|I don’t want her to be on the bottom.|
I like to think I know what it feels like to be a minority. I don’t. But I have had glimpses.
I lived in Okinawa, Japan for three years with my ex-husband, an Air Force man. So I know what it feels like to be the only one, or one of a just a few people with the same skin color in a room full of people who are different from you.
I will never forget the first time I happened to be the only White person in a room of brown-skinned Japanese and Filipino women. (There were large numbers of Filipino women at this base due to marriages with American military men.) At the base exchange, where I worked, the mens’ and womens’ break rooms were segregated, which is why it was all women. I was still very new, but I had managed to seek out the company of an American friend on my previous lunch hours. This day, I had no plans and I didn’t think anything of it.
On this day, I meandered into the break room, fully expecting to find a friendly face to chat with while I ate my food from home. I naively assumed that it would be easy. After all, I was working in a huge department store with hundreds of employees. I was looking forward to having the chance to meet some of the Japanese people I had seen around the store.
As it turned out, it that lunch hour began as one of the loneliest moments I experienced in my time there.
When I walked into the break room, I stopped, just for a brief moment, and surveyed the room. It was a large, soulless, brick room, painted white, with metal lockers built into the walls. But at that moment, it was not the decor of the room that made it seem cold, it was the wall of skin color that was not like my own, along with the unfamiliar chatter.
To set the tone, I should say that I was a much different person back then. I was ignorant and naive. I was only 22. This was my first time away from the small west Texan town where I grew up and the majority of my friends had been White. I had had friends with different skin colors. But I had never been exposed to large numbers in that kind of scenario before.
I won’t lie. It made my heart sink. Truthfully it wasn’t the skin color so much that day, as it was the cultural and language barrier. But initially, the wall of brown skins, set on smaller bodies and framed by thick black locks of hair, who moved briskly, against my tall, gawky, awkward White person self, felt, well, I just felt like I didn’t belong.
And I didn’t belong. I walked slowly through the room, somehow knowing that this moment was an important memory to preserve. I watched the women speaking in two different languages. Understanding the words and accents aren’t the only barriers in language. Different cultures use different body language, different gestures. They dress differently. They walk differently. They touch each other differently. They even laugh differently, or so it seemed to me that day.
I watched them eating foods I wasn’t sure how to name. The most jolting was the still-intact fish, still in its skin, with an eyeball staring out at me as the woman scraped its insides out and ate it with gusto sucking on the bones. That fish watched me walk across the room. I could feel it as I walked to my locker to get my food. I could almost hear it whisper to me, “Go get your bland, boring American ham and cheese sandwich with mayonnaise and buy some disgusting cardboard-tasting chips from the vending machine you horrible American. There is no room for your Whiteness here.” I don’t think I had ever really “felt” my Whiteness until that day.
I decided to obey the fish and whisked myself into the smaller room at the back, next to the bathroom, where there were soda and snack machines. This tiny room was where I would come to learn that we Americans would hide out, and wait for another like our own.
It wasn’t that we didn’t want to mingle. At least, I did. Want to mingle. But I couldn’t. I didn’t speak their language. It was like being the nerd and trying to go hang out with the cheerleaders, who also happened to be from another country. It just wasn’t done.
I eventually made friends with some of the Filipino wives. The Japanese, I managed to become friendly enough with some, but for the most part, they tended to stay more reserved with the Americans. I can understand why, and I respected their attitude toward keeping work at work and maintaining their cultural space.
But most importantly, that moment was just that. Only a moment where I felt like the outsider. I eventually gained my sense of privilege back that we White Americans have enjoyed for so many generations.
But I never forgot that day, when as a new person to a foreign land, thinking I was in a safe space, and it turned out not to be, at least, in my own mind. And I learned how it felt to be the minority in the room, if only for a brief moment.
I know it’s not even the same thing as what Black people go through in the United States. On some levels it’s less intimidating for them. They have lived here all their lives. They know the language. They know the rules. But in some way, that can be worse, to feel only the subtle feelings of not belonging even though every one is acting like you’re totally okay with them.
Toyin says he’d rather be confronted with a blatantly racist person than people who are just ignorant, or who are pretending not to be racist, while giving you the brush off. He says it’s better to know up front how people feel about you. At least then you know what to expect. Because, it sucks to be the person in the room who feels like they don’t quite belong, but you aren’t really sure why. All you know is that you’re different, and there’s something about you that people are uncomfortable with.
In addition to that, for American Black people, the cultural memories of oppression are still there. The familial distrust of White Americans is still somewhat ingrained, even if not fully obvious in everyday life.
So, I like to think that I know what it feels like to be a minority. But really, I don’t.
And I never will, although, I like to try to relate as much as possible because I know that Annika will feel what it’s like to be a minority. And even though she will be able to talk to Toyin about it, I want her to be able to share her feelings with me as well.
What I really hope for is that by the time Annika is an adult, we will have sorted through race relations even more than we have now.
And that will take talking about what makes us uncomfortable.
In this country, we can’t keep our own space like I was able to back in Japan. We are becoming more and more multi-racial. So we need to learn how to have a culture that allows for complete and utter equality. I know that some (White) people like to think that we are there because we’ve elected a Biracial/Black president.
We are not.
According to researchers at Northwestern University who study race relations, Blacks still remain at the bottom of the “traditional racial hierarchy, …which assigns the highest status to whites, followed by Asians, with Latinos and blacks at the bottom.”
And one drop is all it takes to get relegated to the lower status.