Race & Reality

I just finished reading Race and Reality: What Everyone Should Know About Our Biological Diversity by Guy P. Harrison.

This was definitely not light, relaxing reading but I’m happy that I pushed through and read it.

Book Description:

“Drawing on a wide variety of evidence – the hard data from fossils and DNA, interviews with the victims of racism, and personal experiences – Harrison dismantles the ‘race’ concept, bolt by bolt. Exposing race as a social illusion and political tool – rather than a biological reality – Harrison forces the reader to consider how they think about ‘other folk.’ Anthropologists have no use for the race concept, and neither should educated citizens.” -Cameron M. Smith, PhD, Department of Anthropology, Portland State University

Even if you already consider yourself educated and enlightened, reading this book will open your eyes in new ways. You won’t be able to look at people, race or society the same ever again. (Remember, we’re talking about race here – not culture. Very different. The craziness I observe in my own household on a daily basis is proof enough to me that cultural differences exist!)

The author argues that we all came out of Africa and we are one human race – that any categories based on hair type, skin color, facial features, etc – are simply man-made… By the time I finished reading this book I felt simultaneously freed…and trapped. I see myself as raceless, but this just isn’t practical in the society we live in.

Imagine renewing my driver’s license at the DMV. I fill out the form, I come to the race boxes – decide to leave them blank because they seem silly and irrelevant. I turn in my form.

“Ma’am, you didn’t check a box for race.”
“I know. I don’t want to. I don’t believe in races.”
“Yes ma’am, that’s real cute, but you have to choose one. I can’t process an incomplete form…”
I sigh, take my pen in hand, and check off a race.
“Hmm… I suppose this one is most accurate…”
I hand the form back to the DMV clerk who looks it over. Her satisfied smile at my compliance soon turns to a frown.

So, I don’t think race will be disappearing any time soon – and maybe it would be irresponsible of me to pretend our world doesn’t see these man-made boxes, regardless of what I personally feel. I have two sons who are struggling with their identity, and answering their questions with a cheerful, “Race doesn’t exist”, is not going to help them sort things out.

Just yesterday a classmate approached my older son and said, “Are you Mexican?” … My son, (having picked up on his father’s annoyance at constantly being incorrectly labeled Mexican instead of Latino or Salvadoran), replied with a simple, curt, “No.”

I told him that he should have used the opportunity to educate his classmate, but I wonder if that was fair of me. As a “white” girl amongst other “white” kids, I never had to explain myself. It must get annoying having to patiently tell people “what you are”. It must make one feel very “other”… and that’s never a good feeling, no matter how old you are – but especially in middle school.

The book, Race and Reality, re-printed a “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage” which I think is empowering, not just for people who are traditionally considered “multi-racial” by today’s society – but for all of us. In the end, there is no pure race. We are all mixed and we are all human.


Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage:

Not to justify my existence in this world.
Not to keep the races separate within me.
Not to justify my ethnic legitimacy.
Not to be responsible for people’s discomfort with my physical or ethnic ambiguity.

To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify.
To identify myself differently than how my parents identify me.
To identify myself differently than my brothers and sisters.
To identify myself differently in different situations.

To create a vocabulary to communicate about being multiracial or multi-ethnic.
To change my identity over my lifetime -and more than once.
To have loyalties and identification with more than one group of people.
To freely choose whom I befriend and love.

© Maria P. P. Root, PhD

Middle School Amor

My oldest son will be 12 years old in a few months, but when it comes to the whole dating scene, he’s been way behind his peers. It seems like all his friends have been dating since Kindergarten, but my son didn’t start showing a mild interest in girls until this year and seemed in no rush to have a girlfriend, which was fine by me!

All that changed last Friday. When he came home from school he said, “I want to tell you something, but you can’t ask me a million questions.” (Don’t you love that?… it’s worse when they say, “…but you can’t get mad.”)

Anyway, he said, “I have a girlfriend.”

I clapped a hand over my mouth to stop the million questions from spilling forth. He stared at me. I took a deep breath and composed myself.

“Oh… that’s cool.” I feigned nonchalance. A minute passed… “Um, so, like… no questions at all?” I said tentatively.

