Svastika or Swastika?

Given the prominence of Swastikas in Charlottesville, VA, and the reactions it elicited, the history of this symbol must be explored.

The original meaning of the Svastika (well-being in Sanskrit) was an omen of good luck. For Buddhists, it symbolizes the feet or footprints of Buddha, and for Hindus and Jains it is the most widely used auspicious symbol. Witness the availability of inexpensive jewelry incorporating this beneficial sign that I purchased in an Indian supermarket in Los Angeles.

Indian bracelet incorporating the Svastika. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.

The Navajo commonly used this same motif in their jewelry and with positive meaning, as well.

Navajo ring with Svastika, turquoise, and arrowhead. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.

However, Adolph Hitler subverted the symbol’s connotation during his Third Reich. For the Nazis, it meant racial purity that called for the elimination of Jews and other groups deemed inferior.

In the 1960s, our family belonged to the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. During the overflow attendance at the High Holidays, we were sent to a welcoming Presbyterian Church across the street. Imagine my terror when I looked down at the floor and discovered a recurring abhorrent swastika design in the tile floor.

During that same time period, a friend of mine worked in an Indian sari shop in Beverly Hills. When an Anglo bride-to-be came in for a fitting of her Indian wedding sari, she panicked when, for the first time, she noticed a swastika motif in the border design. Her groom was Jewish, and she could not wear it.

Locally, New Mexico State University called their yearbook, the Swastika. It wasn’t until 1983, that they changed the name to the  Phoenix. And believe it or not, there were some university folks who couldn’t understand the reason for the change.

New Mexico State University Yearbook, 1947. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.

In an article by Steven Brower, “Protesting Racism and Hate with Political Art (Print, August 17, 2017), he presents an assemblage of posters demonstrating the power of Political Art. Here are two that specifically deal with the Swastika.

Design by Felix Sockwell in article, “Protesting Racism and Hate with Political Art.”

Trump 24K Gold Plated Poster, Designed by Mark Fox and Angie Wang (“Design is Play”) from the new The Design of Dissent, Expanded Edition book by Milton Glaser and Mirko llic.

However, I am partial to protests that use gross humor to combat racism. This headline appeared in the August 24, 2017 edition of The Guardian: Turd Reich: San Francisco dog owners lay minefield of poo for rightwing rally.

Peace Activists planned to fight the rightwing planned Patriot Prayer rally by covering Crissy Field, site of the scheduled rally, with dog excrement. They also agreed to pick up the dog poo afterward. However, the Patriot Prayer got cancelled and so did the Turd Reich. Do you suppose that the Turd Reich planned to clean up with these?

Donald Trump dog poop bags. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.


Norine Dresser is a folklorist who has a severe visceral reaction when she sees the odious Swastika symbol.

Los Angeles Times, racism

What’s This Democrat to Do?

Election protests in Washington. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2016.
Election protests in Washington. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2016.

The results of last week’s election devastated me. As a Jew, I have always voted Democratic. That’s because my parents did and because their parents did. My grandparents experienced racism and bigotry in Europe, so along with millions of other refugees during the early 1900s, they fled to these shores for religious and economic freedom. Once settled, they became ardent supporters of FDR. They believed he cared about the poor and working people, and thus a family tradition of voting Democratic ensued.

I was born in California and only ten when WWII broke out, but I felt the fear in my household about being Jewish. Even though we had no direct confrontations, a wariness prevailed. For example, scared of publicly revealing who we were, we never placed a mezuzah on our outside door.

When my junior high school homeroom teacher made all the Semites stand up, I got a flash of what it might feel like to be targeted as outcasts. My infuriated parents threatened to report my teacher. That terrified me because I feared the backlash. My mom and dad promised not to say anything, but behind my back, my father met with the principal. He told her about the classroom incident and said, “This teacher is either stupid or a follower of Hitler.” The principal had no choice but to assure my dad that the teacher was stupid.

That was merely a taste of what it felt like to be considered an “other,” yet it marked me in such as way that I cannot stand to see others targeted as outsiders.

After Trump’s campaign of name-calling and enabling racists, he has reaffirmed his stance by appointing Stephen Bannon as his White House Chief Strategist. Bannon chairs Breitbart News, an ultra-conservative news source. They are openly anti-immigrant, anti-Planned Parenthood, anti-Muslim, anti-women, anti-gay, anti-semitic, are racist and believe in white supremacy.

A few weekends ago, I heeded the TV reminders about turning our clocks back one hour to adjust to Daylight Savings Time; Sadly, I also agreed with the internet advice to “Turn Back Your Clocks Fifty Years.”

