catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 20 :: 2008.11.07 — 2008.11.21


On his brownness

After going blind, John Milton wrote a lovely sonnet entitled “On His Blindness.” With a little effort, I too could write a sonnet upon the title of this piece, and in the process perhaps even work in some humor and grace.  Yet perhaps race and ethnicity are subjects that more often than not call for prose, though there have been deep, beautiful moments when heartfelt, poetic rhetoric has set in motion the moving of mountains. It was so in the days of Martin Luther King, Jr. and also in some ways today, as I write on this election evening and it looks likely that the candidate who at times during this campaign genuinely echoed King’s legacy and spirit is poised to become president.

And, even though I did not vote for Barack Obama for reasons far removed from the color of his skin, I too can palpably sense that something momentous is occurring. I felt it while waiting in line to vote this morning at 5:35 a.m. for a poll that opened at six and I was the 103rd in line. There was an excitement and camaraderie and a sense of hope that was irrepressible. And, yes, I am aware that in other parts of the country-yes, in my very state of Missouri-there were perhaps smaller, less happy lines. I am aware that the simple act of beginning of such conversations on race as Obama has dared broach, while bravely keying on his own personal identity as exhibit A, do not solve the problem just by themselves. Indeed, their initial effect is perhaps to stir up deep and difficult thoughts for many. There are those who, it seems, will never willingly be ready for that conversation. And yet there is also a sizeable, and growing, portion of our population of people of mixed ethnicities for whom Obama’s reflection upon the cultural and ethnic strands that weave within his person is rather old news. They are Obama.

I am Obama. Or, at the very least, I find touchstones in his life which have been very similar to ones in my own-touchstones which I think can help us collectively think about race, ethnicity, and identity.

I hope it has become abundantly clear by now that just as Milton wrote about no one’s blindness but his own, and of the resultant conversation it precipitated between himself and God, I write about no one’s brownness but my own, and the brownness of my family. And even as I write out that word, “brownness,” I can almost feel the uncomfortable reactions of some of you, vibing back to me through the net. It is awkward and difficult for us to be overtly referential about skin color. We all seem to be hung up on it in about as many different ways as there are shades of our skins. And this state of being hung up in this way, unlike the potential to be selfish and cruel which comes naturally, seems to be something we learn as children from our environments and from the people who shape us through words and actions.

My nephew, Andrew, several years ago experienced the unfortunate necessity of having a nurse prick his back with numerous little allergen-laden needles. As she rubbed his back, a nice olive color as a result of my sister-in-law’s Polish-American and my brother’s combined German-American and Pakistani genes, she congenially remarked, “What a nice tan!” Where upon, my nephew looked up at her, and with a furrowed, quizzical expression said, “I’m brown.”

Now, our family finds this story endlessly humorous, as families often find such intimate stories we “tell on” one another, yet for me it is also instructive. The nurse’s comment, I believe, was genuinely benign, she meant and caused no harm, and, yet, on another level, perhaps it displayed a lack of categories and words with which to talk about something she found beautiful or “remarkable,” in a positive sense. The story is funny because it has in it the root of all humor, which is incongruity. The things children say are sometimes funny because they sometimes simply say the truth, where we as adults have taught ourselves to say things in more complicated, often less truthful, ways. We laugh at these truthful exclamations from children out of our discomfort and surprise, and sometimes even out of relief.

Humor among adults can also be a powerful weapon in helping us laugh at the strange twisting and incongruities we have created in the area of ethnicity and identity. However, humor’s very power as a weapon makes potential for its abuse so easy, which leads many to disregard it as an option in our discourse with one another. I respect that position, and, in truth, believe that humor really only works as weapon against racism and misunderstanding and as a tool for deeply understanding one another amidst our fumblings and faux pas when we have already committed to be in relationship with one another-to sharing our lives, to always communicate, even when the misunderstandings and, yes, also the things that are perfectly yet wickedly communicated, blow up in our faces. It is only within such commitments that we can wield humor and all similar holy weapons together against our mutual enemies of racism and hate.

However, if you were to ask me outright for an example of such redemptive humor, in order to prod and poke it here in the sterile environment of this article, outside of the intimate context I describe above, I am afraid I could not and would not do it, even if I could clearly remember an instance. It would not survive the extraction, without becoming simply offensive to someone. You will get glimpses of such humor only through attempting such intimacy and connection.

