When I was growing up, we lived in an ethnically diverse neighborhood. The Higashis lived next door, the Kitaharas and Wongs lived around the corner. Maria Elena Rivera, Eleanor Guererro and Lori Hartunian were in my Girl Scout troop. My large and loud step-family was Italian. We were quite a religious mix, too: Catholics, every Protestant faction, Mormons, Jews and Buddhists all living harmoniously. I loved this rich stew of religion, cultures and ideas.
The wealthiest people in my immediate neighborhood were the Walshes. Their eldest daughter, Francie, was like a little sister to me, and one of my favorite playmates. Mr. Walsh worked at CBS and was the voice of Smokey the Bear. They had a maid named Juanita and she was tall, beautiful, elegant, kind, soft spoken—and black. Juanita was the first black person I ever knew personally. She was also the first adult to ever treat me as an equal—who talked to me, instead of at me. I was about seven years old when we met and I adored her. She occasionally worked for my mother after my sister was born, although it was inexplicable because my mother always did a thorough cleaning—vacuuming, sinks and toilets—before Juanita arrived. Further evidence that my mom was a little wacky.
One particular day I went up to play with Francie, only to discover that everyone was out except Juanita and the Walsh’s baby, napping in her crib. I think I asked Juanita if I could come in for a visit. I was still an only child then, and often more comfortable in the company of adults. Juanita said she had cleaning to do and I asked her if I could help. She taught me how to scrub a toilet. My mother never entrusted me with real chores, so I felt tremendous pride as Juanita inspected my work and acknowledged a job well done.
Later, she asked if I wanted to stay and have lunch with her. I watched the lustrous mahogany of her hands as she unfolded the Wonder bread on the cutting board and wondered if the color on her hands was going to rub off on the spongy bread. I am not sure what my seven-year old mind thought when her hands didn’t “bleed” onto the bread, but thank God I didn’t express my stupidity. That quiet afternoon of sandwiches, chores and conversation lives vividly in my memory.
By the time I was eleven, a year after my mom and stepdad divorced, we had to sell our house because my mother couldn’t afford the $120 house payment and the annual property taxes (doesn’t that make you cringe?). Mom had included the custom-built playhouse my dad had given me in the house sale until I indignantly told her that she could do anything she wanted with her house, but I had not given permission to sell my house. She tried reasoning with me, but I believe I threatened to homestead the corner of the yard that housed my playhouse and not move with my mom and sister into an apartment several cities over. The sales contract was rewritten and my dad hired a flatbed truck driver to hoist the redwood-sided cottage with the shake roof and plop it in his backyard. Juanita bought our patio furniture and I clung to her when she came to pick it up, crying, because everything in my world was falling apart and I knew I would never see my friend again.
At sixteen, I had irritated my mother and she banished me for the summer to live with my father in Hawaii. I struggled to make sense of a world in which I felt I didn’t belong. To make matters worse, I became painfully aware that we were not wanted in the predominantly Hawaiian neighborhood in which we were living. Every time we drove down the street, our neighbors would stop and glare at us. It was unsettling because I had never experienced or felt racism. These neighbors looked very much like the beloved neighbors I’d had growing up. My dad explained that we were “howlies” and they resented us living in the neighborhood. There were news reports that summer of howlies being beaten on the beaches. I was miserable for myriad reasons and only lasted a few weeks in paradise before I begged to go home.
When I was seventeen, Dianne Foster, Ralph DiPaulo and I auditioned for the summer program at Inner City Cultural Center (ICCC) in the heart of Los Angeles. ICCC was created in the wake of the Watts riots in the late 60s to bring about a cultural shift. Its mission was to embrace the multiculturalism of this changing America and to lead the way through the arts. The three of us were vying for 35 scholarships amongst 350 hopeful teenagers. The program consisted of acting, movement, history of theatre, dance and language classes across a full day, Monday through Friday. The program was to last all summer long.
Dianne and I got permission to do a scene together rather than the prepared monologue that was required as part of the audition process. We performed the scene from Lillian Hellman’s the Children’s Hour that we had done in our high school drama class—the one where Martha tells Karen that she “loves” her. It had shocked our high school classmates and we took the risk of doing it for ICCC. During the audition, founder and artistic director, C. Bernard Jackson—“Jack,” also had us “make up a joke that has never been told” and asked us to become different inanimate objects. I was told to “be a bottle of Coke.” I bubbled, fizzed and burst out of the bottle I imagined myself to be. And I made Jack and the rest of the panel laugh out loud. By week’s end, Dianne, Ralph and I had all been given scholarships and were to start the following Monday. I was over the moon.
On Monday morning, my mother told me I couldn’t attend the program at all because I hadn’t cleaned my room. It was an epic battle, and even now, 45 years later, her perpetual thwarting of my creative endeavors remains a mystery to me. I called my grandmother after my mom left for work and railed. My grandmother agreed that she was being unreasonable and told me to get on a bus and go anyway. It was my first real act of blatant defiance (the playhouse notwithstanding).
Inner City Cultural Center was Jack’s vision—a true multicultural experiment that he led until his death in 1996. Jack wanted to use the arts to mitigate the racial divide—he envisioned a new world where actors and artists of all stripes would converge on stage to tell great stories—regardless of the color of their skin. He thought that ideal would be extrapolated into the real world—really more intercultural, as he promoted the synthesis of cultures. Of the 35 budding thespians in the summer of 1970, Dianne, Ralph and I were the “token” white kids amidst the black, Asian and Latino kids in the program.
