My mother and I were riding our bicycles along Ute Highway, between Lyons, Colorado, and Longmont, Colorado. It was summer in the early 1970’s. A car sped by us and I heard a man yelling, “Dirty Jap! Get off the road.” And I felt the sting of a rock against my shoulder. I saw my mother, ahead of me, swerve on her bicycle and stop.
The next thing I recall is my mom talking to a highway patrol officer. Maybe he saw it, I am not sure. I remember him telling us, “Go home.” I remember understanding, maybe for the first time, that we were not protected. Not from rocks. Not from name-calling. Not from hate. “Hey - Polynesian pea-brain.” “I bet you’re good at math because you’re a Jap.” “Your people bombed Pearl Harbor.”
My “people” were American. My “people” lived on Oahu, in Manoa Valley, behind Pearl Harbor. They lived there when it was bombed. My grandparents labored in the sugar fields in Maui and the pineapple fields of Oahu. They raised six children. Six American children. Three of those six managed to work their way through college. Their children, my generation, the mixed-race hapa-haole generation, almost all went to college. Our children, the next generation, will certainly go to college. Every generation stands on the shoulders of those first plantation laborers: the classic American success story. My cousins and I are teachers, engineers, business owners, and lawyers.
When I got a half scholarship to law school, a classmate told me, “It’s just because of affirmative action. You minorities don’t have to work as hard as white people.” After law school, when I took the Colorado bar exam and didn’t pass it, in 1994, I was told by someone at the local bar association that statistically, minorities like Asian-Americans didn’t pass the exam because we “overthought the answers.”
My Japanese grandmother used to tell me, “You are lucky. You have eyelids.” During the most heated days of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, I tried to explain to one of my friends in law enforcement how racism feels and why I have compassion for that movement. She looked at me and said, “Please. You’re as white as they come.”
For me personally, racism is when I am defined by someone by whichever race is most convenient to them at that time. When I am defined by my Japanese-Hawaiian half as a minority, that is one form of racism. When I am defined by my Caucasian half and my Asian half is ignored, that is another form of racism. I cannot build a wall between my two halves.
When the movie “Pearl Harbor,” first came out, I saw it in a theater in Colorado. I was sitting behind a young couple. The woman turned to the man and said, “My grandpa always used to tell me that the only good Jap is a dead Jap. That’s why I came to see this movie. In his honor.” During World War II, the 442nd Infantry Regiment, composed almost entirely of soldiers of Japanese descent, was the most decorated unit in the history of American warfare. That is honor. Most of the men who served in the “Go for Broke” unit had families in the internment camps. I never wanted my kids to experience anything like that racist history in their lives. But a registry for Muslims would be that kind of racism. It would be a deportation order based on hysteria, just as Executive Order 9066 was back in 1942. And our children are going to be touched by the kind of racism that existed during World War II, that we should have come so far away from by now.
I converted to Judaism in 1997. My sons’ grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. I worry what my boys will be facing in the coming years, as I see the incidents of anti-Semitism going up. I used to think, because they’re only a quarter Asian, at least they don’t have to deal with the racism card. But the religion card is back. The identification of 800 journalists as Jewish by bracketing their names during the election by white supremacists was a reminder that Jews can still be segregated by hate. Political free speech is the most protected of all speech under the First Amendment, I passionately tell my sons. But I also want to tell them, be careful of what you say because you’re Jewish and you might get targeted. Being a Jewish mom right now conflicts with being an attorney and law professor. Why have constitutional freedoms that you are afraid to use?
My mother has been telling me to be careful about what I write on my social media pages. She tells me to be careful. She tells me, I have lived through times like these before and it’s better to be quiet. She has lived through times like this. My mother’s family was subjected Executive Order 9066 and internment because of their race. And my sons’ grandmother’s family was victimized by the Holocaust because of their religion. There is validity to the fears of those who have suffered the worst kind of discrimination.
I have felt the sting of racism and bigotry all my life. But I became an attorney to stand up, not to stand back. I have traveled a long way from that little girl on a bicycle in 1970’s Colorado. However, as it turns out, hate never went away. That Goliath has remained. But for every Goliath, there is a shepherd with a stone in a sling. Even if the shepherd is just a mixed-race, Jewish mom and lawyer with nothing in her sling but words.
- Laura C. Rosenthal is an attorney advocate for injured workers in Northern California, where she was licensed to practice law in 2013. She is also a professor of law, teaching legal research and writing, law and motion, and e-discovery courses.