Journal Musings People

White Flags

With Chris Clarke’s call for an ongoing discussion about racism in Blog Against Racism Day my ears have pricked up and heard the buzz of blogs around me again, and I made the rounds of old, familiar blogs, and in the process tripping over some new ones. There certainly has been a lot to say by lot of people. Some of it quite moving.

My first reaction, as a person of very mixed heritage, was that the idea of setting aside one day to honor sentiments against racism seemed cavalier and irresponsible. After all, how can something that follows you everywhere from the moment of your birth, poisoning so much of what you touch, excluding you from a complete and fair experience of the society that you happen to inhabit, be vilified within an afternoon’s blithe hat-tipping? It just seemed illusory. Guilt-ridden without action. Pedantic by so many who I presumed never experienced the fruits of racism.

I decided to give the topic time to ferment, while reading more entries and letting the thoughts I read mix with my own experiences and conclusions. Bigotry comes in so many forms, much of it solidified into stereotypes based purely on presumptions of one’s skin color or cultural bent or sex. “Whites are racist.” “Muslims are all devoutly religious.” “Blacks understand discrimination.” “Asians study and work hard.” “Americans are arrogant.” “Jews don’t commit genocide.” “Native Americans have done no wrong to the European settlers.” “Women respect life and would never start wars.” Everywhere you look, in everyday life, in each individual you meet, you see the kernels of disagreement, misunderstanding, dislike, and ill will. Who’s to say that racism would not grow among any group of people, given the right conditions? At what point is an individual capable of distinguishing their own righteousness from the confusion of all others’ wrongs?

In my own life, living between the self-battering anguish of my Filipino/ American Black side and the self-searching, confused outlook of my German background, all I have been certain of is that people in my family have continually surprised me. I discovered that my German grandparents risked their lives during the Second World War attempting to protect a Jewish family, all of whom were eventually captured and sent away. My paternal grandfather, a Filipino who left the close-knit community of his childhood in the Philippines, wandered halfway around the world to South Carolina, there to marry a black woman, a woman who would never be accepted back in the Philippines. Another Filipino-American side of the family vehemently supported Bush’s attack on Iraq. My Brazilian-of-Japanese-descent wife resents people assuming that she can dance. Even in myself, in spite of my pride in my tolerance of all people and cultures, recently find flares of resentment and impatience with Japanese, especially on the trains where the worst of people’s ugliness comes out while crushed up against a train door. The other night a businessman, disliking being forced to share shoulders with foreigner, shoved me away and snarled, “Fuck you!” at me in English. I stumbled out of the train at the next stop, dazed, and soon after finding myself silently cursing at all the Japanese around me for this feeling of being knocked out of kilter. I know very well that few Japanese harbor any real resentment against non-Japanese, but the feelings bubbled out of me nonetheless.

The only way I can see overcoming racism is to forget identifying with any group and consider each individual you meet on their own merits. It is the very act of setting parameters by declaring “We…(fill in a racial group, cultural group, nationality, sex…)” that creates the breeding grounds for exclusion. Those who are passionate about rending the walls often differentiate the discrimination into neat categories: racism, sexism, ageism, nationalism, fanaticism… But aren’t they all one and the same? People finding things to refuse or disrespect in others?

In the end it all comes down to me living within my own skin. I’ve lived in enough different places and cultures to realize that the tides wash both ways, that what you thought of as set in stone here, has been forgotten elsewhere. And that people will always surprise you.

When I studied at the University of Oregon I lived in an apartment a mile or so outside the campus. The apartment faced a tiny, intimate alley that didn’t admit cars and that set the houses and apartments close enough that many of the residents greeted each other on a daily basis. One day a woman moved into the empty cottage across the street from my apartment. She was stunningly beautiful, blonde, and white. From the first day she waved at me and shouted out a bright, guileless “Hello!”. I often sat out on my deck and leaned over the railing, conversing with her as she sat on her doorsteps. We learned quite a lot about one another, confessing details of our lives that normally we would not have shared outside the societies we both hailed from. I learned that she had been a model for Playboy and that her father was a millionaire. She eschewed sorority life, but spent a lot of time hanging out with men and women from the Greek world, something that I had never once been invited to, and which seemed to me a surreal form of hedonism catering almost solely to whites. She learned about my growing up in Japan and my father in the United Nations. And about my elementary school days at a school in Harlem and my activities in the Asian-American club in which members barred whites from participating in events (an attitude that eventually made me quit the club). These bits of information didn’t come between us and our friendship grew, to the point where I began to fall in love with her.