He rolled his eyes… “OKAY, but not too many!”

I selected them carefully.

“What’s her name? …” (Liz.)
“How do you know her?…” (She’s in my classes.)
“What do you like about her?” (She’s nice and smart.)

I backed off and left him alone even though I was dying to know more. Over the weekend he showed me her picture in the year book. I had been wanting to ask him if she was Anglo, Latina, or something else, (He had a crush on a Korean-American girl last year), but I didn’t want him to think that I thought race was important. His father and I don’t care what race he dates or eventually marries, but we are curious to see how much more mixed up our family will become!

When I saw her picture in the year book, it was fairly obvious that she was Anglo, (of course, you never know for sure.) But based on her features, (not so unlike mine – blue eyes and freckles), and her surname, that would be my best guess.

Later that night I reported back to my husband everything I had learned about our son’s first girlfriend. We laid in bed, the house quiet, as we had our nightly chat before falling asleep.

“I wonder what her parents will say,” my husband said aloud.
“About what?” I said.
“When they find out their daughter’s boyfriend has the last name López.”

I hadn’t thought about that. We laid in bed, staring at the darkness for a minute.
“I’m sure it will be fine,” I said.

On Monday, our son came home from school. He closed the door behind him and set his backpack on the floor. “Well, we broke up,” he said.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Oh yeah! I’m not upset about it at all. Whatever,” he said, heading towards the kitchen.
“That’s good… but, what happened?”
“She said that her parents told her she can’t have a boyfriend.”
“But she must have known that. Why did she say ‘yes’ when you asked her on Friday?”
“Good question,” he said shrugging his shoulders as he emptied the cupboards and refrigerator in pursuit of an after-school-snack.

I’m relieved that the question of racism hasn’t entered his thoughts as a possibility. I’m just sad that it’s entered mine.

The boxes tell us nothing

I found this article and accompanying video incredibly moving. Better words could not have been chosen.

Chang-Rae Lee, writer and author of The Native Son, shares his thoughts on the Census:

(CNN) – We know the point of the 2010 Census is to count us, one by one, to tally every last resident, but the massive project of course has more prying, if limited, interests.

If the aqua- and black-tinted census form were a person, he would be like a slightly nosy seat mate on a plane, fitted out with an unfortunate ’80s flair, someone oddly arbitrary in his inquiries while being intimately probing.

Beyond the primary accounting, we’re asked additional questions about the people we live with and our relationship to them; whether we hold a mortgage or rent; how old we are; our gender; whether we inhabit a second residence or even, alas, a prison; and then, inevitably, how we categorize ourselves racially.

The boxes I can check to mark myself have certainly multiplied over the decades, allowing not just a single Asian category but broken out most progressively, it would seem, to other boxes for Vietnamese, Laotian, even Guamanian or Chamorran — and then the one for me, Korean.

The automatic response is to check this box, for that’s what I am, at least in my bloodlines: My parents are from Korea, which was where I was born. My family immigrated when I was 3, and our predecessors inhabited the Korean Peninsula for as long as can be recalled.

But as I consider the box, I have to pause. Perhaps it’s because I’m a novelist, someone who spends his days telling stories in part by stripping away the surface realities, unraveling presumed identities, in the hopes of characterizing what it is and means to be alive.

And thus my hesitance to mark the box. For despite a thorough pride in my Korean heritage and my wish to be no other, the complexities of what might seem a circumscribed identity (surely not a tenth as vast as “white” or “black”) still feel too numerous to be so neatly contained.

For my Korean-ness, especially in the context of America, is like no one else’s: It is not at all like my first cousin’s, who immigrated in his 20s and had to learn the language as an adult; not like my friend’s, who was born in Los Angeles and grew up in a bustling enclave of Korean businesses and churches; not like the Korean adoptee’s, who was raised in rural Oregon or Minnesota, being maybe the only Asian person in the county.

Our shared heritage shows in our faces, but given the differing nature of our experiences and the character of our respective communities, each of us has profoundly varying conceptions of our sense of belonging, cultural ties, even future possibility — in short, of who we are.

