New TCJ Editor Thinks Outside the Checkbox

Nov 15th, 2009 | By | Category: 21-2: K-12 Education, Winter 2009, Editor's Essay
By Kurt Umbhau

As the fourth TCJ editor in 20 years and someone firmly committed to higher education, I understand why people include their tribal affiliation to reclaim ancestral heritage and acknowledge their history and identity.

But whenever I fill out a form, I skip the section that asks for my racial affiliation for two reasons. First, I’m big on privacy. And secondly, I don’t like the selections. The category Mixed isn’t always a choice, and Mixed feels as if one’s blood is diluted. Another marginal term, Multi, seems kind of racially schizophrenic and fragmented. Few choices work for me, including the checkbox to opt out of being categorized.

The one attractive label is Pacific Islander because I grew up on an island in the Pacific. I can relate my experiences to this label. As a boy, I lived Hawaiian culture in a Waimanalo backyard when my friend Garrett Wong’s uncle let us play with a pig before it became the entrée for a relative’s first birthday luau.

Garrett’s uncle laid the pig out in an imu, (a three-foot deep trench a little bigger than the pig). He strategically placed about a dozen softball-sized, glowing hot lava rocks around and inside the gutted animal. Another man said a few words of thanks in Hawaiian, and as an offering, he poured a little of whatever he was drinking on the ground.

Even with ti leaves to protect the flesh, the meat hissed as it came in contact with the burning lava rocks. Garrett’s uncle filled the imu with dirt until it resembled a fresh grave. All day long, we’d race from the beach to the imu and stand, dripping wet, on the hot ground above the cooking pig. About 10 hours later, the pork, tender and perfect, slipped away from the bone into an aluminum serving tray.

Before we ate, Christian prayers were delivered by the same person giving Hawaiian thanks to gods and goddesses. All ages and relations came out for the luau, talked story, and danced the hula to an impromptu group of family musicians. Eventually, the ukuleles and conversation faded away replaced by midnight waves breaking over the faraway reefs at Rabbit Island.

Later in college, I studied Hawaiian culture and the effects of colonialism on indigenous populations. The United States illegal imprisonment of Queen Liliuokalani sparked this interest, and today, my scholarly focus is the psychology of the colonizer. Still, defining myself by race feels strange because, as an adult, I prefer to be measured by things I control: my intention and my skill set.

But here it goes: Chiricahua Apache, Mexican, Japanese, Irish, English, and German. I could clean up three of those races by bundling them under European, but the problem with that starts with my grandmother. She’s 90 years old, and she would say she is American, not Irish.

The Apache/Mexican heritage is from my grandfather, Armando. His mixed parents could not provide for him and left him with nuns at a convent. He became a professional boxer: fast, powerful, and relentless even as he aged and got fat from beer. He taught me how to punch a speed bag as well as how to play chess. As I grew older, we differed in that he spent hours praying in church while I preferred surfing at the beach.

And if my Opa (grandfather) were alive, he’d staunchly claim to be a German. But German would be too broad. He was from Bremen. He loved being a Bremener though he spent 50 years living in Yokohama, Japan, after marrying my mixed Japanese/English grandmother.

In my immediate family, I have nieces and nephews with Portuguese, Samoan, Hawaiian, Chinese, Dutch, Danish, and South African roots. I am bound to too many races and cultures to claim only one.

There is more synergy in the whole of me than in the parts.

And so who did American Indian Higher Education Consortium select as the next editor? A writer with 20 years of experience, a college instructor, and a proponent for tribal colleges and cultural education.

And racially? I’ll just skip that box.

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