||THIRD EYE BLIND FROM SAN FRANCISCO, MISSION DISTRICT||
On April 6, 2017, we took my daughter, Emma, to see her favorite band perform at The Chapel. My youngest son came along for the ride and for their first trip ever to San Francisco.
I hadn’t been to San Francisco in quite a while and I’d never been to the Mission District. So, we spent a few hours roaming- we wandered through Clarion Alley looking at the murals, browsed a few bookstores, etc. Suddenly, my son turns to me and says four words that would break my heart, “I feel invisible here.” In the Mission. Even sadder, my daughter nodded in agreement.
“No place else could have provided me with the environment, the climate, in which I could not only grow but also get a sense of being loved.”- Barack Obama on Hawaii
What did they mean by feeling “invisible”? Well, not the bad kind of invisible where you see P.O.C. standing at the deli counter, but they call you first. Even though you’re behind them and showed up after them. They meant the good kind of invisible- where people don’t see your race or can see past it. What my children meant was that, in the Mission, we were viewed as a “normal” family, not a mixed one; not being gawked at like a flock of exotic birds, being able to walk through a city as an accepted part of the fabric of the community. Not Other.
It’s a shallow vicious state of mind- “Don’t Believe a Word
My kids are half-Japanese, half white, and a bit of First Nations. My youngest son was a green-eyed blonde kid until around 7, when we began homeschooling. What came out of our post-Mission discussion was that until their classmates saw their Japanese mom, everyone assumed they were white. After they saw me? Both kids got questions like: “What are you?” or “Who’s that, your nanny?” One classmate asked my son, “Are you adopted?” Another chimed in with, “He can’t be, white babies are too valuable to give out to those people. They save us for white families.” I sat, too stunned to speak or cry, when my oldest son said, “The only place I’ve ever felt invisible is in Hawaii.”
"You can't really understand Barack until you understand Hawaii."- Michelle Obama
The reason I could walk around in this little, protected bubble is because I grew up in Hawaii. I didn’t just grow up in Hawaii, I grew up Asian in Hawaii. Which is like growing up white in the rest of America. It’s not that we don’t see race; we’re not blind or stupid. Rather, that we primarily see you as food. (No, not like that.) When we view race, we think of it in terms of what delicious family dish you will be bringing to the next potluck. And if we ever ask, “What nationality are you?”, it’s because you’re so mixed that even with our Hawaii eyes, we can’t tell. Even then, we’re looking for a connection- like, if you’re part Hawaiian, we’re trying to see if you’re related to our cousin or one of our in-laws. Race binds us, not separates us in Hawaii.
“When I moved to the mainland, that was the first time where I confronted what at that time, and to some degree to this day, was the segregation of communities.” Barack Obama
All the stuff that came pouring out of the kids reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend from Kenya. We were discussing the effects of colonialism in our birthplaces and I asked him, “How does it feel to be black?” I saw a lot of things pass across his face- dread among them- but finally, curiosity. “What do you mean by that?” he asked. Well, this is what I mostly meant, “How does it feel to have your individual identity stripped away?” We talked about the impact of what happens when your race is all and only what people see. The most heartbreaking thing was when he talked about how the most precious parts of himself were erased, rendered invisible. In Kenya, he was the good son who went to America, supported his parents and sisters, a scientist, now a nurse. But here, he was viewed as “just a black man”. He closed with, “I expected better of America, of Americans. I came here to be free.” Little did I know, that years later, he’d be explaining, in adult terms, how my kids felt.
“There is no doubt that the residue of Hawaii will always stay with me, and that it is a part of my core, and that what's best in me…” Barack Obama
I was telling my friend, Lizette McMillen, about the Mission experience and my friend’s story. (She’s what we would call “hapa” in Hawaii, meaning half. Half white, half Mexican. So obviously, her kids, like mine, are mixed.) After we talked, she told me, “I’ve never felt invisible before.” I wonder if, like me, she was thinking about her kids and wondering, “Is it too late for them to ever feel this way?” Even after this experience, I still can’t see the world the way my kids do and I worry that my kids will never be able to see the world as I do. It saddens me because I think that something very important was stolen from my children, long past a time when our country should have moved on from this. A few weeks later, Lizette and I would have another conversation about race and at the end of it she asked, “How do you see me?” I told her, “As a mom. A young, hip, cool, mom, but yeah, a mom.” And she said something like, “Oh, okay then.” How she felt about all of this is something I don’t know. (But I do now, her response is at the end of my portion of the essay.)