I got hopelessly lost in the various bus transfers that first morning and arrived about three hours after classes had begun. Once there, I threw myself into the maelstrom of creative chaos. It was thrilling. We were set to perform in a children’s summer program at Hollywood Bowl and were separated into groups, each group representing the different mechanical parts of a clock. We moved in staccato beats to “Time.”
In the afternoon we began dance class. As I leapt into the air, I came down awkwardly and my foot collapsed beneath me. It immediately started to swell. I imagine that my mother overlooked my disobedience that evening because by the time I arrived home, my foot had swollen twice its size and was in Technicolor. Within a few days I would learn that I had fractured my foot and was put in a cast up to my knee. My clock group adjusted the movement to mimic my gimpy gait.
In acting class, Jack cast the students for a production of the Fantasticks that was to be performed to a real audience. I was cast as Luisa and a handsome young black actor was cast as my love interest Matt. When Matt says “I love you,” to Luisa, he took my breath away because I believed him. I can still feel the rush that I felt that long ago day.
There was another young black actor in the company who wasn’t so happy with our presence and was the complete embodiment of everything Jack was trying to change. He was of the militant ilk and was pretty abusive in language and demeanor. One day he was being particularly hostile. “Matt” (I can’t remember the actor’s name) told him to “lay off.” Matt went on to tell the angry young man that we hadn’t done anything to him—that we weren’t responsible for all the ills that had been perpetrated on the American black since slavery. Matt was my hero and I had a huge crush on him.
Three weeks into the program, my toes turned purple and the doctor said I had to stay off my foot or I was going to be in trouble. My mother got her way in the end as I had successfully sabotaged myself and had to withdraw. However, Jack’s grand experiment, and my brief, but incredible experience there, further changed my worldview and shaped the person I was becoming. It was in that color-blind atmosphere—the brain-child of a black visionary—that proved to me that although we may “see” our differences, we need not be defined by those differences—and that we can collectively create and dream as one.
Those two early experiences of being the minority in a sometime hostile environment, particularly after having been raised in a very diverse yet harmonious community, cemented my belief that we need to foster understanding and focus on humanity over race.
I carried that view into my burgeoning adult life. At the Christmas table in 1972, my Aunt Katie, who lived and lorded over her world in Texas, was holding court and complaining about how “uppity” her seamstress had gotten. She was incensed that the seamstress had stopped calling her “Miss Katie.” I had stayed silent for as long as I could, but finally—rather like that bottle of Coke I had once become—I burst. “Gee, Aunt Katie, when did you sell the plantation?” I said with as much disdain as I could muster (quite a lot). All hell broke loose.
My other aunts roused my mother who was passed out in a back bedroom. I was (proudly) being thrown out of Christmas dinner and they didn’t really care that my very intoxicated mother was going to drive me and my 10 year-old sister in a car on the freeway for the hour-long ride home—they just wanted my liberal-loving impertinence gone. (I didn’t drive for another few months, in case you’re wondering why I didn’t take the wheel). It would be another 30 years before Aunt Katie learned to like me (or maybe she just tolerated me).
When my daughter was four, she attended Grandview preschool. She was so enchanted by her days there, that she never wanted to leave. Three weeks in, she announced one morning that she didn’t want to go to school anymore. Instinctively, I knew something had happened to sour her love affair with school. After much prodding, she began crying, “Alison said you’re fat and I don’t want to go there anymore.”
“Well, I am fat,” I said folding her into my arms.
“No, you’re not,“ she wailed. “You’re BEAUTIFUL.” Ah, there’s color blind and then there is the blind love of a child. I realized this was a perfect opportunity to help my little girl understand bigotry. I told her that Alison only saw what I looked like and passed judgement because she didn’t know my heart. I told her how people often dislike one another simply because they look different. I suggested we go out with Alison and her mother so she would get to know me. I believed that once she knew me as a person, what I looked like would be irrelevant.
We had heard a lovely book read on PBS’s Storytime and went to the bookstore to purchase Amazing Grace. It’s a story about a little girl with a fanciful imagination. My little girl was also fanciful and loved to play dress-up just like Grace. I had planned on talking about their similar interests to help her understand that what they had in common was more important than their differences. And then my daughter schooled me.
After we read the book, I asked Katie what she and Grace had in common, expecting her to tell me about dress-ups and singing and dancing—what they did. Instead she said, “Well, we both have beautiful eyes.” And she was right.
I asked Katie, “Well, how are you and Grace different?” I thought she would tell me that Grace was black and that she was white which was going to serve as my entrée into the deeper discussion of the shallowness of skin deep.
She thought for a moment and said, “She’s brown and I’m beige.” My heart welled up. I thought: if everyone could see one another simply as different shades of the same color, we’d all be okay. We are not black, or white or yellow. We are, indeed, shades of brown.
Katie also attended a culturally diverse elementary school. Her best friends and favorite playmates were named Abramian, McClellan, Ramos, Sefilian and Park. Love and acceptance are inherent in children. Hate is taught.
Now, the world seems even more fractious than it did in my youth. Social media ratchets up hateful rhetoric and dismisses all the strides that have been made since my girlhood (if the young only knew how far we’ve really come). I think it is time to revisit Jack’s vision (and Martin’s) and create a new collective dream. It is time for us to get to know one another over a sandwich so our misunderstandings and assumptions can dissolve as we discover our commonality. It is time for us to bury the old hostile attitudes (on all sides) and to stop the hateful speech, name calling and worse. It is time for us to view one another with the kindness, wisdom and wide-eyed innocence of a four-year-old: some of us are brown and some of us are beige. We are merely variegated shades in a box of Crayola crayons. And we all bleed red.
Dear world: Please stop the madness. ALL LIVES MATTER.