If I had made up the census form, the Korean box would necessarily have dozens, maybe hundreds or even thousands of sub-boxes nested inside, boxes for whether we dream in the native language, for how often we Skype with folks in Seoul, whether we wear shoes or go barefoot in the house, if we prefer our kimchee fresher or riper or perhaps not at all.

Each form would have to be an epic novel of boxes, its combinations approaching the infinite, a document so vast and particular and dense that the boxes themselves would at some point begin to blur, perhaps disappear, the marks coalescing into something so singular that they would eventually take on a life itself, which is always shifting, dynamic, at last uncountable.

-Souce: CNN.com (click for additional video interview)

The 2010 Census and the race question

I received my 2010 Census yesterday and decided to fill it out right away before it got lost in the basketful of junk mail.

I was stumped immediately on Question #1 regarding how many people live in the home. I had not intended to count Suegra… but the Census clearly states that you should count anyone under your roof on the date of April 1st, 2010, even if you don’t consider them a permanent family member.

So, even though we are a family of 4, I had to write a number 5 in that box. There it is…

Well, it turned out that this question was pan comido compared to the race questions.

Question #5 asks Hispanic origin. According to the Census, “Hispanic” and “Latino” are not considered a race – they are an ethnicity, since Latinos can be of different races, (take for instance, Sammy Sosa, George Lopez, Bolivian President Evo Morales, and Enrique Iglesias. They are all Latino but they are all different racially – and that is just a very small taste of the variety found in Latin America.)

Yet, aren’t Anglos just as racially diverse? I am part Russian, Irish, Austrian and a number of other things. My neighbor could be French and Danish, yet we are both thrown into the “White” category.

I’m always baffled as to why Latinos are singled out. Nevertheless, this was an easy enough question to answer on the Census. I marked “No” for myself and “Yes” for my husband, our children and Suegra, (writing in “Salvadoran” to specify in the provided boxes.)

Question #6 was the real problem. This one is asking about Race. If my husband, Suegra and children can’t identify as “Latino” (half “Latino” in my kids case), what are they?

The options are:

Black, African Am., or Negro
American Indian or Alaska Native (with space to fill in the tribe.)
Asian Indian
Native Hawaiian
Guamanian or Chamorro
Other Pacific Islander (such as Fijan or Tongan, etc. with a box to fill in which one)
Other Asian (Pakistani, Hmong, Thai, etc. with a box to fill in which one)
Some Other Race (and a box to fill in which one)

For myself I marked “White”, but I was baffled as to what to do for everyone else in the family. Racially they are “ladino” (mestizo), which in El Salvador means an Indigenous person mixed with Spanish blood who has adopted the Spanish language and culture, (mostly leaving behind the Indigenous language and culture.)

The problem is, my husband’s family doesn’t know where their Indigenous roots come from. Are they Pipil? Lenca? Aztec? Mayan? They have no idea. I’m sure this is the case with many people from Latin America. With the way the Spaniards arrived and began converting everyone to Catholicism, forcing them to speak Spanish and adopt European ways, (not to mention massacring the uncooperative among them) – it became a shameful, or even dangerous thing to be Indigenous. It is a similar history to the way the Native Americans were treated here in the United States. Even in modern day Latin America, if a person acts in a uncouth manner, they are called a stupid “Indio” as an insult. And so, one’s indigenous roots is not something most families would have wanted to keep records of. Perhaps they considered it something best forgotten, and so now generations later, it has been.

So here I am with this Census, wondering how I am supposed to fill it out. I decided to search the internet to see if anyone else was struggling with this problem and found this article. Apparently I am not the only one scratching my head.

“El Paso – Anthropologists and Latino residents of El Paso have called into question recent statements made by a social activist that advise Hispanics to register their race as “white” when it comes time to fill out the census form this month.

Speaking to the El Paso Times this past week, Jessie Acosta, chairman of the El Paso Complete Count Committee, estimated that 98 percent of the Hispanics living in El Paso are technically white. His comments have generated much controversy and confusion in the community.

Academics and citizens agree that census officials have committed a “racial inaccuracy” by not offering Hispanics the opportunity to register themselves as “mixed,” given that the vast majority of Latinos are of mixed descent, with Spanish and indigenous American ancestors.