If that last sentence implies that such connection and communication are easy, rest assured, I know that these efforts are difficult and fraught with minefields. But that gets us back to my initial impetus for writing this article. Those of us who are interracial or of mixed ethnicity-I used to genuinely be confused as which of those two descriptors applied to me, but I no longer care-are intimately aware of such difficulties, and so on one level are uniquely situated to be living experiments for our own instruction and that of others. After all, through no choice of our own, we have interactions between ethnicities encoded in our very bodies and can, through our choice, further interactions between cultures by our very lives.

We are not necessarily special people, but perhaps we are exemplary in the sense that we flesh out the truth that all people, even if they live in a seemingly monolithic culture, are constantly being influenced by and in turn influencing the cultures and subcultures within which they live, generally on subconscious levels, examined only upon reflection or when they are somehow pointed out.  Sadly-and gladly, I should add-there is nothing to point out difference like skin tone, and brown is only one of a line of lovely colors available. Another person’s skin color is an exclamation point. But, thank the Lord, we all have the choice to understand what it exclaims, if we are willing to set our preconceptions aside.

I should note that even from my limited knowledge of the history of mixed race people who live at the intersection of cultures-cultures whose interactions are often wickedly characterized by hierarchy and subordination-I know that such lives can be very difficult. In British India, Anglo-Indians, the children of English and Indian couplings, were accepted by neither society, so much so that they were shunted into certain professions like the railways.  Through witness of the fiction I have read, many Anglo-Indians developed an enormous sense resentment and inferiority, combined with a fierce, overweening pride.  In the 1960s and 70s, my brothers and I still felt some of the sting of that history.  Though not truly bitterly, some Pakistani children we played with-yes, childish selfishness and cruelty is a cultural universal-would sometimes call one of us “Kata Angrez,” which literally translated means “half English,” never mind that our mother was actually American. Racism has no need for nuance.

On the other side of the coin, my American and European friends from boarding school would mock the “teddy boys” who frequented the resort town in which our boarding school was located for being flashy dressers or trying to use catchy English phrases or being effeminate for holding hands.  That same part of me that reacted to the Pakistani children’s taunts would cringe here, too. I could not then articulate what it was that I was feeling, but what I was longing for inside was for some attempt by my boarding friends at understanding the “teddy boys,” even as I myself did not completely understand, evidenced by the time I emotionally flinched my Pakistani male cousin reached out and held my hand during a walk in a park.

Even with such inconsistencies-and we are all inconsistent folk-that desire to have people to understand the other, to be channels of sorts for that to occur, is a gift that I think we who find ourselves at such multiracial and cultural nexuses can offer. Though, in truth, simply being a person at a nexus does not automatically mean that one will choose to receive and give that gift. And many folk who are not of mixed ethnicities-or, more accurately, not as obviously of mixed ethnicities, for we all are individual melting pots, even if it is only a very simple sort of fondue*-often exhibit great desires for understanding the other, for sharing lives with one another.

Perhaps this article is making a meal of something that could be said more simply, “Dude, just live with one another.  Listen, talk, forgive one another, work together, laugh together, marry, make babies together.” Before bringing this ramble in for a landing though, I do want to make some more specific observations from my experience of what it means to be a child of mixed race or ethnicity, and make a plea for how those who are not might better interact with us. Similar thoughts would also apply to the situation of someone who has been adopted into a family of a different race, and perhaps more generally to internationals and many others in similar nexuses.

If here you detect that some interactions have left a mark upon me, you are not far wrong, although in truth my life has been a pretty steady shower of blessing and love, even if I tend to forget that every single day. If there is any sticking point for me at all, though, it is a sense of being misunderstood or expected to walk within perceived stereotypical norms, only because of some external indicator like my skin color. More fundamentally, even though people do not mean to do so, what I sometimes struggle with is being denied the permission to express a personality trait or to have an affinity for a cultural artifact, simply because it does not seem to fit into someone’s preconceived image of how I should be. And I do not think the word “permission” is too strong to use here, even if this is not something that is being overtly, vocally denied.

