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Living in Non-White Whiteness or White Non-Whiteness or ...

Kathleen's 6th Birthday

"What do you like about being white?"

The anti-racism training facilitator chose me to go first. My view of myself as multicultural Latinx, with indigenous heritage and light skinned privilege, was discounted a room full of other participants. Every struggle of not being white enough, or Latina enough flew up to my throat into a knot. I could not get past the word "multicultural," because the facilitator, an African American man, kept interrupting, insisting I was white. I thought my story about my grandparents and great grandparents had explained who I was the day before. The Latina facilitator said in a stage whisper, "She's Latina." The white facilitator said in a stage whisper to the Latina, She's white!" Whispering ensued between them. The facilitator who asked the question more than once said, "Fine, let's move on. We'll get back to you." I sat in shock. The next white individual, somewhat understandably, did not want to claim he was white either.

When I had gone to a people of color retreat last summer, the speaker, Zenju Earthlin Manuel had brought up an example that made sense. In 2013, Black Girl Dangerous blogger, Janani, published, "What's wrong with the term 'person of color?'" In it, they wrote about an exercise about race in an anti-oppression youth camp in the South, in which they, along with two other Asian attendees, were put in the white group rather than the black group. Janani wrote,

I want to return to that moment of racial ambivalence, and why it happened. That moment was unsettling precisely because even if Black and Asian kids had a common experience of being racialized, we didn’t have a common racialized experience.

It seems as if it should be obvious, but upon hearing it the first time, my heart opened with more compassion for we of whom are not of the dominant culture. In our workshop, every single person had been racialized as a consequence of living in the United States. Each one is racialized based on their geography in the country, in addition to the relationships to friends, relatives, loved ones, institutions and society. Not one person's early soul tenderness was battered by racism the same way. I have no claim to the experience of being black, but navigating La Frontera, the borderlands as explained by Gloria E. Anzaldúa, is its own experience. I grew up occupying that liminal space of in between, not pale enough to be white, but without the Spanish language, unable to navigate in the Latinx sphere either. How you were treated could turn on a dime. Especially, if your name changed from European to Hispanic or back. I was punished a whole school year for a surname change and return. My mother experienced it, and my sister, who has fairer skin than mine with dark hair and eyes, experienced it.

As the daughter of a Mexican American mother with the black hair and beautiful brown skin of her father, I was the first of sixteen grandchildren with the black hair and dark brown eyes that favored him. Unfortunately, he died before the year before. As the daughter of my Irish, Scandinavian, Northern European father, I'd never quite fit in. The McGregor family loved me anyway, often pointing out how smart I was, or tall I was, even though my build was more solid, and I tended to be chubby and darker. My heart and self-esteem suffered each time others were disparaged for gaining weight by the weight and look obsessed white women in the family, or how "Mexicans" or worse, "wetbacks" were disparaged by my new German stepfamily, most often by my stepmother.

If I had been asked a different question, the rest of the workshop might have gone differently. Instead, I became the female example of white denial. The trainer said to the group, "We people of color see you as white. You are not fooling us." My shutting down served as another sign of whiteness. In truth, I was in shock. Every misgiving about not being a person of color enough, was laid bare. I did not speak out about myself, nor with anyone else, the rest of the workshop. So, was he right? In a way, yes. And in a way, no.

I have much baggage: growing up in colonialized geography, feeling less than, being a widow of a small, dark, non-gender conforming, Filipina, a raw recent falling out with a relative, being enraged by my late beloved's treatment in the world, the traumatic death and aftermath, being an outcast accused of being unfeeling because I was white, and as such, had no culture, a coopted memorial. To say anything would have sounded like an excuse, or worse, as if I was trying to divert the discomfort, to make the conversation about my feelings, or separate myself from other whites by claiming I had suffered more, or that I had my own oppression, and therefore understood people of color's experience. Diversionary tactics are not new, and I've witnessed each one more than once.

For the evening and the next day, memories of scenes in the hospital, the funeral, and the aftermath haunted me. PTSD is real. When the other facilitator discussed what ends up lost to whites for opting to participate in whiteness the next day, I still could not trust myself to speak. When she blamed herself, her white privilege and ignorance, for the early loss of her own spouse, I just felt ill. I'd just managed to work past the survivor's guilt, stopped finding reasons to blame myself for my beloved's early death.

