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In an Anchorage professor’s letters to his family, the reality of racism is revealed

  • Author: David A. James
  • Updated: February 17, 2018
  • Published February 17, 2018

We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet: Letters to my Filipino-Athabascan Family

E.J.R. David; State University of New York Press; 200 pages; 2018; $24.95

Years ago when my children were young, my wife was out of town for spring break. Rather than stay home, I packed them off to Seattle to see my family. I remember the trip well, but not so much the flight. We walked through check-in and security without a hitch. I gave it no further thought.

“We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet” by E. J. R. David (State University of New York Press)

Anchorage author E.J.R. David has a different memory. On a return trip from Bozeman, Montana, to Anchorage with his son, he was required at check-in to go back and get his wife, who was remaining behind for a few days, and have her confirm the child was his.

"On the one hand, I'm glad they made sure that my child — any child — is protected from being abducted," he writes in his new book "We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet." "On the other hand, however, I wonder if they ask every adult traveling with a child that same question, and if they make every adult traveling with a child go back and get consent and confirmation from the other parent."

The answer is no, and it matters because it addresses the heart of his book's subject matter. I walked right through one of the nation's busiest airports with two kids aged six and eight and headed to the middle of Alaska without question. The difference is, I'm white and born in America, while David came to this country from the Philippines as a teenager. We're both citizens with no criminal records, but he has darker skin and an accent. Undoubtedly there are white men who have been treated the way David was, but with a scruffy beard and two kids in tow, I was given a free pass.

David attended high school in Utqiagvik and is now married to a woman of Athabascan heritage. "Trembling" is a collection of letters he wrote to his wife and three children addressing his experiences as a person of color and his concerns for them living in a country where racism remains pervasive and they will continue to be singled out in subtle ways like that mentioned above.

This is an intensely personal book and one that will provoke intensely personal responses from its readers. David, a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, has specialized in studying the intergenerational impacts on indigenous peoples who have been colonized. Born in a country that was once held by the United States and married to an Alaska Native woman, he sits at the intersection of his own research, and here turns his attention to how the issues he studies have made him who he is.

In an approach akin to the African-American author Ta-Nehisi Coates' 2015 book "Between the World and Me," written as a letter to his son about the struggles of growing up black and never fully part of the dominant culture, David is baring his soul to his family and the public.

He explores the history of America's occupation of the Philippines, which was not the benevolent act our history books paint it as, and discusses how it left his people with an ingrained sense of inferiority that he still carries long after the island nation was granted its freedom. He likens the Filipino experience to Native Americans, many of whom feel that they are still living under occupation.

David writes about the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways that minorities are shown their second-class status in this country, indignities in daily life that white people don't face. It is because we don't directly experience these things that many white people simply fail to recognize the differences in how we are treated, the story of the airplane flights above being a perfect example.

In the letters to his children he explores the pitfalls that lie ahead for them, dangers he knows on an academic level from having access to the research data. As both Filipino-Americans and Alaska Natives, his children fall into two groups that experience lower-than-average wages, higher likelihood of incarceration, higher likelihood of being shot by the police, lower life expectancy, higher likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors with drugs, alcohol and gangs, higher possibility of being sexual abuse victims … the list goes on.

David expresses considerable hopelessness in this book. It's difficult reading for those of us who are white, and easy to dismiss with the canard that we live in a post-racial society. But most of these letters were written under the cloud of the 2016 presidential race. Early in the book David states what isn't generally admitted in polite company: "The Republican front runner to become the next president of our country is winning because of — again, because of and not in spite of — his explicitly racist and bigoted views against immigrants, against people who are like me."

Given an abundance of candidates — some of them quite qualified — the Republican Party and then the country itself chose to replace its first African-American president with the only candidate who took openly racist positions. In a postscript, penned after the election, David writes, "What scares me is that bigotry seems to be the norm instead of an exception."

Still, in the closing pages of this emotionally wrenching work by a husband and father who knows his family will always face hurdles in America owing solely to their mixed ethnicity, he somehow still finds reason for hope, and finds it in his children, telling them:

"I wanted you to live in this world because I still see that our Peoples have plenty to contribute to heal this world, and the contributions and healing can come through you. I wanted so badly for you to be here in this world despite its ugliness, because deep down, I still believe that this world has a chance."

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