Written for Martin Luther King Day, 1993, Honolulu Star-Bulletin
My daughter came home from school a while ago and asked what she was. “I don’t know what I am,” she said. “And no one will tell me.” She was puzzled.
“You’re a little girl,” says I. “Or, to be politically correct, you’re a chronologically challenged adult. We don’t want to be age-ist.”
“No, I mean what I am. Other kids are Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, Portuguese, Okinawan, Samoan, Polynesian — we learn about them. Where they come from. But they don’t tell me what I am.”
She was feeling left out, and unsure why. No joking matter to a six year-old.
This is where you earn the big money as a parent. I could tell her the politically incorrect version, which, unvarnished, would come out as. “You’re a haole. That means your ancestors come from Europe, mostly, some time ago. They’re called ‘white people.’ They settled all around the world and threw their weight around as much as possible, which means that world culture is so heavily influenced by ‘white’ culture that teachers feel no need to emphasize that.
“An example. While Martin Luther King is almost always referred to as great ‘black’ leader, and Sun Yat Sen is a great ‘Chinese’ leader, Franklin Roosevelt is never referred as a great ‘white’ leader. That’s because haoles ran things for so long — and still do — that the fact of their racial background is not an issue. It’s taken for granted. Your teachers are trying to keep alive what’s special in other cultures. That’s good. And, as a 6-year-old haole, you must pay the price of centuries of injustice inflicted by people of your race on others.”
I could tell by her face this explanation wasn’t going to fly. It also creates an us-and-them mindset that I feel will be eventually damaging, because it so easily becomes us-versus-them. It’s a frustrating dilemma. The question of race or culture is too often a smoke screen for the real bottom line, which is economics and class systems.
Being a kid of the ’60s. I thought this would all be over with by now. Harmony would break out between cultures by the ’90s. We’d be the “golden race” that James Michener predicted, a blend of skin colors and ethnic cultures. I grew up in the world’s most integrated neighborhoods, U.S. military bases, where failure to recognize an individual except by rank was discouraged.
Instead, things are more fractionated than ever. As Martin Luther King Jr. Day comes up, the current state of racial relations is profoundly depressing. The upcoming Hawaiian Overthrow anniversary also threatens to become a whites-vs-locals flashpoint, when it really boiled down to who controlled the dollars back then.
I’ve always felt more American than white anyway. and the strength of America is in its diversity of cultures and peoples. My folks were North Country laborers who fled Scotland 300 or more years ago, and have lived here for so long that the “old country” is simply a phrase. Since then, we’ve soaked up other bloodlines, including American Indian, if my grandmother could be believed.
It’s more important, however, to learn from other cultures than to descend from them.
It’s annoying being white. Whites don’t get along any better than anyone else. Ask anyone in Bosnia or Northern Ireland. Besides, being called “white” or “haole” lumps you in with the French, the snottiest gang of simps on the planet. (OK, I do have my prejudices.)
None of this, however, was helping my little girl. So I went with the flow. Better to have an identifiable cultural background, however tenuous, than to spend a lifetime trying to fit into others. “You’re Scots,” I said to her.
“No!” I scowled. “Scotch is a drink. Scots are a people. And if someone calls you Scotch, be prepared to defend yourself. Don’t let anyone make fun of your cultural heritage — whatever it is.”