And so it begins. Trump has empowered the bigots. This past weekend, an Associated Press column documented reports of increased racist incidents in schools and universities. For example, white students called Black students “cotton pickers”; a university student attempted to pull off the hijab worn by a Muslim student; a “whites only” message appeared on a bathroom door in Illinois; students in Michigan chanted “build a wall” in the school cafeteria; and in Pennsylvania, African American parents were told to, “Go back to Africa.”

I dread that the worst is yet to come negatively impacting women’s rights; the LGBTQ communities; the environment; people of color, Muslims, and Jews. Who and what did I leave out?

And what can I do about it?

Of course, I will make donations to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. And although the thought of participating in the Women’s March on Washington on Inauguration Day appeals to me, that is much too daunting for this old lady.

Yet there is something positive that I can do.

After the 1992 Rodney King riots in L. A., I proposed a column to the Los Angeles Times, demystifying the cultures of people unlike ourselves. Called, “Multicultural Manners,” the eight-year running column received a 1998 award from the County of Los Angeles Commission on Human Relations. They recognized it for promoting intergroup understanding.

Now if I can accomplish something similar in this new environment of divisiveness, that would be fantastic. And best of all, I have a new platform.

Very soon a new community radio station will be on the air here in Las Cruces. Its call letters, KTAL (¿Qué tal?, meaning What’s Up? ), will be airing programs pertinent to community issues. Fortunately, they have accepted my proposal for, “Your Multicultural Minute,” where I will narrate incidents about people who have inadvertently confused, insulted, amused others and all because of cultural differences.

I believe that educating the public about the customs, beliefs, and values of different cultures will create respect for others.

Last Saturday Night Live’s opening skit nailed it. In her persona as Hillary Clinton, Kate McKinnon sat at the piano playing and singing Leonard Cohen’s poignant “Hallelujah.” Then she turned to the audience and said, “I’m not giving up and neither should you.”


Norine Dresser is a folklorist who specializes in rituals, customs and beliefs of global communities.

inside + outside, Movies & Movie Stars, racism

Charlie Chan: “Hollywood Is Famous Furnisher of Mysteries”

Popular film figure, Charlie Chan who was never played by a Chinese actor. ©2016 Norine Dresser photo collection.
Film figure Charlie Chan, who, during the height of popularity, was never played by a Chinese actor. © 2016 Norine Dresser photo collection.

The current uproar over the lack of African American representation in Oscar nominees is not a new phenomenon nor is it limited to the African American community.

Beginning in 1926, Earl Derr Biggers created the first of five novels about Charlie Chan, a brilliant Hawaiian Chinese detective who solved murders with the help of his Number One Son. Biggers created Chan to counter the then-current Asian stereotype as sneaky and dangerous. Fu Manchu best represents this Yellow Peril. Biggers’ novels led to over four dozen Charlie Chan movies.

Ironically, Charlie Chan himself later became a stereotype with his Pidgin English and oblique way of looking at and commenting on the world, a kind of Confucian wisdom distorted through Western eyes. In contrast, his son was very Americanized and commonly said, “Gee, Pop…”

When you are not a member of a minority, you are unaware of the constant hurts. In 1977, dear friends, the late Judge Delbert and Mrs. Dolores Wong, invited my husband and me to a banquet meeting of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.That night the organization honored three pioneer Chinese American actors, specifically, those who portrayed Chan’s Number One Son on screen: Keye Luke, Victor Sen Yung, Benson Fong.

Their talks shocked me. I had never before been cognizant that during his hey-day, no Chinese American actor had ever portrayed Charlie Chan. Instead, Warner Oland (Swedish) and later Sidney Toler (American of Scottish descent) played Chan, relying upon the talents of studio make-up artists who added arched eyebrows, slanted eyes, and dark goatee and mustache to create the illusion.

Naively, I never realized they were not authentic. But for the Chinese American community this was a slap in the face, no, an outrage. And these gross miscastings continue. White actor, Joseph Fiennes, has recently been hired by British Television to play Michael Jackson in a comedy. Really?

Sometimes, it takes a bit of courage to step outside one’s social comfort zone. Nonetheless, my late husband, Harold, and I regularly enjoyed that adventure.Thus, I am proud to say that I am a charter member of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.

Being an outsider inside unfamiliar organizations broadens one’s perspective of life and increases knowledge of their sensitivities.The same applies to having friends from other ethnicities and religions. Consequently, I empathize with the indignation of the African American community about being excluded at the 2016 Academy Awards. I saw “Concussion” and was disturbed discovering that its excellence had been ignored.

For a while, I fretted over a title for this blog. At first, I tried to find an appropriate paraphrasing of the saying, “You don’t know what it’s like for another person until you have walked in their shoes? Moccasins? Manolo Blahniks?” I failed at that, but please don’t accuse me of being PC.That’s a term I hate.There is nothing wrong in caring about how words and actions hurt other people.


Norine Dresser is a folklorist who believes that learning about people unlike herself enriches life.