Obama’s Election Offers Liberation
As a Japanese-Jew, I have endured many labels in my lifetime; some were amusing, most not. These names have included half-breed, mutt, Jagger (Japanese mixed with another race, also known as Japanese-nigger), Half Jap, Double Jap, slant eye, FOB (Fresh off the Boat), Jank, Nip and Yellow Devil. Other times, I have simply been viewed as an anomalous curiosity or awkward conversation piece.
Once, a boy with the piercing blue eyes of an ice-cold river told me on the playground that there was no such thing as a Jewish-Japanese “whatever I was.” I told him he must be right, then ran all the way home, dropping my Brady Bunch lunchbox and acquiring strawberries on both knees after tripping on my new black patent leather shoes. I was five.
This was just one comment amongst the countless surreal exclamations that secured my stalwart allegiance in coming to terms with being a person who would always be presumed as different. And, while I was often the target of ridicule from those ignorant enough to reject me, I never allowed myself to be defined by them.
However, I did discover that self-deprecating humor was not only an incredible survival skill, but it also provided a safety net and symbolic shield. The endless jokes I made at my own expense was a way to explain to others who I was on my own terms, even if I perpetuated the stereotypes. As a child, I rationalized that if racial slurs were first uttered from my own lips, I was thus allowed some sense of self-preservation and dignity.
But, the Obamas’ residency in the whitest of all houses has changed all that. As multiracial Americans, it seems that we have somehow commanded and achieved, at the very least, a symbolically deserved respect, political autonomy and social equality. This is a reality minorities had assumed they would never experience, since the very word “minority” has historically been a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one thought it was truly possible that a person of color would become president, yet. Some hoped, feared, dreamed and imagined such an ambitious reality, but not one of us truly believed with full breadth that our country was ready to make such a fearless and courageous leap for the betterment of our nation and the world.
His election took the bars off the barriers to our sense of feeling ashamed or “less than”, giving millions of Americans the permission, for the first time, to feel proud of their heritage in the public arena. Some even feel an intense inner calling to boast about their unique fusions of ethnic makeup.
As an advocate and author of multicultural issues, many people have shared with me their feelings about Obama’s election. Many admit, “I never thought I’d live to see this day”, while others proclaim, “Now, I can truthfully tell my children they can be President when they grow up.” I’ve seen tears stream from their once weary, and now brightened eyes, as they say proudly, “He looks just like the people from my own neighborhood.”
An African-American friend who manages a grocery store has a higher jump in his step. He says he feels somehow more like an American citizen now – as if anything is possible. “I just wish my father and grandfather were here to see this day,” Joshua confides. “They would feel so proud.”
On the other hand, some Blacks don’t automatically assume anything life-altering has, or will, change. Some even lament that harder times are on the way. “Just because our president is half-Black doesn’t mean anything,” Tracy says. “I’ve lost faith in the system. I don’t feel Obama will keep his promises because he is truly a Washington insider now-just another politician in an expensive suit.”
As a full-fledged, card-carrying minority, I do envision a brighter future. The election, on its own, sent a halcyon message to ourselves and the world that, as a country and as a people, we are full of surprises and have finally taken the high road.
My own cultural confusion growing up as a Japanese-Jew can be summed up in this anonymous quote, “There is no escaping karma. In a previous life, you never called, you never wrote, you never visited. And whose fault was that?”
Until recently, I believed “everything” was my fault.
And, I would be the last person I would ever want to visit, with all of my kvetching to anyone kind enough to listen. “Oy Veh,” I would lament. “No one accepts me. I am neither a truly Japanese or Jewish soul, so I will just sit here alone in the dark, eating a knish in my kimono.”
But, gratefully, since Obama’s election, not only do I feel more comfortable as the multiracial “shikseh” that I am, but I have also found myself engaging in thoughtful conversations about my heritage, without jokes, defensiveness or much self-deprecation. I only hope that I conduct myself with an ounce of the class, genus and moral fortitude our President has displayed when continually questioned about his own cultural identity.
In his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, Obama told the crowd, “In a sense, I have no choice but to believe in this vision of America. As a child of a Black man and a White woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii, I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race or measuring my worth on the basis of race.”
I, too, was raised in Hawaii where I attended University High School years before Obama entered Punahoe High just a couple miles away. I shared long bus rides with other students from remote areas in order to get a good education, a value that my parents, like his, believed was necessary in order to live a truly free life.
In a 2004 speech, Obama said, “My parents shared not only an improbable love; they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation. They would give me an African name, Barack, or blessed, believing that in a tolerant America your name is no barrier to success. They imagined me going to the best schools in the land, even though they weren’t rich, because in a generous America you don’t have to be rich to achieve your potential.”
With a Jewish-Russian-Irish father and Japanese-Hawaiian mother, I, too, have faced continual questions as to what I consider my race, people, culture and ethnicity to be. Who am I, where do I come from, am I merely an experiment and how might I actually exist as an identifiable human have been relentless questions that have sewn experiences throughout my culturally-odd and politically-patchworked life.
I can only assume that the President has heard these same countless comments that deny his existence as a fortified American, but was intrepid and integral enough to remain an honorable candidate despite cultural ignorance on the part of others. This is the essential definition for any strong person: the ability, will and might to face oppression and hatred and march forward anyway.
Like Obama’s parents, the marriage of my parents confounded some, upset others and was dismissed by the rest. My father was raised in Los Angeles, later attended The University of Hawaii – not long after the bombing of Pearl Harbor – and came back with an education and a Japanese wife. Amongst the anti-Japanese sentiment that existed during the 1950s, my parents married, with whispers heard loudly as shouts and bombs from some family members, while others kept quiet with disdain. This was perhaps even more devastating.
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
A visceral account of the dichotomous cultural identity I experienced can be summed up in the following quotes. The first is from a Japanese emperor, who said, “Generally speaking, the way of the warrior is the resolute acceptance of death.” The second is from Woody Allen, who wisely noted, “It’s not that I’m afraid to die; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Nevertheless, I have made it. I have arrived. As they say in Yiddish, I’m “Nisht geferlech” (not so shabby) or in Japanese, I’m “Junchou” (doing well).
Because we now have a president with a different story than presidents of the past – who holds his head high with his own proud blend of cultural being – each language and culture that is different is now more highly revered, as is each person’s individual journey and struggle. Surely, President Obama must realize the profound affect he has had on a nation that has inherited many different religions, races and cultures who speak in native tongues that are more freely understood now, at least in spirit, if not yet comprehended in each syllable, syntax or inflection.
Each story sheds an even broader and brighter light on a nation that not only endures, but empowers, not only inspires, but includes and not only validates, but values each lesson, paragraph and infinitesimal anecdote that boasts the value of us all. This is now an axiomatic concept for the country, one that is only beginning to change America’s story and each person willing to tell their cultural rhythms on their own.
Finally, I can stop commiserating with Woody Allen when he said, “My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.” Except those rare moments when I begin to doubt the integrity and veracity of my own personal story, which is truly just as valuable as anyone else’s.
In his book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote, “This is the true genius of America, a faith in the simple dreams of its people, the insistence on small miracles. That we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door.”
The doors for us all may just begin to open with greater ease and determination. And, the answers and questions we hear on the other side of each door are purely reflective of a nation that is now more unified in its diversity, as well as more open to discussion, depth, profundity and inclusion.
In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “There is little hope for us until we become tough-minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths and downright ignorance. The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of soft-mindedness. A nation or civilization that continues to produce soft-minded men purchases its own spiritual death on the installment plan.”