By MARY UYEMATSU KAO
I had the honor and pleasure of working with Debra Greenwood in the late 1970s during the most politically active period of my life. She recently reconnected with sister comrades through an International Working Women’s Day email exchange and annual reunion. I was able to catch up with her 40+ years later thanks to the Internet and Zoom technologies.
After completing a nursing degree in the mid-’80s, Debra left her Los Angeles hometown and moved to Washington State for graduate school. She became an assistant professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Miami, and later managed her own home-care nursing company in Atlanta for 20 years. From her Facebook page, she is self-described as a pan-Africanist and an environmentalist.
We did a Zoom interview where Debra shared her views on Black/Asian relations and solidarities. When I knew her back in the day, Debra was the first African American working with our group of predominantly Asian Americans. She recalled: “Being the only African American was not a big thing. What was exciting to me was working with people who cared — people who cared about the oppressed, people who wanted to make a difference. That was foremost in my mind.”
“One of the reasons I can’t really point to examples of racism during my time working with Asians is because I don’t think of other people of color that way. I accept that we are brothers and sisters in the fight against racism — at least that is what we proclaimed. I don’t scan for it [racism] the way I do with white people. With white people, I’ve come to expect it due to our social conditioning. History dictates that I better be able to see it in order to protect myself. But with other people of color, it’s not something I’m attending to the way I do with white people.”
She let me in on her own personal connections with Asians: “I’m 1% Asian.” Her best friend from high school is half-Japanese/half-Black, and is godmother to her daughter Maisha. Debra reminisced: ”I loved her mother. I even learned how to say something in Japanese to her mother. She gave up everything to be with her Black husband.”
On current Asian/Black relations, Debra noted the importance of increasing visible support for Black people: A friend of hers once said, “Why should we support them? Do you see them supporting us? We eat at their restaurants, but they don’t eat at ours. We patronize their businesses, but they don’t patronize ours.”
Debra observed, “I watched the [Los Angeles] City Council meetings where all those people spoke — demanding resignations of all the City Council members who made racist and homophobic statements. I couldn’t tell if Asians spoke up. Has there been any strong Asian presence at any of the demonstrations?
“That’s the problem — you just can’t hang with your own kind. You have to make an effort. And with Black people it’s easy — go to our restaurants, say hi, be polite when we’re patronizing your businesses. Even if you don’t see that you are oppressed — we clearly see it and we believe that oppressed people must stand together for our survival. But it has got to be what people see in the community day-to-day. People have to understand that we’re all in this together. Do Asians get that?”
When I asked her if there were instances where she got angry while working with Asians, Debra mentioned the pain of feeling dismissed — “like my opinions didn’t really count for anything. . . . I was wondering if some of the dismissal of outlier ideas is because Asians have been stereotyped as being more intelligent than Blacks (and whites), whereas Blacks are stereotyped as being the most unintelligent of all humans. We are all conditioned to incorporate these ideas into our belief systems. So our responses to those whom we unconsciously deem less worthy are virtually automatic. Only by reflecting on our inculcation and exercising that muscle that fights the conditioning can we change the way we interact and accept each other, including differing ideas.
“So, my suggestion is that Asians and ALL people stop, listen, and reflect on the ideas of others. Don’t be so quick to dismiss without evaluating whether an idea has merit or not. Gems can come from the most unexpected places if only we are willing to listen and reflect.”
Debra recently moved to Kigali, Rwanda as her permanent residence. She noted that: “Marx or Engels said that capitalism plants the seeds of its own destruction, and I think that’s what we’re seeing right now. Capitalism is not going to last. People are growing weary of all these ups and downs in consumer prices and housing. The greatest fear I have is whether fascism will be embraced in the United States as it may be returning in Italy.
“The ruling elite have done an excellent job of vilifying any economic system that goes against their interests. Countries like Ghana and Zimbabwe are moving away from an economy based on the U.S. dollar. I believe people need to choose or design the economic system that works best for them based on their needs. That’s why I left the U.S. When Trump got elected, it was a very scary time for Black people because he made it OK for all these racist white people to come out of the closet. The political movement he unleashed was very disturbing to me.
“The second reason for my move is because economically you can do better in a developing country. I only have my Social Security to live on, but it wouldn’t get me very far living in the United States.”
Her reasons for picking Rwanda are: 1) it is the cleanest country in Africa; 2) they haven’t allowed single-use plastic bags since 2008; and 3) in 2018, 61% of the parliament was female. “There is a national tradition of umuganda. Once a month the entire country comes together to clean up their local communities for three hours. Even the president takes part in this.
“So being over here, I have peace of mind. I don’t have to worry about all the violence. You have no idea how shocking all the violence happening in the U.S. is to people living in other parts of the world. We would never have that here. As a woman in Rwanda, you can walk down the street at 11 o’clock at night and nobody’s going to bother you.
“I feel very fortunate to live in a country where the government really does care about the people. This president has been in office over 20 years. He gets over 90% of the vote because people see what he’s doing to uplift the country. Several high-ranking and high-profile people have been fired since I’ve been here, which is just about a year — because there is zero tolerance for corruption. And without corruption, where is the inroad for the U.S., France, or other countries to make deals that benefit their countries rather than the African country with which they are negotiating?
“The U.S. keeps perpetuating these lies that President [Paul] Kagame has a hit squad. They’re trying to undermine him, because Rwanda is becoming a truly successful African country — which goes against the neo-colonialist narrative.”
Debra’s most exciting project right now is building her own home in Kigali. With the new technology of combining recycled plastic with sand to make sturdy, unbreakable bricks, she estimates she can build a new house made with these bricks for about $60,000 U.S. Check out her YouTube channel on how this is being done in Africa: https://youtu.be/NCh9xSliuT8
“I have asked the local Africans how they feel about the rather pervasive Chinese presence on the continent of Africa, and they don’t seem to mind. It’s the Black Americans here who hate it. They want all the Chinese to go away. Even Trevor Noah has characterized their presence as Chinese neo-colonialism. Every time I speak to a Chinese person, I am met with courtesy and respect — but once again, I don’t see them hanging out with black people. They keep to themselves. And there are several YouTube videos that show racism from the Chinese towards Africans.”
Debra, the lifelong activist, has more organizing projects in her sights: “I would like to organize the diasporans here on the continent — identify what resources we bring to the table, and then go to the government and talk about how we can work together.”
In the hopes of expanding our horizons so we can move forward instead of fighting each other, Debra’s views are instructive in improving Black and Asian relations and solidarities. While we can’t generalize from one person’s views, we gain important food for thought. Like Debra, many of us Asians over time tend to go back to our fold, but she has kept herself in touch with other people of color that she has worked with in the past, and that, in itself, is the makings of Black/Asian solidarity.
Mary Uyematsu Kao is a retired publications coordinator of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. She published her photography book “Rockin’ the Boat: Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement” in June 2020. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo. Comments and feedback are welcome at: firstname.lastname@example.org.