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Race and Shaping Shame over Generations

It is important to understand our own story.  In it, holds wisdom into how we move in the world today.

We didn’t talk about racial profiling when I was growing up. It was a silent suffering we endured but couldn’t quite identify as real.  There always seemed to be an argument to invalidate or discredit it.

Two days ago, I was questioned by a security officer at the Mall of America, while doing somatic observation homework at the food court. I was eating and watching people, and that raised suspicion. They wanted ID from me, as well as information about Strozzi and my training and the assignment I was working on. At no time did they ever tell me I was doing anything wrong. And at no time did I ever think to question them or refuse.

How would that have gone if I had?

Would I have been arrested if I argued, talked back, caused a scene? Would I have been shot if I got aggressive, told them to eat shit?

Would I have seemed less suspicious in work clothes, or with blonde hair, or in something traditionally Hawaiian or Asian or some other “non-threatening” race?

Would I have lost my life if I was a Muslim or a young black man?

I walked away with the shame of compliance, politeness, acquiescence, appease, as a trade off for keeping my safety.

I left my dignity at the mall in exchange for my life and a reminder of my story and how racial shame is shaped over many generations.

This is my story.

I was raised in California, on what we call the mainland.  I was the only person of color until the 4th grade, and the only polynesian and/or asian until middle school, when one more joined us.  I wailed as a child over the pain of racism, as my parents sat paralyzed without any words of advocacy or comfort.  They sat silently, for the most part, sometimes asking me to slough it off.  Blend in, don’t cause trouble, don’t be seen as different was the message I heard in their silence.  It’s better to be invisible than seen for what you really are.  Back home in Hawai’i, they would laugh at my funny accent, like a haole, not a real Hawaiian. My parents had left which is more or less seen as selling out to become white.

My parents were both born and raised in Hawai’i, and went to the mainland to escape their own shame.  The first born and only girl of an Asian family with the desire to go to be educated and the only sibling of a large Hawaiian/Filipino family to be educated at a private, white school.  Both wanted to flee from the confines of their racial and gender roles.  They moved to the mainland, where no one knew those stories, and thought they could create their own. But the reality of their past caught up with them both and they found themselves living inside those stories, across the ocean in a foreign land.  The two divorced when I was six years old.

My grandparents were all born in Hawai’i, three of them as first generation born there.  One of my grandfathers raised on a plantation.  Half of his siblings got to be educated, while the other half worked.  One of my grandmothers is Chinese and met my grandfather while they were both working at a Chinese market.  When Pearl Harbor happened, the store owner fired my Okinawan grandfather. In solidarity, my grandmother quit.  The two married during WWII and went on to have strong careers and a good life, but watched over their children very closely, wanting them to follow very specific paths in life.  If their children could succeed, they would blend in and not be seen as different.

The story of my great grandparents becomes foggy at this point. They never spoke of their experiences with their own parents, or that of race in their era. I heard tales of adoptions, threats of deportation, name changes, and hiding from plain sight.  But there is a marked absence of details in those stories.

And yet, the silence is telling.

In my family, our unconscious contract is to make ourselves pleasing, socially appropriate, and not to call negative attention to ourselves and our families.  To violate that agreement is to betray the family’s deep sense of privacy.  Or shame, depending on how the glass is tipped.

Blend in, don’t cause trouble, don’t be seen as different.  If you are, you could be deported, or imprisoned, separated from us, shot and/or killed.

What happened to me happens to people of color every day and has happened for hundreds of years before me.

And what I did is a knee jerk reaction of generations of people trying to assimilate into a world that sees them as different and desperately trying to overcome that alienation by the any means necessary.

Learn your own story.

Be brave in your triumphs as well as in your humiliations. They aren’t only yours, but the experiences of those who came before you and those you will pass them down to. And they are the stories of those not strong enough to speak them yet.

Don’t be afraid to heal your shame.  In that work, you will also heal the shame that was passed down to you from your ancestors, who wanted a better life for you.

The world needs your stories.

With blessings of courage along your journey,

Becca Anela, a commitment to being an invitation to restorative transformation

*In dedication to my new friend, Marcus the Mall Cop.  May you find your way through this f’ed up racial climate and be led by your integrity and decency for others.

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