But I noticed that all her boyfriends were white, well-off, and straight from the cover of GQ. My whole experience of wealthy white women, dating from my high school years in a school of amabassadors’ children, consisted of exclusions from conversations, being beaten up by older brothers outraged at my temerity at even thinking that their sisters might have an interest in me, condescension by the girls themselves in the form of coquettish dismissals, as if I couldn’t understand where my place was, “the skinny Indian”, as one French girl, the darling of the class, dubbed me during a chemistry class one afternoon. So though I fell in love with the woman across the street, I kept it to myself. My perception of her was reinforced by her never once attempting to come up to my deck and sit with me. I just assumed that she would make friendly talk with me, but always at a distance. Several times she invited me to have dinner with her in her cottage, but I always declined, citing the need to spend time at my architecture studio. When she started dating this athletic, he-has-everything man I backed into the woodwork of my apartment, leaving her to be with a man who most likely wouldn’t give me a second glance.

Then in the middle of the night my phone rang. It was the woman from across the street.

“Miguel, can you come over? Please?” Her voice was shaking.

“What’s wrong? Are you okay?”

There was a sob and then a thin wail, “Oh, please… Miguel. Please…”

“Okay, I’ll be right over.”

I threw on a jacket and ran across the alley to her door. No lights were on. I knocked. No answer. So I pushed the door open and peered inside. She was curled up in a ball on her couch, wrapped in a blanket. She lifted her head and turned to look at me. Her face was streaked with tears. There were clothes all over the floor.

I rushed to the side of the couch and kneeled beside her.

“God, are you all right?” I asked in whisper. I dared not touch her.

She broke down sobbing again and after some time I tentatively reached out a hand to touch her shoulder. I rested it there, feeling her body shudder. She cried for a long time. Then, “He… he…”

I shook my head. “It’s okay… Don’t speak. Just let it out for the moment…” She cried again for a long time. When she seemed a bit calmer, I asked, “Would you like me to call your father?” Her mother was no longer alive.

She shook her head, her eyes wide with alarm.

“Okay. Then we’ll just sit here like this for now. How about I make you some tea?”

She nodded.

“Okay.” So I got up and put some water on to boil. When the water was ready I made two cups and brought them over to my friend. I handed her cup to her, sat down beside the couch, and together we sat in the darkness, not saying a word. We sat like this until dawn, when the curtains began to glow with the first light.

And all the while my mind shifted between the strange numbness of realizing that this white woman had all along accepted me for who I was, and the odd peacefulness of being handed her vulnerability and trusted with it. I had been carrying around a racism all my own, blinding myself to the genuineness of her smile, and allowing stereotypes built up over past wrongs to shape her in my mind. I’m not sure if her acceptance of me was without exclusion, but perhaps it was the very fact that I did not live inside the sphere of her white world that she found safety with me at that moment. My visage differed from the familiar faces of the men she knew. She had trusted me enough to allow those quiet dawn hours, before the telephones rang and the officials came asking questions.

To blog against racism. Perhaps it is the very act of sitting and thinking about what you are writing and attempting to make some sense of it that points to the value of the exercise. You come away with the feeling that the mote in your eye has splintered and dispersed. Upload the act and it is like the smoke of incense at a temple: the gods will surely hear your confession.

Gender Journal Nature Society Spiritual Connection

The Feminine Mystique


Gaia in pencil
Colored pencil drawing, Tokyo, Japan, 2000

It seems women are more on my mind than usual this week. First there was the discussion at Feathers of Hope (Looking Within) and WriteOutLoud (The Things She Carried: An Open Letter to Tim O’Brian) in which a number of women voiced disbelief and shock at seeing a woman, Lynndie England, participating in acts of humiliation and coercion in the Iraqi prison Abu Ghraib. My initial reaction was that it seemed to me arrogant and presumptuous to ever have assumed that women are not capable of awful acts, just like men. While I still maintain that women are just as equal in this as men, I’m beginning to wonder more now if I was reaching for more justification than is warranted. In my life I have rarely encountered women who actually resort to violence and I feel that this is so everywhere. In a recent interview with England she claims that she was ordered to commit the awful acts that were photographed. And most likely this is true.

More than anything this provides a very clear picture of how it is that so many Germans (and I must point out that most Germans were not Nazis and did not descend to acts of atrocity) ended up committing the deeds that they did… just like England they were ordered to do so, and in typical military mentality, there was very little leeway for dissension.

I wonder now if England would have committed such acts, or even thought about them, if she hadn’t been ordered to do them.

But of course there will always be Nurse Ratchets in the world, so who knows?