Margarita Rendón, a Mexican woman living in El Paso who regards herself as trigueña [a lighter-skinned Latina], stated that there exists enormous confusion over the race sections on these types of questionnaires. She stated that she is neither black nor white, and for this reason she always marks the box labeled “Other” to answer these questions.

“I always thought that the gringos were the white ones,” she said, a bit confused.”

-Héctor Manuel Castro – El Diario de El Paso
March 10, 2010

I think it’s laughable that the Census wants Latinos to mark “White”. Since when do they get to be included in the exclusive club? I’ll mark my husband as “White” when he gets treated as “White”.

Besides, how many Black people have just as much “White” blood as the majority of “Latinos”, yet they are expected to select “Black”.

I wrestled with how to fill out this Census for over an hour, and then I finally decided I would just mark “White” AND “Other”, not just for my kids, but for my husband and Suegra, too. In the “Other” box, I wrote “Latino”, but also considered “Mestizo”, “Ladino”, “Indigenous”, and any number of Central American tribes. I wrote it in pencil just in case I change my mind. I’m wondering how other Latinos across the country are answering this question. Please leave a comment!

When did “Mexican” become an insult?

I wish I had something more fun to talk about but it looks like I’ll be blogging about racism for the second post in a row. I feel as if I’ve been bombarded by it on all fronts lately.

First our youngest son came home from school and asked, “Mommy, is there such a thing as a bad ‘N’ word?… Someone said it on the bus.” I couldn’t help the sharp intake of breath that I took. I tried to be calm, since some of the “bad” words he’s asked me about before turned out to be funny misunderstandings. Perhaps he hadn’t added yet another bad word to his vocabulary so soon.

“Well, what word do you think is a bad ‘N’ word?” I asked.
“I don’t think I should say it,” he said, reaching for a pencil and a piece of paper on the desk. “I’ll write it.”

And so he began… N-I-G … he paused. “I think it has two G’s,” he said, writing the second one. G-A-R. Well, he misspelled it by one letter, but the word scratched onto the piece of paper in his childish manuscript made me sick. I scribbled over it and erased it then threw it in the trash before answering him.

“Yes. That is a very bad word. That is worse than all the curse words put together.”

His eyes widened. “But…what does it mean?”
“It’s just a bad word. It’s a mean word to call someone. Never ever say it or write it again.”
“I won’t – but what does it mean,” he persisted.

I sighed before launching into a discussion about slavery, Martin Luther King, racism and the power of words to hurt others. I told him that if he ever hears anyone say that word again, no matter how much bigger or older they are, he should tell them to their face that they’re racist and ignorant.

He nodded his 8 year old head in understanding and promised he would.

A few days later, my oldest son came home and told me a girl had pushed past him in the hallway at school and said, “Get out of my way, Mexican!”

He doesn’t know her name, and he said, even if he did, he doesn’t want to report her. This would get him a reputation as a “snitch” and a “cry baby”.

I told him to correct her next time. I told him to say, “First of all, that’s an ignorant thing to say because I’m not even Mexican, I’m half Salvadoran. Second of all, why do you think it’s insulting to call me a Mexican?” I’m sure that such a measured response will be answered by a mouth breather like that girl with silence, as the tiny gears in her undersized brain, come screeching to a halt.

Maybe I shouldn’t make fun of the child though. She is probably just a product of her ignorant parents… yet if her parents were raised the same way, how can they know better? … Does being ignorant make someone blameless or do they have a responsibility to challenge the beliefs they were taught? What if they aren’t intellectually capable?

Racism directed at the children brings out the mother tiger in me, but the one time I dealt with blatant racism directed at myself, I laughed, and I’m still not entirely sure why. Walking through the shopping mall, holding hands with my husband, a large white male in motorcycle riding attire, passed by on my side. “Race traitor,” he whispered viciously.

I stopped in my tracks, my mouth fell open, as his words registered in my brain. Race… traitor… Me? As if I belong to him, to whites? As if I owed him some sort of loyalty?

“Did that guy say something to you?” my husband said.

“Yeah… he called me… a race traitor…” I said, and then I started laughing. My husband looked at me for a split second, quite sure I had lost my mind, but he decided he would worry about my mental state later as he took off in the other direction. He isn’t sensitive to racism specifically, but he will defend my honor to the death, (as any decent caballero should.)

