I have been hearing that the topic of prejudice and stereotypes within the Cape Verdean Community would be a good subject for an article. And reading Sergio Monteiro’s Black Olive’s Matter article made me realize that there is a lot to talk about in terms of the issue of race and stereotype and how it pertains to the Cape Verdean Community. For me, even without much research it has opened a can of memories that came flooding back from the last Mayoral Race in Boston. One event in particular keep splaying over and over again in my head.
Now not everyone that reads this is familiar with Boston politics, but to explain why I am even writing about this on the CV Network, John Barros, a Cape Verdean was one of many candidates, and a strong candidate at that. The background was this. Thomas Menino, who had been Mayor for so long it’s crazy had died. He had been Mayor for so long that he often ran unopposed. The previous election before his death there had been some other candidates. Us Asians were excited about Sam Yoon. But he lost. But when he died there were a TON of candidates and John Barros was one of them. Not only did he carry the Cape Verdean vote, but pretty he carried a lot of votes. Now he was not the only candidate of color, Felix Arroyo was running to. But he seemed to be carrying the youth Chinatown activist type people in Chinatown.
“Who are you voting for?” a friend had asked me.
“What? How did you make up your mind so fast?”
“Because I know him, he’s my former boss and I owe him that loyalty.”
This woman, a mover and shaker both in the political and Kung Fu circles of Chinatown, shook her head and laughed at me. “Wow Adam! You are an old.. Boston… wow I don’t believe it.”
What she was trying to say was that I fit right into that old Irish Boston patronage system. And yes, even today I probably still do. As it turned out the older political machine in Boston’s Chinatown was also going for Dan Conley, probably because they thought he was most likely to win and no other reason. I was ready to jump in and help campaign, except that my son was so young that I couldn’t imagine going door to door.
“John Barros is the one,” said the woman.
The Focus on Family mayoral forum took place August 21 at the Josiah Quincy School. Seven of the 12 mayoral hopefuls attended the event hosted by the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center and Sociedad Latina. (John Barros is in the center up top)
Later at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center’s Oak Street Fair, I saw John Barros again and shook his hand. Now this is a weird thing to explain. But I knew that there was no way I was voting for him, I did not even look at any other candidate besides Dan Conley until he had to drop out because in my mind, I owed Conley. That being said, I really appreciated seeing John Barros at this really local Chinatown event, and I also liked what he was about, increasing funding to the arts and all that sort of thing. In other words, had I not had a personal relationship with Dan Conley I might have voted for John Barros. But it wouldn’t matter anyway because in the end it came down to Marty Walsh and John Connolly and Walsh won. Interestingly a lot of Cape Verdeans said something similar on Facebook, writing on Conley wall things like, “I would def have your back if John Barros wasn’t running.” My point is there were so many good candidates that election that it was hard to choose just one for many people. It’s probably why John Barros even had a shot. Now to Cape Verdeans, he was Cape Verdean. To everyone else… he was black.
And especially to a another minority group like Chinese… he was black. In a future article I will be writing about some of the irony of Cape Verdean prejudice against African Americans. But Chinese Prejudice against African Americans is pretty ironic too. Chinese racism can sound the worst in terms of the language used and the harsh cut down of what they think of MOST black people. There will be some exceptions given. They will say, SOME are smart, SOME are clean, (and I’m talking really old Chinese people talking in Taishanese here) but the stereotypes will be so brutal, and said with so much confidence from personal experience that it is probably some of the harder language to swallow. It isn’t “unconscious” racism that people like to talk about. But at the same time, a lot of these Chinese, because they have that raw stereotype at the surface, may not have the unconscious racism and readily accept African Americans willing to bridge the gap or prove themselves different. In other words… they very well may have voted for John Barros and Deval Patrick, because they wear suits.
What’s ironic about this is that most of the disgusting stuff you hear old Taishanese people say about black people… well you hear black people say that about Taishanese people. Not only that, but I remember a conversation with a Kung Fu brother of mine who was African American and grew up in the South and had been my neighbor, living with a Chinese woman for over a decade.
“Chinese and Black people are pretty similar. I should know because I’ve been both. Even the food is similar. Chinese eat Jook. We eat grits. Chinese eat pig feet and chitlins and so do we. And there really isn’t a whole lot of difference between the two cultures. Except maybe that Chinese are addicted to rice.” You will find that a Chinese person raised on rice will suffer some serious withdrawal symptoms if they ever get stuck in a part of America where rice is not the staple, ie anywhere outside of a Chinatown. And when I say withdrawal I mean serious sweats, shakes, headaches and light headedness. But on to the Watermelon.
Now the Watermelon is one of those foods where there is a white American Stereotype against black people. I actually only know about this stereotype from books I had to read in school whose purpose was to combat those stereotypes. Watermelon is one of those foods that they make Youtube videos interviewing black people about whether they will eat this food in front of white people.
