The Optics of Race

We have a monument to Confederate soldiers in my city, and our mayor wants it gone. I do, too. It sits in a cemetery where Bruce Lee and many of Seattle’s founding families are buried. Lakeview is even more meaningful to me because it’s where I buried a beloved member of my extended family. Patrick had three strikes against him: He was black, gay and HIV-positive at a time when such a diagnosis was a death sentence.

I was Patrick’s family because his disowned him when he came out. I was stunned that they considered it a surprise. When he nervously broke the news to me, my first reaction was, “Duh.” Then I gave him a hug. He broke my embrace once – when in a fit of depression, he fled to parts unknown and, in essence, committed suicide by sexual promiscuity. I enlisted the Salvation Army in finding him, then coaxed him back to live with me and battle a scary disease we knew nothing about. Knowing his fate, he asked me to be the executor of his estate. I agreed, though did not understand the gravity of the request. We both were barely 30.

So I cannot hate Lakeview Cemetery for the monument. Patrick didn’t have time to leave me instructions, so I decided to bury him at Lakeview because it sits on Capitol Hill, which was the center of Seattle’s gay community at the time. Right next door is a place, the Seattle Asian Art Museum, that has a lot of cultural and personal significance for me. Lakeview had long run out of plots, but found a peaceful, meaningful place to lay Patrick to rest.

For me, making America great again would be restoring the dominion of its native peoples. Then it would be the sincere and accurate acknowledgement – and documentation – of the horrors perpetrated by this country upon a sequence of forced and voluntary immigrant communities of color, from slavery to forced assimilation to exclusion to mass imprisonment to labor exploitation, profiling and immigration cat-and-mousing.

It is painful to write this, but I do so to make a point about race, symbolism and place – a convergence of which is wrenching our country yet again. It has been almost a week since the white nationalists ignited a firestorm of hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia. The smoke may have cleared, but the hurt and confusion has not, mainly because Donald J. Trump, the man who occupies the White House, fails to incontrovertibly condemn the true source of the violence.

Trump also continues to be preoccupied by with the ancillary issue of removing Confederate memorabilia. He does so in a manner that confuses a lot of the nation, but not people of color, such as myself. Whiteness is the default in this country and it is a pillar of white privilege not to understand or, even, recognize this. As such, the leaders of whiteness, like Trump, do not have the sensitivity, empathy or context to recognize how a “beautiful” statue of a general on his steed can represent such ugliness and exclusion to such a large – and growing – portion of our country.

Seattle’s mayor, Ed Murray, is a gay, white man who sees much of the picture. He’s also called for the removal of a statue of Lenin from our city, calling it and the confederate monument symbols of “historic injustices.” But I don’t think it occurs to him or others to call for the destruction of a statue of Christopher Columbus that sat on our waterfront for decades before being retired, albeit temporarily, to a city-owned warehouse for restoration after years of extreme vandalism.

This being the most liberal city in the country, Seattle in 2014 retired Columbus Day as the title of a federal holiday, renaming it as Indigenous Peoples Day. This is recognizing Columbus as the vanguard of the European invasion of a hemisphere whose lands of course already were occupied. Decried as “political correctness” by those who hold this country in a death grip, the refined perspective of colonial U.S. history is simply correct. At the heart of the struggle over race is erasure. After communities of color fended off its literal rendering, the conquerors seem now to fear the erasure of – what? – the “good, old days,” tuning the dog whistle of racism into clear-as-a-bell “making America great again.”

For me, making America great again would be restoring the dominion of its native peoples. Then it would be the sincere and accurate acknowledgement – and documentation – of the horrors perpetrated by this country upon a sequence of forced and voluntary immigrant communities of color, from slavery to forced assimilation to exclusion to mass imprisonment to labor exploitation, profiling and immigration cat-and-mousing. So, no, it’s not erasure of the dark American past that nonwhites seek; as Japanese Americans say in this, the 75th anniversary of an executive order that sent some 120,000 of them and their ancestors to grim imprisonment, we need to remember. Nidoto Nai Yoni – “let it not happen again.”

I’m big on optics, and we’re talking about the optics of race in America. Researchers have found that people process images some 60,000 times faster than text. In the fleeting, hard-charging nature of our society, what we barely see – or hear, in snippets – tends to rule our perspective. That’s why we need to make our truths whole.

Without context, the symbols are uncomfortable scars. They are like the highways I drove to Shenandoah National Park, just outside Washington, D.C., that are named for Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, or the Confederate flags my wife and I see en route to North Cascades National Park, less than two hours away from Seattle. Those put me on edge, on guard, and feeling unwelcomed. Their continued existence, along with the countless statues I’ve wandered past in the South, feel like the marked territory of feral dogs. Maintaining unwanted reminders of a history that often threatens to be repeated is like making the victims wear scarlet letters.

I’ve spent a good portion of this summer attending pilgrimages to World War II Japanese prison sites. Relatively new at Minidoka, in south-central Idaho, is a replica of a guard tower. It looms overhead, an unsettling token of misguided authority, hostility and hysteria. But it sits on land managed by the National Park Service and, as such, I learned that the original towers at Minidoka never were manned. The Wartime Relocation Authority did such a great job of placing this camp in isolated high desert, the Minidoka administration figured that, if anyone escaped, they’d have nowhere to go.

It makes me feel better to also assume some mutual trust and respect was at play. The Japanese notion of gaman – to endure the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity – certainly ruled the experience from the side of the people of Japanese descent. During her landmark case that eventually closed the Japanese prisons, Mitsuye Endo was offered her freedom in exchange for dropping her lawsuit. She refused, remaining at Topaz in Utah. That’s gaman.

I can live with replica guard towers rendered toothless by nothing but the truth. I sweat the other stuff, however, because it is colored not by veracity, but by pretext and pretense – the anti-colonial guise of a country dressed in the sheep’s clothing of colonialist deeds and history.