Going in to anti-racism work the decade before, I needed to be clear in my identity. I considered myself one of the mestizaje, on the border. After much discussion with my minister of color, I took on "person of color" identity as a political statement. That meant the battles are mine. Every single day, I choose not to walk away. My liberation is inextricably woven into the fabric of all people of color. Although there are days I hate the injustice too much to be healthy, I am committed. I'm committed to being open, learning, and to defer to the leadership of those people of color most affected by the intersecting issue at hand. I'm committed for all the multiracial children who do not quite fit into either family, and do not understand why race is such a big deal. I'm committed for gender nonconforming people of color, who are the most vulnerable, the most in danger, in our society. I'm committed for queer people of color, who are nearly as vulnerable. I am especially committed now for queer and gender nonconforming immigrants .

I'm grateful to have recently married, to a partner who works with me and learns with me. Still, I have married back into white privilege. So, what do I like about being white? I like that in passing, I can use the privilege I do have to speak out, protest, agitate, and put my body on the line for those who cannot. I like that in passing, I see and hear white people for who they are with each other. I like that in passing, my privilege can be used for the common good, rather than to get ahead in the capitalist white cultural narrative.

Public Service Announcement

For those who don't know me as well as others: I talk about supernatural and spiritual things a lot, and I use my preferred language to do so. That does not mean I expect everyone to accept what I say, agree, or believe the same things. I am perfectly comfortable with multiple ways of looking with the world.

So if I do that, understand I'm just speaking about my experience as I choose to interpret it, and I don't mind if people translate that into "Erica has an active imagination and the psychological need to believe in the supernatural even though there's no proof whatsoever." I really don't. I hope that when I do it, it's not oppressive or comes off as if I'm expecting people to accept it. It's just that I get excited about stuff I'm into and I like to talk about it.

I tend to think many of us as human beings have common experiences, but choose to interpret them or describe them in different ways according to their world view. My brand of belief does not require belief by others, and it is flexible enough for me to always hold disbelief and skepticism at the same time, recognizing that I"m making a deliberate choice. :)

I also affirm other peoples' experiences in their preferred language. If someone tells me Jesus told them such and such today, my response will be, "Cool!" And while I am not quite adept at putting myself into athiest shoes, I have much admiration for people who do not need to believe in supernatural forces, in order to find beauty and inspiration in the world.

I find their world views balancing, and since people like me always have moments in life where our chosen beliefs can't seem to help us, it comes in very handy to know how to find inspiration without a cosmological mythology. Sometimes the most important spiritual experience is to be present in the world, as it is, with what you can see, touch, explain, and prove, to the exclusion of distracting meaning-making. There's nothing "less" spiritual about this.

I guess that kinda DOES make me a Unitarian Universalist, *tech*nically. But I prefer to identify spiritually as a neo-pagan who just happened to be adopted by the UU tribe. :)

It Matters Where We Came From

Between my serving as worship associate on this Sunday and helping to create the accompanying communal altar for the congregation, I’ve been thinking about Day of the Dead and ancestors a lot these past few days. The other night while Dad was watching the Warrior game, a commercial for a beer came on - Modelo Especial. The commercial ended with “It doesn’t matter where you came from; It matters what you’re made of.” And I thought to myself, “Wow, they’re using a uniquely USAmerican perspective to sell a Mexican beer.” Because Day of the Dead, or Dia de Muertos, is a recognition that it does matter where we came from, that what we’re made of is in large part due to where we came from.

So... the Chinese traditionally do not celebrate Dia de Muertos. That holiday originated with the peoples of Mesoamerica. But we observe similar practices at other times of the year. Multiple times of the year. (Our ancestors are pretty demanding.) We too visit the graves of departed loved ones on special days, and we too invite our ancestors home for a visit and meal at the family altar.

In my family, the biggest ancestral observance is QingMing. On QingMing we visit the graves of loved ones and bring their favorite foods and drinks. When Mom died in 2009, QingMing became a lot more complicated, since she's in Colma and my paternal grandparents are in Walnut Creek.

