Thursday, February 26, 2015

Waking from Mixed Dreams

Let me begin, if I may, by introducing this rather belated post with the powerful words of some scholars, poets, writers, and activists to set our scene:

"American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it--and that it belongs to him [the black child].  I would teach him that he doesn’t have to be bound by the expediencies of any given administration, any given policy, any given morality; that he has the right and the necessity to examine everything." (James Baldwin)

"It is in this space that we will find those words with which we can speak of Ourselves and Others. And by exploring this hybridity, this 'Third Space', we may elude the politics of polarity and emerge as the others of our selves." (Homi Bhabha)

" The effect of mass migrations has been the creation of radically new types of human being... people
who have been obliged to define themselves--because they are so defined by others-- by their otherness; people in whose deepest selves strange fusions occur, unprecedented unions between what they were and where they find themselves... To see things plainly you have to cross a frontier." (Salman Rushdie "Imaginary Homelands")

To survive the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads.
Gloria Anzaldua- full poem at the end of the post)

I've been feeling a lot like an oyster these past couple of years, working out, mulling over, rubbing painfully up against a little grain-- an irritant-- that made its way suddenly into my pristine little shell (although, perhaps, it had always been there). Now bear with me, I promise this image will (hopefully) make sense by the end of this.

I began this blog back in 2009 as a response to a very particular moment in our ever-shifting, ever-challenging social terrain in the U.S. That moment was what I liked to call the time "We-Drank-That-Postracial-KoolAid-And-Almost-Died". It was a time of short-lived, but heady hope for a new America in the wake of President Obama's historic 2008 win. To that point, there are actually some really interesting reflections out there on how the visceral reaction against the post-racial moment (of which I was very much a part) in its fervor actually obscured the possibility that a particularly important and valid desire was being articulated. A desire, that perhaps, prematurely and albeit naively, declared itself into a celebratory daze despite all obvious evidence to the contrary.

Yet, arguably, the desire itself was not bad, wrong, destructive, oppressive, or misguided at all. Beneath all the la-dee-dah-ing, the desire was simple and not altogether new: a society in which race was not a thing that divided, was not a thing that subsumed everything else you were, where processes of racialization were obsolete because that power that fed on it with such insatiable voracity was at long last toppled. In this light, was it not an articulation of a desire for a "postracial" future when MLK in his now iconic (albeit much-coopted) speech said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."? We hardened social justice critics, often eschew the I Have A Dream speech of MLK's for his more radical and his more incisive ones in warranted resistance to the normalization
and domestication of MLK and the 1960s civil rights struggle more generally. But that dream he spoke of remains, as ever, a passionate one, a live one, an aspirational one, a good and valid one. Of course, the getting there is what thwarts us every time. We look for the messianic leaders, or the catch-all social-political dictums and prescriptions of colorblindness or multiculturalism, or the recognition and celebration of certain bodies or identities (like the multi-babies of the world)  as panacea to fix things or just erase them from memory altogether. Meanwhile, a tormented America cries out silently at every turn beneath the cracked and rotted veneer of unity and diversity for racial redemption, a deliverance from the racial sins upon which it was built. But the American power recalcitrant, refuses to do the work and to understand deeply and profoundly that that road to redemption is long, arduous, and very possibly, never-ending. And that that road cannot and will not be crossed on the already broken backs of people of color. But the desire for "deliverance" in the post- civil rights era, as was so crudely and cursorily expressed through postracial rhetoric as was colorblindness before it, is in itself something that we should continue to grapple with and continue to hold our society and ourselves accountable for.

In the often defensive and critical stance taken to make sure we STAY WOKE, perhaps, we're forgetting to give dreams a chance, and most importantly, to remain creative and imaginative. I've been starting to think that our spit-fire social media world has made our thoughts and our politics more reactive than anything else and for that reason, I retreated into my shell for well over a year to continue reflecting and thinking without necessarily feeling the need  to send those half-baked strands and threads into the cyber ether. This post is more a reflection on a picture (or to follow my oyster metaphor, a pearl-- an ugly lumpy one at that) that is slowly beginning to emerge from some of my thinking on multiracial issues over the past year. Still half-baked, but ready for some preliminary putting out there.