Balanced on the other end of the seesaw came an earth shattering revelation within myself over the last two days. One thing that has always sat off kilter within me was a sense of not feeling right about both the places and peoples I lived in and with, and the suspicion that the general direction that everyone seemed to be auto-piloting their lives was missing a fundamental connection to the natural world. I always assumed this suspicion stemmed solely from my living in towns and cities that were physically disconnected from natural places and therefore I needed to find my way to some less developed habitat where I could discover my roots. The problem was that even when I did manage to get out into the mountains and woods and sea sides, there always remained a yearning and need that originated within myself, not out there. There was a hunger that drove me to keep seeking that sense of balance, but I could not discern exactly what it was that was supposed to be balanced.

Until this week when I picked up the suspense thriller “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown.

Now, I usually don’t like such cliched populist books in which the dialogue always seems flippant and predictable, and the first part of the book confirmed my notions, but then the plot twisted into talk of the Christian Church and the Goddess, and something clicked into place. Not to give away the plot to those who still want to read this book, suffice it to say that the book awakened me to something that I had known and felt all along, but never recognized: it was the feminine balance in the equation that was missing in my life and all I saw around. And it was the feminine that I had been seeking all my life, why the natural world meant so much to me, but could never quite fulfill the completion that it promised.

This is the spiritual poverty that the world has been carrying around for so long, why it always felt wrong to see priests celibate and men make decisions about abortion and have sole husbandry of the land and to push women into subordinate positions. Without the feminine aspect of spirituality that had been an integral part of so many traditions before the Catholic Church there could be no sense of completion in the world’s understanding of itself.

I realized this week that what I, and everyone else in the Christian world, need to bring back together, whole, is the two sides of the circle, the male and the female, the god and the goddess. I realized why it is that I am having such a hard time pinpointing my need to fill my life with the natural world, and why it is that I can’t seem to find a more wholesome balance in planning a future with the women in my life. Why I seem to be able to speak better with women than men, but at the same time miss a vital connection with men. Why so many of the attitudes and prospects of men seem to me crude and one-sided. Why so many of the men I know who are “happily” married are so because they have procured a position of power, in which the women have backed down to carrying out the whims of the men, even in this modern, “enlightened” world. Even, why it is that eroticism and sex have always danced foremost in my mind, but I always find a great wall of hesitation in candidly speaking about it, or writing about it.

Part of what surprised me so much about this revelation is that so often in the past, when coming upon images of women gathering in “goddess reawakening” rites I felt fear. I could never quite grasp where this fear came from, except that it seemed to undermine men and threatened to topple the sense of equality that I believed in, in part because so often these gatherings conspicuously counted men out. So often I lashed out in anger. But why was I so angry?

In reading “The Da Vinci Code” a kind of hidden gate seemed to have swung open, to all my lifelong tendencies and imaginings, such as an almost erotic sense of intimacy with wild places, a more empathetic connection with female dialogue about the beginnings of life and reasons for being, and dreams filled more often with conversations with women than with men.

But I am a man and have always felt an ache from not finding a suitable definition and ethos for what it means to be a man, both without women and with women. When I was a boy I fell in love with the Arthurian tales and for a long time modeled my outlook on the code of chivalry, believing deeply in self-sacrifice, doing good deeds for others, and courage in the face of all odds. But somehow it always felt artificial, whereas women always seemed to carry something within themselves that didn’t need to seek codes and lists of qualities. Ever since I have been seeking for the same state of grace within men, perhaps attempting to find the key to the garden of Eden, where men and women were one.

I suspect that my thinking, by living in the world that I do, can only bring me heartache. But somehow I feel that it is right, too. Perhaps by embracing the feminine aspect of myself I can win back the balance of the whole world within myself. Certainly that must be one reason I returned to Japan, where much of that male-female intermixing has never been lost. And perhaps that is why, over the last three years, I have been able to slip past the great male anger that I carried for so long. Men, alone in the vastness of the wilderness, without the guiding voices of women, can only hope to cry out in anger and fear.

Gender Journal Society

The Company of Men

Great Meadows
Early autumn afternoon at Great Meadows State Park, Concord, Massachusetts, U.S.A., 1991

One of my women students told me the other day, with complete conviction, looking me straight in the eye, “All men are just foolish things.” Coming from a Japanese there is a certain cultural bent in the statement, inherent in the meaning of the Japanese version of the word “foolish” (ooroka) which carries the connotation of the Japanese desire for the ideal of humility, which I had to take into account as she said these words. I realized that she did not intend to insult or even criticize me, but still, it got me thinking.

