Thursday, February 2, 2012

Race, Ethnicity, and Identity

The question of race in America - or anywhere, really - seems to me to be a double-edged sword. There are some that would have us be "colorblind", which sounds like it might solve a lot of problems until you realize it definitionally annuls the concept of racial diversity (effectively minimizing the importance of diversity and difference on the whole - shades of The Giver, anyone?), fails to account for centuries of culturally significant racial and ethnic histories, almost always devolves into a thinly-veiled apologetic indifference with regard to the "experiences of others" (, and presents a biologically inviable objective for anyone who isn't actually colorblind (apologies for my blatant ableism). At the other end of the spectrum (or, perhaps more fittingly, on the other side of the same coin), we sometimes encounter nationalism (not so much the Jingoist kind, I'm talking more in the give-us-[or give-us-back]a-sovereign-homeland vein [ignoring the inextricable link between the two for the sake of space]) to an extreme degree, and along with it the desire to define, isolate, and exclude those who don't look or talk or walk like "us", which leads to warfare, genocide, and, generally speaking, hurt feelings all round. The elite "politically correct" of present-day America make a point of trying to include and accommodate everybody, but that presents another veritable feelings minefield right there, because you just know that somebody's going to feel left out. Remember that lovely welcome wall at the NMAI Cobb praised so highly for its inclusiveness and representation? That was '04, a full six years before the US Government would decide to formally recognize my beloved Shinnecocks (#Hamptonslife) as an actual tribe, but I'm sure they would have loved to have been included, seeing as they've thought of themselves as just as legit as any of the other guys for hundreds of years ( And then, sometimes, you have to take a census.
This is the article I read (those other links are red herrings!):
Basically, the way it shakes down is this: "Hispanic/Latino" is an ethnicity, not a race. That is, according to the US Census Bureau (and the College Board, and the Educational Records Bureau, etc., etc....). And that, in turn, is all very well and good, until you consider the disjuncture between the CB's definitions (and prioritization) of "ethnicity" & "race" and the definitions (and respective significances) of those who are actually ethnic and racial (read: everyone). The fact of the matter, many Latinos see their "shared cultural traits" as more important than what the government calls their "race", and (perhaps more indicative of the crux of the problem), many (just don't feel comfortable identifying as "black" or "white". The census accounts for people of "two or more races", but how are you supposed to even know how many to list when there's a good chance you might be a little bit Afro-European-[fill in indigenous Meso-/South American people here] - and you probably don't even know it, because a lot of that "mixing" happened a long time ago and the records are poor and the fact of the matter is, most people in the world (and certainly the Americas) are a lot more racially "impure" than they would even suspect? I'm thinking of that infographic we saw in class about the way that race really works (the snowflake-lookin' one). It's beautiful (and not just because it looks like a snowflake), but it is confusing, and the guys down at the Census Bureau need an answer quick, so a lot of the time it's easier for Latinos to just check "other"?
This encompasses a lot, and also makes you look really cool and outside of the box, but (and here comes that double-edged sword again) it's kind of important for the government to get as much of that niggling highly specific information re: race/ethnicity/all that good stuff as possible - as this article states, "the census data on race serves many purposes, including determining the makeup of voting districts, and monitoring discriminatory practices in hiring and racial disparities in education and health", and that stuff kind of matters (whether it should or not just brings us back to the D-E S; point is, it does). Some officials say that there's a problem in the question, but how can we effectively "solve" that? Some Latinos do identify as white, or black, or white AND Latino - having both the race and ethnicity categories works nicely for this last group. And what about these people: ? Looks to me to be a totally legitimate racial and ethnic group, and I'd never even heard of them until today. How many more like them are there in America, "passing" in my woefully ignorant eyes as simply black or white? The Navarro article compares those label-dropping "Latinos"-turned-"whites"to the Irish gone past - heck, maybe I'm deluding myself into thinking I'm just "white"! Am I fundamentally different? Are the Italians? Or the Russians (whoa, I just dragged Eurasia into this)?
Like I said, this article reminded me a lot of the class discussions we had about race - how any given individual's bloodline is infinitely complicated (maybe enough to earn that person a distinction all his own), and about how "race" is something we "do" (and how that implies agency, and the right to check other, a right just as important as the right to good, solid, anti-discriminatory hiring practices [although when it comes to the outcome of the census, those rights can end up in opposition, so what do we do? I don't know... figure it out, American Studies scholars!). It also made me think about conflicting histories and vantage points, and the unheard voices that get caught in the middle. When we talk about the Shoeboots family, we can look at it from the "Cherokee" perspective, or the "white" perspective, or the "black" perspective. But what about the mixed-race children of Doll? With which narrative do they identify more? And - good heavens, here's an idea - what would Doll herself have to say? Nothing, because she's a woman (but don't get me started, it's late and I have to go to bed)!
Anyway, in this case, the dominant narrative (written by the US Government [isn't it always?]) is putting people in certain boxes, and people who see themselves, their cultures, and their histories as very different from what's dominant have a serious beef with that, and they're clamoring for alternatives, which is great (minimizing that voicelessness is always a plus), but also seriously complicated, not only because the dominant narrative is so gosh-darn steadfast in its domination, but also because the alternatives are often in conflict. But (once you take away the real world, census-outcome disadvantages, psychological suffering, etc.) isn't that kind of cool?  Like somebody said in class, America is founded on and chock full today of paradoxes, but that doesn't mean we can just leave them alone. They're just begging to be addressed. The whole kit and caboodle is like one great big snowflake-shaped Gordian knot!
But for now, I am really tired. I'll get started untangling in the morning.
-- Lexie Kelly!

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