“Where are you going?!”

“I’m going to beat the shit out of that guy! Let me go!”

I felt his muscles tense as I held tight to his arms. “No, no. It’s not worth it!”

Every time I loosened my grip, my husband started to take off again until I convinced him that he would end up with a police record and jail time, or worse, in the hospital, and we didn’t even have health insurance.

That happened last year but just today, my husband tells me the conversation turned to politics with an Anglo co-worker. The guy asked my husband who he voted for. This is something my husband has learned to keep to himself but for whatever reason, he answered truthfully.

“I voted for Obama,” he said.
The co-worker groaned. “Why’d you vote for him? You know his middle name is Hussein? That’s a Muslim terrorist name right there.”

My husband doesn’t get riled up by those sort of comments the way I do. He just ignored it and said calmly, “I voted for him because I felt he was the best person for the job.”

End of discussion. Hopefully that guy doesn’t have a white hood in his trunk.

All of this comes at an interesting time. My husband and I are probably going to the Immigration Reform March in Washington D.C. this next Sunday. Our oldest son wants to go, and although I think it would be a great experience for him, I don’t plan on taking him. I’m just nervous about how dangerous it could be. I’m not worried for myself, but as any mother knows, when your kids are with you, that changes everything. Suddenly the crowd looks that much bigger, the counter-protesters that much angrier, and you realize that it wouldn’t take much, (a single racial slur yelled out to the wrong person), for things to dissolve into total chaos.

I hope it will be peaceful, but I’m not betting my children’s safety on it. There are too many people out there with too much hate in them.

(Video contains explicit language.)

Now I wish I had a dime
for every single time
I’ve gotten stared down
For being in the wrong side of town.

And a rich man I’d be
if I had that kind of chips
lately I wanna smack the mouths
of these racists.

Podrás imaginarte desde afuera,
ser un Mexicano cruzando la frontera,
pensando en tu familia mientras que pasas,
dejando todo lo que conoces atrás.

Si tuvieras tú que esquivar las balas
de unos cuantos gringos rancheros
Las seguirás diciendo good for nothing wetback?
si tuvieras tú que empezar de cero.

Now why don’t you look down
to where your feet is planted
That U.S. soil that makes you take shit for granted
If not for Santa Anna, just to let you know
That where your feet are planted would be Mexico


No soy de aquí, ni soy de allá

The other day my oldest son told me that at school he had to fill out a form which directed him to “Check only one” for his race. He had a decision to make. There was no bi-racial or multi-racial box. He looked back and forth between Caucasian and Latino, discovering for the first time how this world insists on trying to package us in neat little boxes which we can never comfortably fit into.

Mr. López faced a similar dilemma at his new job, which thankfully, he loves, despite the story I’m about to tell. At lunch time, his co-workers self-segregate to separate tables. The Mexicans sit at one table, and the Anglos sit at another. Where should he sit? He would have fit in with either group. He can speak English and talk sports with the Anglos, but he can speak Spanish and talk telenovelas with the Mexicans, (yeah, these machos watch soap operas every night, but it’s not a girly one. It’s called “El Capo” and it’s got drugs and guns and and stuff blowing up, apparently.)

If Mr. López decided where to sit based on ethnicity, perhaps he would choose to sit with the Latinos, but he’s Salvadoran not Mexican. If he chose based on nationality, as an American citizen, he would find himself at the Anglo table, but he wasn’t born here like they were. I joked that perhaps he needs to set up a little card table right in the middle of them both.

He ended up sitting with the Mexicans because he felt that if he didn’t, they would see him as a traitor and think that he felt superior to them, (because he speaks English and they don’t.) Also, Mr. López knew the Anglo guys couldn’t care less where he sat. The thing is, he wants to stay on everyone’s good side, because he is the unofficial interpreter and is constantly being called away from his work to translate between co-workers. He doesn’t mind this, except that in casual conversation, the Anglos complain about the Mexicans to him, and of course, the Mexicans complain about the Anglos to him. He just listens and nods, neither agreeing or disagreeing, feeling that he is neither here nor there.