I’ve written long and hard on this blog about how I never grew up identifying as a person with a disability. My central point of “overcoming” or weirdness was my being white; not my being deaf.
My being deaf – and my connection with disability through TBI and C-PTSD and facial scarring – only came after I returned to the mainland US when I was in my late 20’s and was trying to find a job. I had cultural hiccups to be sure – as anyone who has spent the majority of their life outside of the US will – but the main thing was that all of the sudden, my not being able to hear became AN ISSUE. A huge, enormous, in-my-face, glaring, have-to-get-help-for-this, issue.
I had been fired before for not being able to hear, I had been not hired because I missed interview questions or because interviewers saw my hearing aids and freaked out, but my (lack of) hearing had never been on par to the issue of my being white.
Because, you see, nothing is on par to being white when you live in countries that are not white, in which you are a minority.
I’m talking about being the minority that everyone looks at with some skepticism, in which people scoot away from a little as they sit next to you on the bus. The type of minority in which people might not want to sell something to you because – forget about your money – they just don’t want the interaction with you.
In the years that I’ve lived on the mainland US, I had forgotten about how it feels, and the memory of how overwhelming my whiteness can be has faded. I’ve identified most strongly as being a part of the disability community, and being deaf. Not “big D”, Deaf, because remember, my ASL is far from fluent; I was raised oral, lip-reading – I’m “little d” deaf.
So now I’m back in Hawai’i.
Hawai’i is an American state, but it’s also very much a different country. I mean, the Hawaiian language is spoken and taught at public schools; it has a rich, long history that includes a monarchy and entire social systems – social systems that are still in effect and important today.
Hawai’i is a mix of brown: Hawaiians themselves and different islanders from across the Pacific, Filipino, Portuguese and Japanese mixes, with splashes of European/Caucasion American. By and large though, this is very much a brown majority state.
I knew this coming in. I went to high school and college here, after all. I remember my intense frustration over the racial divides in Hawai’i, especially as I moved to Hawai’i from Fiji (where I was not so shunned for being white).
I was still married when I decided to move back to Hawai’i and my husband looked Hawaiian – with two of my three children looking either local (- Micah) or hapa (half-white; Moxie). Mack being the most social, gregarious, the youngest and the most white, I figured he would be fine. He’d grow up here and be accepted on that basis.
I figured that I would be the one to stick out the most, but that’s okay; I can deal.
So, we decided to move – or rather, I decided to move – my husband had not wanted to leave life off the grid on the Lost Coast, but he was going to follow along.
Then we divorced.
I continued with my plan, and moved back with my children, whereupon the pieces of disability and race in Hawaii have been springing up from the wood like there’s no tomorrow.
Race – because I’m white and boy is it ever in my face again.
Race, because I have had to make choices about where I want to go with this, how comfortable am I in being a real minority again? Choosing where the kids attend school is a defining answer to this question.
Do they go to school where 98% of the school is mixed brown, many of the other parents don’t speak English and are in their mid-late 20’s (as they are from Micronesian or other non-English-speaking islands in the Pacific) and I (the 44 year old geriatric white, deaf mom), in no way fit in?
Or do they go to school where the student population is more diverse but most of the parents are also white? I might get along with the other parents better – it will certainly be easier on me – but will my kids be learning as much as they could in a setting that is far more culturally different from our own? Will being in a more caucasian-culturally based school really be helpful for them – especially for Micah?
Or do they go to school where more of the student population is Japanese or mixed-Asian? I’m extremely comfortable with Asian cultures (I did live in Asia for 10 years!) – most people don’t expect that comfort or linguistic proficiency coming from a white woman like myself, but it can and does translate over time.
Or a school where most of the student population is Hawaiian?
Disability, because everyone’s interactions with me are centered first and foremost over my being white.
Then I don’t hear them, or I miss out on pieces of the conversation and their confusion is clear. How come I can’t hear? It’s obvious they think I’m being rude. I try and wear my hair back so they can see my hearing aids, but even having a visual doesn’t seem to help modify their preconception of who I am and what this is about.
Disability, because I’m with Moxie and she clearly has Down syndrome and she looks hapa. She is far more accepted than I could ever be, seemingly on the basis of hapa first and Down syndrome second. I’m not sure yet though. I’m still feeling this one out. But which school is going to value Moxie the most?
I’ve made choices
I decided on a school for the kids that was more mixed-islander.
I made that decision partly on my gut feeling, and partly because South Pacific island cultures are precious to me. I’ll always be grateful for spending my most formative years in Fiji. I want the kids to learn to walk in the rhythm of islanders, and I want them to value manners, respect (for self and others), and social interactions above all else. I want them to learn Hawaiian and have access to learning other languages.
I can help supplement their academics through travel and things we do at home. I can teach them Japanese and we can tap into Asian cultural elements in Hawai’i. I know what to do, I know where to go. But I can’t teach them the Hawaiian chants or learning to live, play, walk and be in harmony with kids that are from different cultures across the Pacific – that’s something that their school can best provide them with.
I’m glad I made the choice I did, because 6 weeks in, it’s clear that it was a good one. As hippie as it sounds, the vibe is spot on here – the kids are well-mannered, polite, so sweet. The atmosphere for Micah in particular could not be better – this is his kind of place, and it shows. Moxie is a boss, like always – I swear, that girl could go anywhere and wrap it around her little finger.
Mack is not going to the same school as them yet – he missed the cut-off for age – and he has clearly felt aspects of race that are new and confusing for him. He’s not used to being singled out by other kids for being white. Hopefully that will ease out as he grows older and attends the same school as his siblings.
All of this makes me think about privilege. It makes me think about what it means to be a minority or a majority. It makes me think about choices that we make in the tribes that we choose to belong to or associate our children with; who we naturally align ourselves with, and how much of all of the alignments that we make in our lives are a choice…or not. Are we going to go outside our comfort zone? Are we able to? It’s not an easy thing to do; to walk into an environment in which you are clearly an other and maintain a steady smile and friendly spirit, day in and day out, when most people look at you warily.
It makes me think about age. I’m easily a grandmother’s age in my kid’s school, and yet in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m a normal mother. I’m so glad I know I’m normal in another space and place!
It makes me think about education. I’m divorced and re-starting my own life, and I’m so freaking grateful that I’m doing this with a solid education and experience behind me. Which makes me wonder about the education and opportunities that other women here have and receive – or not.
I also feel almost unspeakably blessed in that I am able to make choices for my kids; that we are not forced onto one way of living. The ability to choose is powerful, as is access to education and opportunities.