Is brown, covered in freckles and moles and age spots. Like many people, my skin is darker in the summer, lighter in the winter. Light enough that when I visit my family in Hawaii, my sisters spend a good hour teasing me about how white I am. They don't just mean my skin. They mean my everything: my handbag and shoes, my words, my gestures, the food I eat, the music I listen to, my job, my husband, my kids. They worry I've been on the mainland too long. They're right: I've been here in Oregon for many more years than I lived in Hawaii.
When I first moved here to go to college, strangers regularly stopped me on the street or in the grocery store and asked, “Where are you from?” I was baffled the first few times this happened. In Hawaii, where nearly everyone is some shade of brown, the color of my skin and hair drew little attention. People in my small hometown might have asked what my last name or racial background was, but I remembered those interactions as friendly attempts to find common ground. I know the impulse behind “Where are you from?” is similar, but its effect on me ranges from amusement on a good day to devastation on a bad one, because the question implies that I am not—could not be—from here.
True: I'm from Hawaii and my ancestors are from the Polynesian Islands, Korea, Japan, perhaps China, Spain, and England, too. The cultural chasm between the islands and the mainland sometimes seems wider than the Pacific Ocean. But I grew up reading American magazines and listening to American pop music; my first language is English; my favorite books are written by American writers. America is all I know, yet, even to this day, my brown skin and dark hair suggest that I am from somewhere else, that my cultural experiences are exotic and different and foreign.
I was so distressed by those early interactions with strangers that I barraged my college roommate—a blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned girl from St. Paul, Oregon—with ludicrous questions that she struggled to answer: “Do I look more Asian or Hawaiian?” “Are my eyes really slanted or just more almond-shaped?” I wondered aloud how to change my hair, wear makeup, or dress in ways that would help me blend in.
I'm still asked “Where are you from?” today, though not as often. Whether this marks a societal shift over the past two decades or something about how I interact in the world, I'm not sure. My older child, my tawny-skinned, caramel-eyed daughter, has also fielded this question from curious children and adults alike. “Are we Hawaiian?” she asked me one day. “Are we Japanese?” she asked me another. Yes, I explained each time, some of our ancestors are from those places, but we are American. That is not a race; it is a nationality, and that is maybe more important than race. It pains me that she, too, may have to go through the experience of feeling forever foreign in her homeland, of having to prove her nationality because the color of her skin and hair and the shape of her eyes suggest she is from elsewhere. Like me, America is all she knows.
We Americans continue to grapple with race. We tell ourselves it shouldn't matter anymore, yet questions of racial and ethnic identity surfaced often this year in high-profile crimes, like the George Zimmerman trial in Florida and the Boston Marathon bombings, as well as in Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action and the National Indian Child Welfare Act. Even our biracial president openly struggles to walk the fine line between reminding citizens of the troubled history of Americans of color and reassuring citizens that he is everyone's president, regardless of his color or theirs.
Judging by the active discourse happening in public life and attendance at Oregon Humanities programs about race, it seems that many of us are craving opportunities to learn about and discuss this topic as it plays out both in personal ways and through policies and practices in our community. I hope this issue of the magazine—which offers historical and cultural context, as well as personal stories of other Oregonians' struggles with race—can be a starting point for these explorations and discussions.
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