As a girl, I learned about racism from my white father. He taught me it was evil which was the exact opposite of his upbringing where racism was as natural as a Carolinian drawl and black-eyed peas with salty cured ham hocks and collard greens.
His blonde haired blue-eyed roots were soaked in white supremacy, fertilized by poverty and lack of education, deep south segregation, and his mother telling him not to come home if he ever got caught playing with a n*$#@!% kid again. His kin found comfort in the promise that no matter how poor and wrong sides of the tracks his bloodlines were, at least they weren’t like those blacks.
He was a dirt poor South Carolina boy who filled his jaw with a hunger for more than his childhood could provide. For some reason hating never came easy to him. He choked on it more than he swallowed it whole.
So just as he taught me to eat fried okra and salted grits with a yellow pat of butter melting in the center and sprinkled liberally with black pepper, he also taught me about the evils of a hating heart.
I grew up hearing stories of his childhood with a mix of horror and fascination. I believed racism was black and white and mostly over. I believed in the courage and cost of the Civil Rights Movement.
They had fought the good fight and won.
I believed white supremacy was good ol’ boys in white hoods, ignorant individuals filled with hate and draped in confederate flags. It was slavery and Jim Crow, it was unjust laws no longer on the books.
It was like that back then, but I believed we’d learned our lessons and moved on as a country.
As a girl, I learned about racism from my half Japanese-half Korean mother. She taught me about the Japanese Americans interned in their own country. Roots pulled from their homes and gardens and tossed aside wilting and strangled in Manzanar and Tule Lake by their own government. To white Americans they were seen as suspicious foreigners whose allegiances could never be assured because of their strange looks and shifty eyes, traces of a mother tongue, or chopsticks tapping against the side of their rice bowls like some sort of treacherous morse code.
I learned by the slant of our eyes or the curves of our faces we are plagued by otherness.
My mother taught me to eat kim chee and spam, bulgogi and kalbi and saimin with slices of pink and white kamaboko fish cake layered and sprinkled with the tips of green onion. Panko fried chicken sliced over a bed of cabbage and drizzled with Tonkatsu sauce. We celebrated with blue and white asian bowls filled with steaming mandu soup and bibim guksu on New Years Eve. But we also barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs on the fourth of July and ate hot buttered corn on the cob alongside plastic tubs of store bought potato salad waiting for the adults to help us light Black Cats and Roman Candles.
We lived in the suburbs, we were as American as they come. Just as American as those who had been interned. Just as American as those that had been enslaved and oppressed.
I believed we had learned our lesson and moved on as a country.
I lit my sparkler and watched it light up the blackest night…