Last year, in 2015, QingMing fell on a Sunday, so I was at church, prior to driving all over the Bay Area. Before I left UUSF, I worked up the courage to do something I'd wanted to do since I first joined the congregation. Sheepishly, furtively, I approached the sarcophagus of Thomas Starr King, who lies just outside our church. I awkwardly bowed (3 times), and poured a small libation of coffee for my spiritual ancestor. The embarrassment I felt came from what other people might think, who were passing by. Not because of any question in my mind that Thomas Starr King is my ancestor and deserves an offering.

Starr King may not have contributed to my genetic makeup, but he nevertheless contributed to the making of me. I am who I am because he was who he was. Just as Ralph Waldo Emerson's blood may not run thru my veins, but his ideas run thru my mind. And just as my forebears sacrificed and strived to make life better for their descendants, so too has my life, our lives, been bettered by the labors of Clara Barton and Frederick Douglas. I've learned from my aunts, and I've learned from Sophia Lyon Fahs and Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley. I am who I am because they were who they were.

To recognize our spiritual ancestors is to recognize the interdependent web, and the ongoing unfolding of life. It is to recognize that we don’t just come from a lineage of blood and that we are even now, no matter what age, continually being created, and helping to create others by our actions.

On my altar at home, there’s a picture of Mom, the names of my grandparents written in Chinese, a small pantheon of deities, AND representations of several spiritual ancestors. They can’t all occupy the altar at once - there isn’t enough space - but they make their appearances depending on whose counsel I most need at the time.

Now, it is easy to recognize someone as an ancestor - in other words, someone we have a connection with - when they are people whom we greatly admire. It might be harder to recognize people who are neither familially related nor did they necessarily say or do anything profound. In fact, I likely would never have known they existed had their lives not been cut short. Mario Woods, surrounded by five San Francisco police officers, crouching against the wall, obviously scared of what he likely knew was going to happen next. Josseline Jamileth Hernández Quinteros, a 14-yr old girl from El Salvador who died alone in the desert, while trying to reunite with her mother in Los Angeles. 14 year olds should not be anyone’s ancestor.

Their likenesses and those of others who were killed by injustice share space on my altar with family relatives and bodhisattvas and luminaries. Because they too have something to teach me.

We honor our ancestors so that we know who we are.

Losing Face

Back in 2010, some Unitarian Universalist congregations were already deeply involved in work on immigration, but most of our congregations weren't yet aware of the escalating anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies in several states. That changed in April of 2010 when Arizona passed SB1070, which was the most punitive law against undocumented immigrants at the time. Suddenly, everyone was paying attention to Arizona, and calls went up to boycott. The UUA had previously scheduled our 2012 General Assembly to be in Phoenix, so a heated debate ensued as to whether we should honor the boycott or go to Phoenix anyway but working with local immigration activists to protest.

No where was that question more hotly debated than among UUs of color and anti-racist white allies. For some of us, laws such as SB1070 posed a direct threat to self and/or loved ones. For others of us, this was a crucial moment in which our actions would demonstrate whether we UUs really lived the values we espouse. (Much like the Black Lives Matter movement is right now.) We all agreed on the importance of the moment but not the correct course of action. A decision was to be made in June, at General Assembly 2010 in Minneapolis, and during the weeks leading up to it, arguments flared in emails, on list-serves, and on social media.

I had my opinions but generally avoided the heat, until one day during such a debate, I was rebuked. By an elder UU of color. A minister and a long-time leader in our association. Someone whom I greatly admire and whose opinion of me mattered deeply to me. In the semi-public domain of Facebook, he sharply dismissed the points I was trying to make, and dismissed me as someone who “likes to argue.” His words were actually really mild so far as internet arguments go, but hurt deeply coming from him. Someone I admired had questioned my motivations, my character. Moreover, given his stature within a community that I treasure, I feared others would turn against me too. Hot, angry tears streamed down my face as I weighed different possible responses. What would be the most effective way to make him and everyone else witnessing the exchange realize just how wrong he was?

Luckily, I put off my retort to talk first to a friend. She asked me, “Is this relationship important to you? Are you willing to lose it in the process of defending yourself, even if you feel you're in the right?” It had never occurred to me to not defend myself, to drop the argument altogether. The idea that people might be swayed by his words against me still gnawed. But with her encouragement, I set aside both pride and the bullet point arguments I'd compiled, and told him a broader, single-sentence truth - that he has always had and will always have my deepest respect. With my friend's help, I did this even though I still felt wronged, still felt shaken, and actually had little hope of reconciling any time soon.

