Sharing Mana‘o

Last week’s column apparently stuck a chord with many readers. Inspired by comedian Sam Adams’ “True Color” routine, it generated more responses via Facebook, email and personal encounters than any of this year’s previous “Mana’o.”

Adams, an African-American comic and motivational speaker, rejects the labels of “black” and “white,” urging his audience to find their true color . . . at the paint store. He proudly declares himself to be a lovely shade of brown called Chocolate Indulgence.

As I wrote last week, Adams’ idea appealed to me, largely because I’ve always been puzzled — and peeved — at the use of the word “yellow” to describe those of us with Asian blood. Cinnamon Brulee is so much nicer and, according to my paint sample cards, way more accurate.

After posting a “Sharing Mana’o” link on Facebook, I heard from readers who reported their true colors, from Desert Sand to Heavy Cream Latte. Others wrote in support of Adams’ suggestion that, rather than continue to allow ourselves to be categorized into black/white/yellow/red/brown, we instead recognize that we’re all shades of the same color.

My cousin Juliana, who is hapa and probably Mojave Sunset or Resort Peach, posted a photo of her California-issued birth certificate showing the “Race/Color” of her mother to be yellow. I’m not certain of Juliana’s age, but I know she’s not 50 yet. I was astounded but my mother wasn’t surprised. “Well, sure, ‘the yellow race,’ “ she said. “Yours probably says the same thing.”

So, I checked. My birth certificate predates Juliana’s by at least a dozen years, but I was born in Chicago, where the pertinent box says “Race” only, no “Color” option. Seeing both my parents listed as Japanese, rather than Yellow, at first relieved me, but then I felt slightly annoyed. My father’s parents came from Okinawa, which is now part of Japan but has its own distinct history, culture and language.

Like Hawaii, Okinawa was once an independent sovereign nation, founded in 1429 as the Kingdom of Ryukyu. Japan annexed the Ryukyu Islands in 1879, less than 20 years before the U.S. annexation of Hawaii. When asked about my ancestry, I always say I’m half Okinawan, half Japanese.

But as I sat at my desk, staring at my birth certificate next to a stack of paint sample cards, self-doubt began nagging at me. If I truly believe we are all of one race (human), why insist on distinguishing between Japanese and Okinawan; or Asian and Caucasian, for that matter?

The same question occurred to me after seeing “Crazy Rich Asians” last week with my best friend. Robbie, who has probably a dozen different bloodlines running through her veins, including Chinese, agreed that the movie might have been more accurately titled “Crazy Rich Pakes.” Here in Hawaii, with so many folks of varying Asian ancestries, we recognize both the cultural similarities and differences between the sub-communities. Still, we both enjoyed the film and celebrated the milestones it achieved: the first major Hollywood film to feature a primarily Asian and Asian-American cast in 25 years, the most successful rom-com in nearly a decade, No. 1 at the box office on its opening weekend and for the following two weeks.

That bothersome voice in my head kept asking, “Is it hypocritical to reject race/color classifications while asserting my Okinawan/Japanese identity? Is it racist to celebrate one’s ethnic heritage?”

After much debate and soul-searching, I’ve concluded that the answer to both questions is “no.” In grade school, we were taught that Hawaii is “the melting pot of the Pacific.” I’ve long felt that it’s more like a stir-fry. Each ingredient retains its individual flavor and texture while complementing the other ingredients. The result is a delicious conglomeration, much more appetizing and satisfying than a homogenized smoothie.

And so it is, I believe, with colors. If you blended together the colors of a rainbow, you’d end up with a drab gray. Or Wet Pavement, according to my paint cards. The beauty of a rainbow is in the correlation of hues, each stripe equally brilliant, and made even more beautiful by their side-by-side unity.

* Kathy Collins is a storyteller, actress and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is kcmaui913@gmail.com.

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