Now that I have given all this background we come to the Chinatown Oak Street Fair Watermelon eating contest, and John Barros, Cape Verdean, but also black, is invited to join in on the watermelon eating contest. Now Chinese people are not white. They do not even know this Watermelon and black person stereotype. Not the old people anyway. Anyone that knows it is part of the internet generation that is probably already voting for John Barros. Old Chinese people think of watermelon’s growing in Southern China, where they are from, not the deep South and all that implies in American culture.
It’s also a Chinese thing to really suck up to any politician or potential candidate and give them the honored place at the table and it just so happened that the watermelon eating contest was about to begin. It seemed like it would have been an insult not to agree to join. But as I watched, I recognized some dilemma here. What is John Barros going to do? I actually felt nervous for him.
Did he have that fear of eating watermelon in front of white people? Maybe he didn’t even know or care about that stereotype since he is Cape Verdean. Maybe since he is in Chinatown, it doesn’t matter because Chinese people technically are not white. But… I definitely saw some hesitation there and I laughed inside because I was probably the only one watching who knew his conundrum. This was one of the damned if you do damned if you don’t moments. As he and several other politicians sat down in front of their watermelon I heard John Barros suddenly say, “Wait, does someone else not get to go because I am eating this watermelon?” Yet another complication.
“No, no no no no don’t worry about that.” someone said to him…but yes my son was actually turned away moments before. Not that I cared. I mean watermelon is pretty cheap and I knew that there was no way my son would win.
Now here the crowd went quiet. Again I am pretty sure that the stereotype linking African Americans and watermelon is not something well known among the Chinese. I think what they wanted to see was how a “big man” Dai Yun, would go about eating watermelon with the commoners. Would he be better than they were?
On another note, from what I hear from the Cape Verdean Community, the whole eating contest thing is something very foreign to them, at least the relative newcomers. They don’t have these things at the festivals, and it’s more something they have seen on TV and less so in real life. China went through a period of starvation, but the reasons for it were more bad policy than geography. For Cape Verdeans, it seems like the threat of famine or not having enough food is something inherently tied to living on those islands. So it seems crazy to have a contest where food is wasted or thrown away. That being said, many older Chinese who went through starvation probably feel the same way. But the organizations want to adapt to the American way. For whatever reason… the eating contest is something that the Chinese have picked up in America and which, at least to my knowledge, the Cape Verdeans have seemed to avoid.
Back to the Watermelon Eating Contest at Oak Street fair. With John Barros at the table and a whole crowd watching, and probably quite focused on him.
Hands off the table!
John Barros politely took two bites of his watermelon while a teenage Chinese American stuffed his whole face into his snarfing it with wolves teeth and gulps…. That kid was drinking the water melon in solid form, I don’t know if he practiced at home, had some kind of chi gung technique or was just an animal. He raised his hand stood up on the chair and threw the watermelon down with very Hip Hop influenced motions.
“Aiyah!,” shook the head of an old Chinese woman despairing at Barros’s defeat in Taishanese, “Of course you can’t win if you are going to be so civilized.”
But you know that there is no way that a black man, Cape Verde or no, could allow himself to be seen, to have a picture taken, of him savagely destroying a watermelon like that American Born Chinese Youth beside him did, especially not if you are running for office. In the end, John Barros ended up endorsing Walsh and so was part of the winning group and got an appointment as Chief of Economic Development. At the time, although I knew he was Cape Verdean, I saw his walking a fine line of politeness of Chinese custom in an awkward American ritual as a black man. But was there an added complication in this scene when you are also Cape Verdean? I would love to hear what was going through his mind at that time.
Politicians tend to only show up on election years, and usually only if you can get them big numbers, which is why I was so impressed that John Barros bothered to come to the Oak Street fair at all. Although it was impossible for him to win my particular vote, as I explained above, he definitely won my admiration. The next Oak Street fair is actually coming right up and me and my kids will be performing Kung Fu and Lion Dance for it. Last year I didn’t think about John Barros at all during this fair, but since starting to write for Cabo Verde Network, I think I will be thinking about John Barros every future Oak Street Fair from now on.
In my travels I have noticed that Chinese racism against blacks is a benign form of it. Like you said, not based in any historical context but something garnered from limited contact and media biases. I have also noticed that Chinese people will allow their perceptions to change if a stereotype turns out to be false.
Would be awesome to hear more about your travels.
BTW for some background about the older Chinese man in the photo with John Barros, his name is Henry Yee. He recently passed away. Here are some links to some articles I did about that. The videos of the Lion Dance at the funeral were from a friend. http://www.bostonchinatownblog.org/2016/03/henry-yee-of-kung-fu-federation-last.html
Consequently, the Kung Fu Federation Banquet was last week. It was the first year it was done with out Mr. Yee.