I've had a lot of emails, text messages and conversations since initiating this topic on stereotypes and race, and have so appreciated the insight of the friends I've enlisted to tell their stories. Stories that are powerful in their own right, and embraced by readers because their truths are told matter-of-factly, without blame or effort to perpetuate negative feelings. The last time I hugged Logo Filloon was probably at our high school graduation in 1982, both of us covered with leis after proudly walking the grounds where we spent our teenage years. Since then, of course a lot has happened, which is why I so enjoy getting in touch with old friends - because time gives perspective and allows a different kind of reflection. I love Logo's easy, matter-of-fact voice and the story she tells about coming of age as a Samoan and how the very word, "race" can build impenetrable walls for her today. Here you go . . .
I come from a pretty diverse background. I was born in American Samoa, finished my childhood in Hawaii, coursed through my teen years in California, and now living out my life in Nevada.
My first encounter with race was in the second grade of Maili Elementary School on Oahu. I met the only black girl in school, who I didn't realize was black until another student told me. I had no clue. One day she ran up to me and showed me her gums. Not the chewing gum, but her gums that should have only been seen in a smile. She asked me why my gums were not dark like hers and my response at the time was "stop eating mud and your gums will clean up". I did mention I was in the second grade, right? Yeah, that was my first after school fight.
When we relocated to San Diego, California my younger sister and I were enrolled at Launderbach Elementary School. Race was a bit more evident here. The school was pretty diverse, but I found it wasn't my skin tone but my nationality that the other kids had a problem with. When my sixth grade teacher introduced me to the class, he also mentioned I was Samoan. My facial structure, my accent (which I had no idea I had) labeled me different. My hair turning blonde while my skin darkened during the summer didn't help either. Especially when my mother kept my hair long and when not braided looked like one long afro. I was a walking Q-Tip.
One day, I was walking down the hall to my locker and a group of Cholos were standing near my destination - like right next to my locker. I remember thinking, "What time is it? It's not even lunch time yet." But instead of facing off with me, one of them stepped up and asked "So, what are you?"
It was that one question, that one moment when everything changed. Now, instead of wanting to fight me, they all wanted to know what I was and where did I come from. The Black kids thought I was "a Black Mexican," and the Mexicans thought I was Black with Indian hair. It didn't matter to me because I wasn't either. I was me, the Lone Samoan.
By the time I entered eighth grade more Samoan families were moving into the neighborhoods. I started hearing about Somoans at a rival junior high school called Granger, and I was frequently asked if I was "related" to any of them. I had no idea how it came about that all Samoans are related. No one asked if all Germans were related or if all Italians were related. As soon as I mentioned my nationality it was, "Hey are you related to Junior in Utah?" Junior? Junior who? I've never been to Utah. It was this reason alone that when my daughter was twelve years old she came up to me and said, "I'm never dating a Somoan, Mom. No matter who I date I'll probably end up being related to him."
It eventually balanced out in junior high, but by the time I started my shophomore year in high school I began to question who I was. I questioned my heritage, our family ways and the lessons that my father taught my sisters and me about being true to our culture and customs. Maybe being Samoan isn't a good thing. Maybe I should embrace the new cultures of the Western society that I've become more and more accustomed to. Maybe I should lose the Samoan lilt, the thick kinky hari and be friends with non-Somoans. How else am I going to be an actress if I'm "so" Samoan?
Yet, what was I suppose to do? Turn from my parents and family who I loved very much just to fit in? Ignore a heritage that pre-dates French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville? The lines of the two separate people I had unknowlingly become were beginning to blur. A teenager living a marginal life will push the boundaries of race until something breaks. Either it is the break from trying to fit in or the break from family, or both.
Fortunately for me I had an awesome family who loved me, and still do to this day. My father knew I wasn't going to just graduate from high school to marry a Samoan (hopefully not one I was related to), have kids and be the obedient wife. He knew that from his daughters I would be the one to leave home. And so I did. But with me went the knowledge that they had my back. Which was a good thing because I ended up married to a white guy. When I took him home for the first time for dinner he thought he was dinner.
When he took me home for the first time he said to me as we pulled in their spiral four car driveway, "Be sure you say you're Hawaiian."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because they don't know what a Samoan is," he responded.
"I'm not Hawaiian," I said.
"I know, but just for now say you're Hawaiian, okay?" he counters, pleading look on his face.
I didn't know how I was to take that, but I was young and in love and he could do no wrong.
He introduced me first to his mom, then his dad. And although everything was pleasant I remember being really, really nervous because of what he had told me in the driveway.
His mom: "So you're from Hawaii?"
His mom: "So you're Hawaiian?"
Me: (choking) "Yes."
His dad: "Really? You look Samoan."
I've had my adventures where race played a part in them - some good, some bad. And I realized early on that I really, really don't like the word "race" or any form of it - "racism," "racist," etc, not only in context but the word itself. It hinders you, builds up walls and sucker punches you when you least expect it. When filling out any form and it asks for "Race" I usually put down the Kentucky Derby, or NASCAR 500 or my favorite, Cat Town Races.