I found my people and nothing else matters- “Danger”
When we went to San Francisco, I thought the momentous event was taking my daughter to her first concert, performed by the first band she has ever loved. I didn’t realize it would lead to our whole family being more inspired to Resist. I could never have guessed that my kids would get a glimpse of a “better life and a better moment” in America’s future. So, thank you to all the people who live and work in the Mission for finally letting my children experience the best part of Hawaii for the first time.
Lizette McMillen’s Response
So, my reflection on this conversation is that I'm a mixed person growing up in a place that is predominantly white. We're also poor and conservative, generally speaking, of course. I tan well and have dark (almost black) curly hair. It's obvious in these parts that I'm mixed when most other people (especially during my childhood) are/were not. I've never been invisible. I've always been an Other.
That hasn't always been a bad thing. More times than not I have been asked about my "race" with a somewhat enthusiastic curiosity. It's rarely in sync with a conversation though, usually out of the blue, so it's often awkward. Someone will just randomly ask, "what are you?" I could answer that question a thousand different ways, but I know the answer they are looking for. They don't want to know that I'm an artist or a writer or a mother/daughter/sister, that I'm a an adventurer or a homebody or that I'm rather introverted and mentally androgynous. They don't want to know about any of the endless other traits I possess that contribute to my identity. They only want to know my racial identity.
People usually say that they think I'm exciting or exotic for being half Mexican and half Irish. "I've never heard of that," they will say. It's weird and reasonably uncomfortable, although I suppose much of my life is rather uncomfortable because I don't subscribe to societal norms and so that softens the blow... But there have been other times that were kind of WTF moments. Like when an old woman stopped me in a parking lot to ask me if I spoke English and proceeded to tell me her family used to have "negroes and Mexicans" work for them and that they would keep the negroes, but ship the Mexicans back on the train when their work was done, and that that's what they should do with ALL the Mexicans now. Or the time that I was in a college dorm room and a white girl, who didn't realize I was Mexican, proceeded to say that my other friend was ugly because all Mexicans are. Another friend called her out and told her I'm Mexican. She said, "well you don't LOOK Mexican. You're pretty." Conversely, another girl in the dorms (black) told me that I was "just a white girl" because my skin wasn't dark enough to count, completely negating half of my DNA and personal identity.
Another thing weird is that sometimes people don't ask what I am and then wait for an answer. Sometimes they make it a guessing game. I've been asked if I'm Mexican, Spanish, Hawaiian, Iranian, Jewish, East Indian, Native American, and Lord only knows what else. I find that a little more offensive.
I suppose my experience has made me a bit apathetic and a little guarded with certain people (especially white people). Like I said, I don't generally feel comfortable in a room full of white people. That includes gatherings with the white side of my family (yes, they voted for Trump). But I also feel like it gave me a strength in myself. I know who I am and that it's a beautiful thing. I would hate to have grown up not realizing the possibility of being discriminated against and then have it slap me in the face as an adult in the real world. My kid's dad grew up on a diverse urban environment and also raised in a way that left him very naive to the world and how it works. When someone called him a nigger at the age of 23(?) It was earth shattering for him.
My kids are Black, Mexican, Irish, and Cherokee. They have already encountered racism. They already know that their skin is brown and that most of the other kids they know are white. They feel an otherness even more than I did. And it feels terrible some days. But I also know that it can make them stronger in character than any of their white peers when they are older, that they will see the world in different eyes and know adversity but also know acceptance from those of us (family and some wonderful friends) who love them and see past their color, and that because of that they will be able to make this world a better place.
“’It’s What We Do More Than What We Say’: Obama on Race, Identity, and the Way Forward”, Ta-Nehisi Coates, December 22, 2016 https://www.theatlantic.com/politic...
“Hawaii’s Influence on Barack Obama”, Philip Rucker, January 2, 2009 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/01/AR2009010102035.html