’ll start with a personal disclosure:

I am a Japanese person born in Hawaii and identify myself as a Hawaii Japanese. That sometimes confuses people who think that I am saying I’m part Hawaiian and part Japanese, which I am not. But I am not Japan Japanese nor am I mainland Japanese, a distinction that means a lot when you grow up Japanese in Hawaii. In any case, being Japanese makes me part of the Asian “race” as it were, or, as I would have been quaintly called in less enlightened times, an “oriental.”

My spouse is Caucasian. When in Hawaii, my spouse is a haole or white, the same kind of “white” I assume Esther Borg of Lopez Island meant in the ‘70s to describe me as “that fellow with the white woman.”

My two children are part Asian and part Caucasian. My grandson is one quarter Asian and three-quarters Caucasian. Folks say he looks like me but he’ll outgrow that. My granddaughter was adopted from Nepal. I carried her as an infant in the Hilo Hattie store in Honolulu and the Filipino sales women thought she was Filipino; a merchant at the farmer’s market complemented her on having a nice suntan. These days she’s fluent enough in Spanish to run around the playground and chatter away with her Hispanic playmates. These are the citizens of the new Pacific Century.

When I grew up in Hawaii there were more Asians than other “races” so I never felt like a member of a minority. It wasn’t a melting pot of fondue with different cheeses; it was a stew with different ingredients that I lived in. It was the norm. The “Japs” I watched in the war movies were the enemy, not the heroes. Our parents expected me to do well, to excel in school—and I did as I was expected. My best friends in school were Japanese and Chinese and Hawaiian; I dated a Japanese girl (didn’t like the way she kissed) and went steady with a hapa girl, part Hawaiian, part haole. The first black person I met in Hawaii was at a Quaker meeting.

The “mainland” is not Hawaii. In my first month away at college, the clerk at the college business office pondered cashing the check my parents had sent me, first wondering out loud what the exchange rate might be, then saying, “Oh, I guess it’s part of the states now.” First I thought that was stupid, then I thought it was ignorant. You know the difference, right?

I sat in a northern California restaurant in the late ‘60s with my girlfriend and her mother and heard a stone-faced woman sitting at a table across the way say in a voice loud enough for maybe only me to hear, “That poor woman, her heart must be broken.” Maybe it was my shaggy long hair and Fu Man Chu mustache that was breaking a heart, maybe being Asian, who knew?

Traveling across the country, I was refused service in Wyoming by a waitress who said, “We don’t serve Indians in here.” Stupid? Ignorant? 

I once stood around with some old white veterans in Sedro-Wooley as they chewed the fat and listened to them refer to chinks, Japs and niggers. I didn’t say anything, just thought, “I don’t know about the niggers but the chinks and Japs are going to kick your asses.” I thought the same thing when some Republican senator forgot his mic was hot before a Watergate hearing and called Senator Dan Inouye the “fat Jap.” His friend, Richard Nixon, got his ass kicked.

As a Hawaii Japanese I grew up knowing I was in the majority and knew I was expected to be as smart if not smarter than those around me. In Hawaii, I grew up with all the racial, ethnic and cultural stereotypes but it didn’t affect my behavior or how I treated anybody else. I couldn’t.  We played on the same team, went to the same schools, lived in the same town, on the same island.

Living on the mainland, I still think of myself as being in the majority. Seattle bookseller David Ishi wanted me to know that we, meaning us Japanese, had to stick together because we were like a Third World country. I told David I never felt like a besieged minority. But others have. The pain and shame of the World War Two internment injustice was still raw for many mainland Japanese Americans.

I was expected to be as smart if not smarter than others; I never had problems of self-confidence or self-esteem. But I sat in a Japanese-American Citizen League meeting with Lori Matsukawa talking about mentorship to build the self-esteem of Washington Japanese kids and to encourage them to enter the news media.

In Seattle my daughter was bused and, as a member of a minority group, I got a job with the City of Seattle as a “minority fill,” meaning the position was open only to non-Caucasians. Mayor Charlie Royer’s administration had set a policy that city departments should racially reflect the communities they serve. That’s still a good policy to follow today.

When environmental groups decide to define issues in a way that is relevant to groups other than white, college-educated liberals, their staffs, their messengers, will begin to reflect the communities they serve.

While it’s a good first step to learn Spanish and Mandarin to live in the Pacific Century, there’s no understanding without knowing the difference between Mexicans and Guatemalans and between Beijing Chinese and standard Chinese speakers on Taiwan.

In Hawaii, it’s good to know the difference between Hawaiians, Tongans and Samoans because, as with Norwegians, Swedes and Danes, it’s easy to offend by not understanding the differences. Like me being a Hawaii Japanese.

Talking about race, with or without coffee, is easier than talking about religion. I think it begins by telling one’s story and taking the time to listen to the stories of others.

What say?

--Mike Sato


  1. "You've got to be taught to hate and fear, carefully taught ..." We have seen so much hate between tribes in Africa, and between ethnic groups in Bosnia and Ukraine. I wish talking could solve it, but hate and fear run deep. My hope is that it is decreasing in the young - we have seen that in Bosnia, where young people want a better life and don't identify with one race - some young people. You'd think the Internet would help us all understand each other, but it seems to be working the other way. Coffee cup mottos can't hurt, seems to me.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Race and ethnicity are but components of cultural norms and culture for better or worse does run deep. When we exhaust talking about race and ethnicity, we can try to talk about religion, sex equality, justice and income.

  3. As a kid and young person I lived and even went to college in a pretty one-type atmosphere - did not even know about diversity until moving to this area in the later 1960s. But, when I was a kid, there was one black boy in town. He could field and hit and that was all that really mattered to us!

    I know a certain amount of bigotry is from fear and ignorance and steeped culture, but it can surely be taught as well.

    (I like it when you talk about food!)

    1. I wanted to hit like Mantle and field like Rizzuto but there were lots of guys who could hit and field better than me. The comparison was tough but you had to respect those guys when they beat you fair and square and you loved those guys when they helped you win. I don't think sports is a metaphor for life but I think it's hard to hate someone you play with. Or share a meal with.

  4. Oh -Oh -Oh ... NOW I get it - the Starbucks thing. Totally over my head. I'm stupid. Hate me.