The model upon which I developed much of the early blog content and the course I taught in Oberlin on multiracial identities relied heavily on the social justice frameworks which have been my bread and butter for over a decade now. Frameworks, which were based on the kind of powerful identity politics that shaped the social justice movements of people of color, women, and the LGBTQ community. My project, at its tender beating heart, was and continues to be a political one. Identity politics was the tool I had at hand-- one which I felt had been useful in bringing together, developing critical consciousness, and mobilizing communities. Yet, in my passion for developing a kind of radical or "critical" mixed-race understanding, I failed to ask, what for? Of course, I knew what for-- multi people needed to come together, needed to know "'bout themselves" and how we fit into the very salient racial histories and realities in America. But in declaring this, I inadvertently toed a very tenuous line that left me at risk of reducing and essentializing multi identities and experiences. My project was at once personal but also political. The personal project needed to be about fluidity and empowering self-identification, and a recognition of those third and fourth and fifth spaces we occupy as mixed folk. But the political one needed to be about critical consciousness building and understanding structures of power and oppression and inequality and how we were implicated in those systems. Reconciling those two is not an entirely easy task when multiracial people are so diverse and when the world is calling upon some yet nascent multiracial self-hood to represent itself in all its pretty glossy glory on the one hand, yet on another, being told in not so many words that it needs to take several seats 'cause folk is still out here struggling.

Which brings me to the second reason I began this blog: to address what I saw as the increasing cooptation of multiracial people and identities to usher in the aforementioned post-racial era. I wanted to figure out how to temper that proclivity to make multiracial people the poster children for some brave new world. I felt that the multiracial students I was working with were hungering for a history, a name, tools to express who they were. Similarly, I was beginning to feel that the multicultural politics that became standardized and institutionalized in schools, college campus', workplaces, and even (disturbingly) in corporate America were creating a kind of diversity complex that was wholly reductive, essentializing, and even in more radical or resistant iterations of it, still grappling with how to account for the multitudes, the axes of difference, the intersections, and asymmetrical privileges and inequalities that all make up our social realities and identities. Why were all these categories or racial and ethnic differences so monolithic when the reality has always been far from that? These concerns prompted me to imagine that perhaps alongside the conversation of multiracial identities and experiences, we also needed to complicate and disrupt all these other categories that hem us in and make us recognizable or unrecognizable to ourselves, others, and the "state" writ large (and I evoke the state here, because identity politics as mobilized by social justice movements were every much about representation and the politics of recognition vis-a-vis state power as much as they were about creating community and building consciousness). And this worked in the context of higher education I was in. The course I taught and the work that emerged from it was really amazing. But, I soon left the hallowed halls of higher learning and perhaps it was then that I began to take note, however vaguely, of the little grain inside my shell.

The third reason I began this blog and the general project of writing and thinking about multiracial issues was one that was deeply personal and perhaps, not very obvious at the start. To the extent that I can (for my "story" is also shared by others whom I can't speak for), I've written here and there about my multi identity and what that's meant for me alongside my identities as a black woman. Being the nerd I am, I felt developing some educational material and critical thought for myself and others might help me make sense of who I am and again, the political implications of multi-ness.

I travelled to India for a year upon finding out about my birth story in my early twenties. That year was a trippy one for me and really complicated my thinking on race in ways that even years later I am still working out. Passing as I did for Indian and also realizing that my birth mother had actually never grown up in India, and instead identified much more with the southern African country in which she was raised, threw open so many issues about identity and origins, heritage, race, nation, and the complexities of migration that my personal history came to embody. People with whom I share my "whole" story are often amazed and encourage me to write a book or make a movie. Which is flattering, of course, but what I'm more invested in is demonstrating how unexceptional my story is. While the small details of it may be unique, the bigger themes are no different than so many other stories. And I think there is something important at stake in making stories like mine the norm instead of the exceptional, the Other, the spectacular. If our future is poised to recognize these "new" realities, perhaps, something important will be gained. I'm  married to someone who identifies as multiracial and is Japanese and white-American. So while, that "multiracial" so called "new face" of America is being called into existence, he and I may inevitably be part of literally reproducing that future (as will the thousands of "new" families that are not only multiracial, but make up queer families, multi-religious and transnational families, etc. Indeed, the normative bounds of "family" are due to be disrupted and transformed). To be sure, imma need lots of reflection on raising African-Latino-Indian-Japanese-White-American children in a world and a society that's slow to catch up on changing realities in ways that are critical, meaningful, and committed to breaking down barriers instead of building them up sky-high. So, I take up these issues for myself but also for the family I might have and the world they might inherit.

I've been studying Migration Studies at the University of Oxford since October and living in the UK has been a strange and enlivening experience. I also left the States, in the wake of the killing of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, the latter who hailed from my hometown of Staten Island, NY. It's been strange being outside of the U.S. and coming to a place like Oxford, in particular, at a time in which communities back home have been taking to the streets and we just may be witnessing one of the biggest social movements in my short life-time. During this time, I've wondered what place my previous work and thinking on multiracial identities have when people of color are being killed in cold blood? That multi stuff, I keep thinking was for those other days, not these days when the sky seems to be falling and America is waking up with a massive lurching hangover from its postracial sleep. I feel like I need to put away my multiracial hat and throw myself full on into the "struggle" lest my loyalties be questioned-- but then I realize no one is questioning those so-called loyalties but me. I realize, that while I'm good at talking that big talk, I didn't escape entirely unharmed from all the pressures of thinking of black as a monolith-- a conception that with a new generation is steadily being challenged. So on good days, I consider that it still is a really important and worthy project and not just some pet project. That my approach to multiracial issues actually has some interesting co-valences with "queer" critique, insomuch as I'm calling for a disruption of the normative and raising political concerns and questions about how power and structures are implicated.

