The Benefits of Being a Chameleon

 In Dawn Bunger, Outreach

I was born in Springfield, Missouri, that in itself is not that interesting. I was born in the 1970’s when interracial marriage was not common practice, especially in Missouri. My father is Filipino, my mother Caucasian; I’m Asian American. We didn’t live in Missouri very long. When I would ask my mother why we moved to Ohio she would say “Because I knew life was going to be very hard for you there.” It was common when she would go out with myself and my sisters for people to ask, “Where did you get them?” or “They are so pretty, how long have you had them?” The assumption is that we must be adopted, because why would a white woman have children that clearly were not same color as her. It should probably be said here, that especially in the summer, I get really dark, and as a consequence, I can pass as Filipino, Asian, Latino, Black, White and a combination of any of the above.

We moved to Ohio, where I grew up in an inner-city school district. I had both white friends and black friends. On weekends we spent every Friday night with my dad’s best friend and his family, they were Filipino. On Sunday we went to church with White, Black and Asian Families. The summers were spent visiting family in Missouri.  I became a Chameleon.  A Chameleon can blend into any environment. When they blend into the environment they become safe from predators. I am grown now, but I have learned to move fluidly within the white community, the black community and the Asian community. Being a chameleon has benefits. I can see the perspective of each community, but being a chameleon has caused hurt that I have kept tucked away hoping to not have to experience again.

When I was a junior in high school my family moved to a suburban area, I went from a majority black high school to a majority white high school; but I’m a chameleon so I can blend. I made new friends and new acquaintances. In one particular class an acquaintance handed me a business card. I took the card and began to read about the KKK.  I sat in horror reading, then looked up to see a smiling face and being told “Isn’t that funny?” I then realized this person thought I was white and was being asked if I would like to join. I look back now and laugh to think how shocked they would have been to find out who they were trying to recruit.

In 2002 I married Jason, a Caucasian man, who taught in an inner city district, can quote Martin Luther King, sing the Beatles songs one minute and then rap Run D MC or LL Cool J the next. He also grew up in a small rural town, as well as living in larger cities, he fully understood the depths of racism that happens in our world. In 2002 he graduated from seminary and became the associate pastor at a large, predominately African-American church. Before starting into his new position Jason and I were going to Florida for our honeymoon.  We were in the St. Louis airport, our plane had begun to board.  We stood in a long line in an already packed airport waiting to enter the airplane.  Since 9/11, the procedures for flying changed. We were already through TSA so everything should be fine. Before boarding I was randomly pulled out of line to be searched in front of everyone.  It began with two officers searching my carryon bag and ended with four officers and a drug dog. All eyes were on me — all the eyes of my fellow passengers on a plane that I eventually boarded.  I saw the fear in their eyes, I’m not sure if they could see the humiliation in mine. I knew they saw me, and what they saw caused fear. We made many friends that we consider family during our time in our church home. Our last year there we needed to travel to Alabama to attend the annual conference. While Jason was at the conference, I entertained our two very young girls. What he didn’t know was that it was a horrible few days for me. You have to understand I am a chameleon, I can blend into my surroundings. In Alabama, where racism is still very prevalent, I couldn’t blend. I went into stores and workers wouldn’t help me. If they were forced to ring me up for my order they glared at me and refused to speak to me when spoken to. I went to restaurants where I would be seated but not waited upon. You can think, “well maybe they were just busy.” But the restaurant was empty with the exception of the workers, myself and my girls. I don’t like to go to Alabama, I also don’t like to go to some other southern areas for the same reasons.

Back then and as it is now during the summer, my skin darkens. It doesn’t matter how much sunscreen I use, I become dark. So dark that when I come back to work the common expression is, “Oh wow. You got dark.” When my chameleon skin changes color throughout the year I can “fit in” but also be “on the outside” in various areas of our environment. For example, I can walk into a Mexican restaurant with only my girls and be greeted a gregarious “Hola!”  When Jason comes to sit down with us, we normally get “the stare” along with a cold insidious side eye look. I have very few Mexican restaurants that I will allow myself and my family to visit. Why? Try having your food thrown down so hard it skidded across the table and bounced back almost flying off the table. Maybe it’s because they serve my husband, and the white friends we are with and leave me sitting there, refusing to speak to me and making me question my own existence. They also serve me alone. The problem just happens when we are together. Does this happen at every Mexican restaurant? No, but the experience has happened enough that I know where I can go and be leery in trying any place new. Experiences such as this remind me that even a chameleon can’t always blend.

I wish I could say that these incidents were the last in my experience, I also wish I could say this is the limit to my experience of racism. My experiences are long and detailed, some will understand others will empathize, and some will refuse to believe.

Racism isn’t going to end. We can talk about it, we can become mad and try and change it, we can protest but it isn’t going to end. Am I pessimistic? No, I’m dealing with reality. You must understand racism goes back to Biblical days. Moses married Zipporah, this was possibly the first biblical example of interracial marriage. Miriam, Moses’ sister spewed hateful words regarding Zipporah, the Cushite woman. God struck Miriam with leprosy (I like that part).  We live in a fallen world. We live in a world that we see people by the color of their skin and hair. We are visual beings; God made us this way. We, as Christians, must be able to see beyond the physical and see people for who they really are. We, as Christians, must be willing to stand together and say we have seen enough and we must find a way to curb the violence and racism. The church must come together and show the world we look different but we worship a God of love, compassion and forgiveness. We are made in the image of God, we are all children of God. I’m waiting on the church – the black church, the white church and the Asian church, to come together to say, “We have had enough!” Now is the time that our voices need to be heard.

I end this with a little advice. When you go on social media and your friends are sharing their hurt and outrage over the racial injustice they are seeing all over the media. Please for the love of God, do not say, “Well, we don’t know the whole story…” How would you feel if your father, brother, grandpa, uncle or friend just died a cruel death posted on national media? How would you feel if a loved one died of heart attack or stroke and your ‘friend” decided to lecture you on diet and exercise? Yes there is a time when issues need to be discussed and debated, but in the middle of death is not the time. Show compassion, show empathy, most of all show love and support.

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  • Nancy Tawney

    Dawn, thank you so much for sharing some of your experiences with racism. With our Brielle being bi-racial we have already had to deal with bulling at school this last year. I’m sure she will experience more as she ages. In the summer Brielle’s skin color also changes during the summer. I love her beautiful skin, her spirit, kindness, intelligece and everything else about this child. I’m sure she will face many issues as she goes through life, I hope she is as strong as you have been.
    Thanks again for sharing and God Bless you and your family!

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