Cody, of Overflow made reference to an article he read by a doctor named Frank Pittman, about What Are Men For Anyway?. It is a question that has often crossed my mind, perhaps because throughout my life I’ve never been able to quite find the right shaped masculine block to fit into the social hole. If I follow the carrot that my genes and upbringing have strung in front of my natural tendencies, I rarely feel chiseled into a masculine ideal, but rather more like a series of whims, powered by an invisible engine that reacts to what is happening around me. Rarely do I limit myself to thinking, “I am a man and so I must…”

And yet so many men around me expect that of me and of themselves. They grow up watching the hero cartoons on TV and the action hero movies and a litany of bells gong silently in their minds about being strong and never showing any signs of weakness, preferring instead to reveal the chinks with anger. It is what I went through for years and years, not knowing how to drift through the net of rage that separated me from the kernel of my consciousness, the inability to shift and loosen the strands only stepping up the growing ire until I could rarely speak without shaking my mane. It was only last winter that I finally realized that I could loosen my grip and sweeten the recipe boiling in my mind enough to refocus on the shy, easy-going, laughing sprite of my boyhood, the unblemished sheet of paper upon which my story began.

Women, especially in the West, have taken responsibility for redefining themselves in the modern world, and have done so by banding together and exploiting their general unity to create a chorus. Perhaps that is the advantage that those who recognize the poverty of their circumstances have; deprivation forces invention. The evidence of the maturity of the women’s movement shows up in so many little daily events, such as the number of women compared to men that you see out in the evenings jogging, or the numbers of women compared to men taking self-improvement classes. Or even, here in Japan, the numbers of women setting out to travel abroad and discover new ways of seeing things.

Men, on the other hand, seem lately to be languishing in nostalgia, looking back on the captains of industry of the 1800’s or the warrior kings of the Mongolian steppe. If you look at the old black and white photographs from before the turn of the last century, there is something hopeful and forceful in the eyes of those men, something lacking in today’s men. Those men knew who they were and thrived on the energy that their world view could translate into their adventures and inventions.

That world view died with the advent of such things as airplanes, conquering Chomorangma (Mt. Everest), settling the American West coast, and stepping on the moon. The world became such a small place that heroes and glory lost their relevance, and even survival value. As today’s men continue to jostle for the elusive head of the pride position (isn’t that all Bush is doing, with his strutting and smirking?), they fail to see how ridiculous their aging attitudes have become and how damaging to their own self-development, and disastrous for the husbandry of the planet.

Men must find a way to stop using the urinals as gauges for their self-worth and learn to talk about and among themselves. Just like with women men must find a way to overcome the drawbacks of their traditional roles and outlooks and discover the advantages and strengths that being a man might be. So far just getting a man to admit that he needs help, without slipping into self-pity and over dependence on women, remains a major hurdle that all us men still cannot even feel past, let alone see. We need more men who can define role models and a valid ideal of masculinity. Finding it amidst a hostile political and social climate makes for an enormous challenge.

Women, though, are as much to blame in the deterioration of male identity as men are, in part because so many of them help perpetuate, personally and socially, the myths of what the ideal man is by indulging in the same old demands on men. They, too, want their heros and their knights in shining armor and their gentlemen, without taking time to evaluate what their desires mold in the hearts of the boys they raise. It certainly doesn’t help when, for instance, in a situation I actually experienced, a woman, frightened, gives me a withering glance when we are confronted by some violent men armed with clubs, in effect telling me that I am not a man if I can’t handle their brutality.

Why is it that men must always be associated, both negatively and positively, with violence? Why is it okay to send young men (many against their will, and many willing because it would be dishonorable and cowardly to refuse) to be soldiers, learn to kill, go to war, and die meaningless deaths? Is it our Chimpanzee-like heritage? Can we not find a world view of men similar to that of Bonobos instead?

Two weeks ago I stepped into a large bookstore here in Tokyo and headed for the toilet. When I arrived the stall was occupied, so I waited for the occupant to finish. As he pulled the sliding door open it slipped off its rail and jammed into an angle that made it difficult to get a hold of the door from the inside and slide it back into position to open the door. The occupant struggled for about two minutes with this, until, wanting to help, I stepped forward and tried to grab the door. The guy inside begged me not to interfere, but I continued to help a bit more. Finally the door loosened and he was able to lift it back to its rails and slide it open. When he stepped out he couldn’t look me in the eyes, so ashamed was he. As he washed his hands he berated me angrily, “You shouldn’t have done that! You had no right to interfere. That was so uncool! So uncool! I’m a man, god dammit!”

God, if we can’t even help each other with a stupid toilet door without falling all over ourselves, how in the world are we going to come to terms with such an enormous macho issue as a war?