Prejudice, Pain & Progress: My American Life

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The marriage of the author and her husband Ray Haas in xxxx. At the time, it was against the law for a mixed race couple to marry in Virginia and they married in Washington, D.C.
The marriage of the author and her husband Ray Haas in 1958. At the time, it was against the law for a white person to marry someone of another race in Virginia and they married in Washington, D.C.

A few years ago, I remember hearing that in America, when people are asked to choose three adjectives that best describe themselves, minorities typically say their race as one of the three. I always do. I’m Eurasian, I say; Half Chinese and half German. Most white people never do so. In my informal survey of many friends, I have found this to be accurate. Why do those of us who are not white think of our race as an integral part of who we are? Is it because of how we are treated by the “in” group? I think so.

For a very long time, there has been a strong movement to erase racism from our culture, to accept others who are different and to respect diversity in all forms. In recent history, we have made huge progress. But in the U.S., every three steps forward comes with two steps backward. Change is difficult to sustain. That’s life. Too many of us learned bias and prejudice early on, and we stubbornly cling to our inherited stories, unwilling to open our hearts and our minds, even in the face of a new reality. This stubbornness has been demonstrated institutionally, as well as on a more personal level, and nobody is immune.

In 1993, when President Clinton visited Annapolis, his Secret Service detail went to Denny’s restaurant on West St. They had only an hour’s break in which to eat. All 21 were seated quickly and placed their orders. However, the white agents also received their meals quickly, while none of the six African American agents received theirs until their hour was up and they stood to leave. My sweet white friend said, “Oh for goodness sake! What are those men complaining about? Everyone has to wait to be served at Denny’s.” Even though Hope didn’t get it, the six African American agents shared in a $54 million settlement that Denny’s agreed to as a result of bias suits filed by thousands of African American customers in various U.S. locations.

Katherine Haas and her adopted Sioux sister and sons. Photo: Ray Haas
Katherine Haas and her adopted Sioux sister and sons. Photo: Ray Haas

I also wish she could have witnessed me years ago in North Dakota, where I’m often mistaken as Sioux. I sat in restaurants where it didn’t matter who was seated after me, but I was not served until after every single white customer was served. Waiting at the deli counter there offered the same experience. If I went in to book a motel room, the receptionist would suggest to the white person ahead of me that perhaps they wanted a room near the sauna, or near the pool, or an upstairs room where it was quieter. Yet when it was my turn, all I got from the clerk was, “I’m sorry, but we have no vacancies.” I learned to stay in the car, slide down in my seat so I couldn’t be seen, and ask my white husband to go in and book a room for us.

On the way to North Dakota each summer, I learned to put on my mental armor. If I forgot and walked in to use a gas station rest room, the dirty look I got from many attendants said, “Oh God, are you going to pee all over the bathroom?” That look pierced my soul and still hurts me to the core. “You don’t know me. Why do you hate me?”

Even further back, when I attended the University of North Dakota, I hung out with the Lakota Sioux students because my family lived on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. In fact, most of my classmates were Chippewa or Sioux. One of my Chippewa friends didn’t find out for over a year that I was half white. At that point, he refused to talk to me. I couldn’t understand it. I was the same person he had befriended a year earlier, and nothing had changed. But he had experienced so much hurt from the whites and felt so much hatred towards them, that he could no longer bear to continue our friendship.

In 1958, I wanted to marry in Virginia but found that the state’s anti-miscegenation law did not allow me to marry a white man. Why had such a law been written and enforced? Who were the lawmakers trying to protect? Instead, we married in Washington, D.C. and it was a wonderful marriage that lasted 54 years, until my husband’s death.

I think back to another instance where I experienced hurtful bias when I applied for a teaching job at the Green Street Elementary School in Annapolis. It was a public school, and it paid better than my private school. At this point, my daughters were all in college, and I wanted to earn more money. It was the early 1980s and this school had a good reputation. I knew they were looking for a teacher, so I made an appointment to talk with the principal. As I walked into her office, she took one look at me and said, “Oh, my quota of minority teachers is already filled.” She never even bothered to interview me and find out whether I’d be a good teacher. My “minority” face did me in.

Not only have I been subjected to prejudice, but I also have discovered that even I carry some internal biases. One of my daughters was doing postdoctoral work in Japan and we decided to visit her. In preparation for the visit, I tried on a kimono she had sent to me. Suddenly, I found my hackles rising and a powerful hatred filling me. I was shocked and ashamed. Where had that feeling come from? What rose out of me were the deeply buried effects of growing up in China hearing about the horrors of WWII and the atrocities committed by the Japanese on the Chinese, even though that was a long time earlier.

I had spent years teaching my students not ever to hate an entire group of people. “You can dislike someone who acted badly towards you, but never decide that everyone who looks like him behaves like him,” I’d preach. Yet here I was filled with unjustified anger towards a whole category of people. I soundly scolded myself and worked the hatred out. Our visit to Japan, where we met my daughter’s kind and generous friends, was a crucial step in my growth, and important for me, a very flawed human.

Here we are now in the autumn of 2017. There have been some positive changes over the years. I see more interracial couples with beautiful mixed-race children. I watch children of all colors play together on the playgrounds. There are black, brown, yellow, and white kids together. At the senior center, people of all colors exercise together, talk together, play cards, and laugh together. It seems that race makes no difference to either the very young or the old. I’m focusing now on those years in between, the years when a person needs to decide who he or she is, what he or she needs to do, and how best to do it.
We need to review our opinions and prejudices. We need to learn about and understand others’ views, religions, cultures, lifestyles. The more we learn, the better we will behave. All of us. It’s time for each and every one of us to do our homework.

Katherine Haas taught at Key School in Annapolis for 42 years. She now spends her time enjoying the arts with her husband, learning Spanish while her Arabic teacher is in China, teaching Chinese, working part-time at Key as Scientist in Residence and engaging in progressive activism.

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