Why Would Anyone’s Family

deny their racial heritage?  And how is that important in our society both historically and now.

This is me.  I was born in China, but grew up in Washington, D.C., in the fifties and sixties.  Washington at that time was at the cross roads of Southern institutionalized discrimination and Northern false hope.

To certain ethnic groups like African-Americans and Native Americans, the challenges were daunting.  African-Americans, in particular, were officially discriminated through laws that forbade them to use certain facilities or even drink from certain fountains.  Native-Americans, likewise were castigated as lazy, drunken human flotsam that were rejected from many opportunities and were kept away from mainstream society in reservations living a life of neglect and abject poverty.

Asians suffered a nuanced form of discrimination.  While no placards shouted out that we could not use certain facilities or drink from certain fountains, I characterized discrimination as being delivered on a more personal basis – by one redneck at a time.

I have no doubt and even know of situations growing up where I was denied certain things because of who I was.  Does it make it right to say that no official discrimination existed against Chinese.  Makes one feel good doesn’t it?  Not to the the one who was spat upon, denied positions, excluded from activities, or otherwise relegated to lesser roles.

People often ask me what my nationality is.  I have been mistakenly identified as Jewish, Italian, Spanish, Mexican, African-American (I darken a lot in the summer), and other races; even by other Chinese.  The above is a picture of me as a young man.  Very few say that I am Chinese and some ask why I make a big deal about being Chinese.  In other words, why don’t you shut up and pass as non Chinese.

I grew up in the fifties and sixties; it was tough growing up as a non-white in America at that time.

Now imagine that we lived in the early 1900s, say 1920 – 1940, when racial distinctions were at their height.  When skin color was the overwhelming distinction that define where you could live, what job you could have, who you could marry, and even how you could die?  Imagine you knew that the American “one-drop” rule meant that you were defined by the faintest trace of non-white blood, whether you were black or Native American.

Imagine that you knew that you had ancestors who were Black or Native American, direct or many generations back.  Imagine that you wanted your children to make it in a world that was so quick to judge a person on that “one-drop” rule.  What would you do?

Imagine that the one drop did not show up anywhere and your children appeared for all intents and purposes white.

You would do exactly what Elizabeth Warren’s parents did.

You would obfuscate, you would hide your ethnicity, you would not tell anyone.  Until your child asked about your family and you knew that it was important to let them know that the Native American blood coursing through their veins was evry bit as proud and important as the West European drops that hid their Native American traits.

That doesn’t mean that you hurried down to the county courthouse to make sure the records reflected your child’s heritage, nor did you run to the tribal council (wherever that might be) and document the tribal connection.  This was the 1940s and 1950s after all.

In the 1950s, McCarthyism and xenophobia was rampant in our land.  Monsters inflamed by racial hatred were fervently attacking African-Americans and Native Americans.  Why in hell, would you as a parent want to expose your child as being different.  After all, she could easily pass as white and even the Native American blood that coursed through her veins wasn’t that much.

It is racist that this matter has become such an issue in the Senate race in Massachusetts.  I am only sorry that I do not still live in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, because I would surely be voting for Elizabeth Warren on November 6, 2012.