The response was magical. His words back to me were warm and gentle. And when we met in Minneapolis, he greeted me with a big bear hug. All ill will melted away.

As I relate this story to you now, it seems kinda silly. An online disagreement. Happens every day. But relationships do end on such arguments.

To be dissed in public constitutes a loss of face. The Chinese actually have two different phrases that can be translated in English to losing face – diu lian and diu mianzi. Diu means to lose, and lian means your literal, physical face. Whereas mianzi refers to how one appears to others. For example, when we say in English that someone is “putting on a brave face”, we are referring to mianzi. And just as lian and mianzi have related but different meanings, so too losing them respectively means related but different things. To suggest that I was causing trouble because I “like to argue” threatened my lian; it implied something about my moral character. Because it came from a respected elder in the community, it also threatened my mianzi, or social standing. Upon thinking about it later, I realized that even though I had not used harsh words, by openly questioning this elder's position, I too had inadvertently threatened his mianzi, which is probably what prompted his response. By re-iterating my respect for him, I gave back what I'd taken away – ge mianzi, giving face – and thus he was better able to do that too.

If we all hold on to the mistake, we can't see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror; we can't see what we're capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one's own self. I think that young men and women are so caught by the way they see themselves. Now mind you: when a larger society sees them as unattractive, as threats, as too black or too white or too poor or too fat or too thin or too sexual or too asexual, that's rough. But you can overcome that. The real difficulty is to overcome how you think about yourself. If we don't have that we never grow, we never learn, and sure as hell we should never teach.

Mom's Biscuits

Recently, my offering to a Sunday brunch pot-luck was a double batch of Mom’s Sunday biscuits. I knew from my childhood that this recipe resulted from practicing over and over for my grandfather until it was just right. I asked my mom to tell the story again, because family recipe stories can be as revealing as other life stories. I was not disappointed.

My grandfather, Paul, decided that my young mother would be difficult to marry off, so she  needed to learn a useful skill. A recurring theme in his relations with his four daughters, matrimony was a source of some anxiety in the immigrant family. Nevertheless, my grandfather decided to teach my mother to make biscuits in order to “attract a husband” when she was old enough. Paul qualified on that account, having served as a cowboy cook in his youth. The morning of a cattle drive in Northern Arizona in the early 1920’s, the assigned cook quit over an unknown slight.  Paul, a recent arrival from Mexico, volunteered for the position. Due to time constraints, restless cattle, and a lack of other volunteers, Paul took over the chuck wagon after the cook decamped. He learned on the job. Dutch oven biscuits, made in a campfire, became his specialty.

My mother recalled long Sunday drives after mass. As this was prior to Vatican II, no one was allowed to break their fast before church. Driving further and further into the desert north of Phoenix, they would take in the landscape. Appearing barren, the desert would reveal its colorful and often beautiful secrets. Still, everyone was hungry. An incorrigible tease, Paul would ask if a place looked good to stop. The other occupants in the car would say, “yes!” He would find something wrong with the site, and keep driving. This would go on a few times before he finally pulled over.

Once in an ideal spot, he would build a campfire. Paul would take the old cast iron dutch oven out of the car and place it in the fire. He quickly made biscuit dough and dropped spoonfuls into the oven. He covered the oven, and they would wait. My grandmother would have packed other picnic food, but those biscuits, slightly burnt from the oven, were my mothers favorite thing in her young life. The whole morning at mass, the interminable drive for what seemed like hours was worth it in the instant that hot quick bread melted in her mouth.

Carolyn was game for the biscuit making enterprise. He would whisper to her, “Isn’t it about time you practiced those biscuits? Remember, only one cup of flour.” The recipe would make just enough for four to six biscuits. Happily, she fell again and again for his ploy and eventually did perfect that recipe. It took some time, but she began to wonder exactly who was benefitting from all of this “practice.”

As one who fell for both my parents’ pranks and jokes again and again, it was good to hear that she, too, was a child once. My grandfather passed away after a long illness when my mother was twenty. Sweet memories of her childhood, when her dad was still healthy, were revealed in that recipe.

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