“The most difficult thing is to remember that the enemy is human,” a character says midway through my novel Glorious Boy, “but this is also the most important… especially when I find myself being my own worst enemy.”
Captain van Dulm may be fictional, but his words have haunted me this week amid the grief and protest and violence unleashed by the brutal murder of George Floyd under the knee of a white man designated to “protect and serve.” Had that white man remembered Mr. Floyd’s humanity, or his own, this crime would likely never have happened. If police across America were trained to lead with humanity for all, the country would not be reacting today against a pattern of systemic violence against people of color. If the white races had not dominated people of color for centuries by systematically denying their humanity, then race could not still be used as a hammer to shatter the promise of unity in the United States. If human beings could retain the trusting color blindness with which every one of us is born, we would never experience the fearful dehumanization that is the life blood of both racism and war.
Divide & Conquer
Historically, the exploitation of racism led to the spread of empires and colonial rule. “Divide and conquer” was the single most effective strategy of the British in maintaining their grip over a quarter of the planet for more than 200 years. So important was it that when families like mine produced children of mixed race, those children were tagged with their own color label. My father and his siblings were called Eurasian in Shanghai, where they grew up with their Chinese father and Caucasian mother. They were sent to segregated schools, forbidden from living in certain parts of the city, from entering parks for whites only. When they came to America, only my father kept his Chinese name and did not try to pass as white. Straddling the race line in a racist world makes it even more difficult to remember one’s true identity.
This personal history, which I’ve folded more directly into previous novels, also informed Glorious Boy, which is set in a British Indian penal colony in the shadow of World War II. The convicts exiled to this tropical gulag were Indians and Burmese who dared to oppose the brutality of British rule. Who demanded to be seen as human and treated with humanity. Who were willing to fight for justice and freedom.
Racist oppression has a long and global history.
But there’s an even more unpleasant kicker to this story. When Japanese troops landed in the penal colony, the convicts viewed them as liberators. “Asia for the Asians!” had been their rallying cry. But the Japanese did not view the Indians and Burmese as fellow humans. They viewed them as Other, just as the British had. Over their three-year occupation, the Japanese massacred these Other Asians by the thousands.
Today the Othering reflex persists. We can and must choose to overcome it, but as Captain van Dulm warns us, this is not an easy task. The process requires informed intention, patience, and tolerant understanding. It starts with a personal commitment from each and every one of us to honor and respect our own humanity by paying that humanness outward.
We can do this by continually reminding ourselves and raising our children to see and know and respect those who appear to be different. We can and must reframe our view of humankind as a broad and diverse family, rather than as a narrow and insular clan.
And today, this day, we can demonstrate our shared humanity by welcoming the partnership of those police officers around the country who are not shooting rubber bullets, throwing tear gas, and calling for violence against protesters but, instead, are standing beside them, taking a knee with them, raising their voices for the same justice and freedom that people of color the world over know is long overdue.
The cynics may tell us this linking of arms is too little too late, merely a gesture or, worse, posturing of goodwill. But as one protester in Philadelphia told the policeman kneeling beside her, “When the revolution comes, we will need you.” So this is the campaign that I hope will rise up to honor George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland and Philando Castile and so many, many others who have died because of the failure of police to remember their humanity. To move beyond the long legacy of bigotry and divisiveness, beyond today’s national tragedy, to achieve real and enduring change, we must come together. #WalkWithUs