In many ways, I've felt like those black artists and intellectuals who had come to Europe at some pivotal point in their lives-- and how that distance from the racial saga of the U.S. meant that they could for the first time think, reflect, and confront that beast in distinct ways. At Oxford I've had to rethink identity politics and multiculturalism in an academic and socio-political context that has critiqued it and declared them "failed," and  "dangerous groupism." With multiculturalism, that backlash has been the particular pet project of a growing conservative and extreme right governments against the social policies which many European nations happily adopted and institutionalized in the 80s and 90s. But the backlash, warranted or not, has been picked up and academics have offered new terms like "superdiversity" (Vervotec) which aim to get at what multiculturalism seemed to have missed-- the layers, the growing number of axes of difference people occupy and identify with. It's also been used as multicultural was, to describe new spatial realities, material practices, and zones of contact in global cities and elsewhere. Of course, the term superdiversity is not without its strong critiques. Chief among them, is how new is this really and what are the political implications-- will we start speaking of a superdiversity politics and to what extent can it resist cooptation (much like the multiracial movement in the U.S. to get more Census categories)? The mostly UK-based and academic-driven conversation on superdiversity is an interesting one and one that I think could have interesting reverberations if it does not fall prey to the same malaise of multiculturalism.

Frankly, far from enlightening, my thinking during my time in the UK has been (until recently) rather
muddled. While I organized a solidarity march for Ferguson and other activities to open up dialogue on race here at Oxford, it's also been a really trying time for me to see if my tools work-- if they are at all translatable and intelligible in a context like the UK (which may have more in common with the U.S. than it'll ever own up to). I've had to bring race into the space in ways I never had to before, in ways that have angered me, opened up old wounds, and left me feeling exposed, tired, and confused. I've had to talk about race to peers who, understandably, can't quite grasp its meaning from their diverse national backgrounds. Why would black lives matter here? I struggle with not wanting to practice American "cultural imperialism"  and bring in these U.S. social justice frameworks that really actually don't fit. While still grappling with my belief that racism is globalized and that is a reality we need to acknowledge from outside our national bubbles. So I've started working with others on really important, albeit exhausting, process of making connections, provoking expansive analyses about the systemic and root causes of issues that may have different area codes and time zones, but actually beneath the surface really are very similar. The black lives matter message can be imagined internationally as a powerful call for us to reflect on who "matters" in the different places we call home.
I already see how the "Black Lives Matter" movement back home is perhaps marking a new and inspiring activism and politics of identity and social justice that is responsive to a complex, diverse, and multiply-situated reality. Started by a Nigerian woman and two queer black women, the organization Black Lives Matter and the mobilization of orgs like the Dream Defenders have fostered a desperately needed expansive analysis and understanding of the structures of state- sanctioned violence and racism in the U.S. and globally. It's reviving the kind of international black politics of Angela Davis, Malcolm X and others. They've also spoken about black struggles right along with women of color, queer and trans struggles, and class struggles.  In the UK there was a critical time when "Black" was an identity taken up by South Asians and other racial and ethnic groups in a kind of collective politics. Further back in the day, during the time of the Haitian revolution and its foundation as the first black republic, all of those first citizens of Haiti (including white people, for indeed there were white people who took up the cause alongside the black revolutionaries) all claimed the identity "Black." This shows us that our activism and our politics can be "hybrid" and multiracial (and in fact most of the poc movements have been) and that we must always call upon ourselves to reimagine our politics of identity in creative and transgressive ways.
I've often felt like Ralph Ellison who wrote " I was taken very early
with a passion to link together all I loved within the Negro community and all those things I felt in the world which lay beyond." I've struggled over the years to figure out where to hang my political hat, where to draw those lines of my being in all those different spaces when I was being called upon to be just black, or just Latina, or just multi, or... just me. For the political is not the only thing that constitutes identity and belonging and I have sometimes lost sight of that.  
I titled the blog and subsequent work, including the course at Oberlin "Mixed Dreams" and I seem to be waking up from that dream committed to seeing how some of those dreams can constitute a reality. There is really amazing work that's come out over the years in the "critical mixed-race studies" world, including DePaul's conference of the same name and the site Mixed Race Studies is always updated with compelling and important material. To the extent that wider society will pick things up and stop reproducing the same tired message about our multiracial future is yet to be seen. But these are indeed difficult, but exciting times to be doing a little dreaming.  
So I'll keep working on that grain in my shell to see what dreams may yet come and what brave new futures we can create.