Such denials of permission, whether vocalized or not, make things more difficult. It is, after all, a sometimes difficult thing in and of itself to grow up in such situations-to understand oneself, to be forced to consciously think of one’s choices and desires vis a vis culture-which are things about which many can be and are blithely unreflective. In his short story “The Courter,” Salman Rushdie uses an image from the movie The Misfits of horses being pulled in two different directions to reflect cultural forces at work on the hearts of several main characters. The narrator says near the end of the story:

But I, too, have ropes around my neck, I have them to this day pulling me this way and that, East and West, the nooses tightening, commanding, choose, choose.

I buck, I snort, I whinny, I rear. Ropes, I do not choose between you. Lassoes, lariats, I choose neither of you, and both. Do you hear? I refuse to choose.

That is a difficult place to be. And what if people in such situations do choose, more or less, to privilege one culture for reasons nested in their own personal histories? Are they allowed to do that? That can make things even more complicated for the people themselves, as they try to understand and even explain themselves, and for the people who long to know and love them.

There have been times in my life when close and dear friends have introduced me to others as their “Pakistani friend Neil.” It would have been difficult then to immediately articulate how this made me feel, not because they were such scarring occurrences, but simply because, in addition to hating conflict, I was afraid that if I objected, people would say I protest too much, and then ask me questions such as “Well, aren’t you proud of being half-Pakistani?” Instead, my main feeling in such situations has been one of quiet misunderstanding, that somehow my close friend had not really seen me for who I fully am, but merely defined me thus to account to the new person for the obvious difference in the color of my skin. I do understand that impulse. I too often trade in stereotypes and castings myself, and yet I think we can do better by one another.

Some of these situations have caused me to be quite overt with communicating that my lovely mother was a white, German-American from southern Illinois, almost as a sort of proof that it is organic for me to write sonnets and haiku about beautiful Midwestern Illinois, about my grandmother’s quilts, about things as American as apple and pumpkin pie, to show that I have a stake in the place. In truth, I do not write simply to prove that. I write simply because these things are deeply important to me and intimately formative. And it is very possible that I am a little too skittish on the subject; but then that skittishness is probably there for a reason.

And, yet, it must also be acknowledged that I have indeed privileged my white American heritage over and above my Pakistani heritage-which I, nonetheless, love and treasure-for reasons deeply personal, not because of any antipathy. I have done this both consciously and unconsciously because to be in the position that Rushdie describes, of being pulled in several directions, can be emotionally wearying and, well, one only has so much of that emotional energy to go around. I also hasten to note that I believe my current cultural make-up just now, unchosen and chosen, is not the final word for me or for any of us, as God continues to write our stories.

If you have read this far, you must have come to realize that, though I am a person who does not seem to have experienced any major racial trauma in his life, nonetheless such issues are deeply important to me. I strongly believe that we need to make connections with one another by allowing the other person before us to be the most valuable guide to who they are. This is true in any relationship and quite simple advice really, but something I think we easily forget sometimes in the area of race. Sometimes even a genuine desire to learn of other cultures to help in interactions can be a hindrance, if we do not see the people before us as the best authorities on themselves.

I do not think that we are actually the ultimate authority, both formatively and knowledgeably about ourselves. God takes that role. Nor I do not think that personality should be an infinitely malleable thing in a truly postmodern sense wherein, completely at our own discretion, we adopt cultural identities on a whim and demand that others treat us in a certain way. And yet, even with those caveats, I do believe that those of us who find in ourselves such markedly disparate influences and threads are the truest guides to help others understand why we choose to pick up and weave certain threads into the tapestry of our lives more prominently while sometimes leaving others in the background. For those adopted into a family of a different race, I think the need for this self-definition is even greater. I think we need to give even greater deference to their choices, whatever they may be. We must give them “permission” to be whatever they choose-though that word, in and of itself, highlights the problem. Why should anyone need permission to be who they are? Perhaps it is really others who are giving themselves “permission” to accept people as they are.

And now as I finish this piece and President-Elect Obama is readying himself to take office in several months, I can say that I am excited to see where this conversation will go in the future. Can a man who incarnates such a nexus as I have described help in creating a greater collective nexus for our nation, where healing and understanding can slowly though surely occur? I certainly hope so and pray toward that end.

* Okay, so you got one silly example of cultural/ethnic humor that might be fine in private, trusting conversations, but more dicey in public. Enjoy. Swiss cheese, white wine, garlic, brandy, lemon juice, nutmeg: see, that’s really quite a diverse recipe, with plain vanilla nowhere in sight. And, darn, now I’m hungry.

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