To Live in the Borderlands
Gloria Anzaldua
To live in the Borderlands means you
are neither hispana india negra espanola
ni gabacha, eres mestiza, mulata, half-breed
caught in the crossfire between camps
while carrying all five races on your back
not knowing which side to turn to, run from;

To live in the
means knowing
that the india in you, betrayed for 500 years,
is no longer speaking to you,
that mexicanas call you rajetas,
that denying the Anglo inside you
is as bad as having denied the Indian or Black;

Cuando vives en la frontera
people walk through you, the wind steals your voice,
you're a burra, buey, scapegoat,
forerunner of a new race,
half and half - both woman and man, neither -
a new gender;

To live in the
means to
put chile in the borscht,
eat whole wheat tortillas,
speak tex-mex with a brooklyn accent;
be stopped by la migra at the border checkpoints;

Living in the
means you fight hard to
resist the gold elixir beckoning from the bottle,
the pull of the gun barrel,
the rope crushing the hollow of your throat;

In the

you are the battleground
where enemies are kin to each other;
you are at home, a stranger,
the border disputes have been settled
the volley of shots have shattered the truce
you are wounded, lost in action
dead, fighting back;

To live in the
the mill with the razor white teeth wants to shred off
your olive-red skin, crush out the kernel, your heart
pound you pinch you roll you out
smelling like white bread but dead;

To survive the

you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Just as supplemental reading to go along with my previous post Who Gets to be POC?, this article entitled "Coming Out As Biracial" by Stephanie Georgopulos  is pretty awesome and spot on.

"And it’s coming out. It’s coming out to strangers, and friends, and lovers on the off chance that you might convince them that race isn’t one size fits all. It’s coming out to see the look on some bigot’s face when he realizes his idea of white is wrong. It’s coming out so that interracial couples don’t have to fear the America their future children will grow up in. Looking like a white woman comes with white privilege, but it also comes with the responsibility of making myself known, of changing minds. I’m treated the way all black Americans deserve to be treated, and it’s only because my dad’s genes won a round of tug-of-war with my mom’s. My skin color is just a small joke that racists—career or casual—aren’t in on.
So I come out. Again and again and again. My appearance can’t do the talking, but I sure as hell can."

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Who Gets to Be A POC?: Self-Identifying & Privilege

This post is in response to a great question a friend asked about how the wonderful new book
(1)ne Drop:Shifting the Lens on Race  by Dr. Yaba Blay and Noelle Theard, featuring portraits of individuals who identify as "Black" speaks to an article entitled "4 Ways to Push Back on Your Privilege" by one of my favorite bloggers, Mia McKenzie (aka Black Girl Dangerous). Many portraits in (1)ne Drop may raise a few eyebrows. Take the portrait of 'Zun Lee' on the right. He says:
"When I applied to grad school or for jobs, all of a sudden the boxes come up. I had to make a choice, so for the first time, I checked 'Black.' And I didn't think long about it because for me, it was based on personal circumstance. I just chose the box that I felt most at home with because I didn't relate to any of the other options. From then on, if I were asked, I would answer, 'I'm Black.' Of course, people told me I couldn't do that — that I couldn't choose that box. But I had spent all of my life being pushed away by people. In Germany, I wasn't even given the option to check anything because I wasn't welcomed there. I had no box. For the first time, I was being given the option to identify myself. Now I had a box, and I was happy in that little box." 
Is it okay for Zun Lee to identify as black? He doesn't self-identify in his quote as "Asian." Should we, the viewers and readers see him and insist that he must be "Asian" or at the very least "not black?"

The Black Girl Dangerous article says:
 "4. Be careful what identities you claim
If you’re a cis dude who is only into women but you call yourself ‘queer’ because all your friends are queer and plus you kissed a guy once and also you feel more politically aligned with queer folks…rethink that. Consider how your privilege (and sense of entitlement) gives you access to claim identities even when your lived experience doesn’t support it. The same goes for white-presenting people who claim POC (Person of Color) but by their own admission don’t experience oppression based on race. Just consider what it means to claim that and to then argue about its validity with people who do experience racism in their daily lives, and who don’t have access to the kind of choices around it that you have. (I’m not saying you’re white or that you should call yourself that. I’m only questioning use of the term POC.) Think about what it means to claim a marginalized identity when you don’t have a marginalized experience. Really. Think about it. Don’t just get offended and start crying about identity-policing. Really consider what that means."

So here's my take on all this…

I agree with Black Girl Dangerous. But I also agree wholeheartedly with the project of (1)ne Drop. Both perspectives are actually in very compelling dialogue with each other. One asks, what is “black identity”? The other asks “what does it mean for you to claim a "marginalized" identity when you haven’t ‘lived it’?” I think it's critical to interrogate the boundaries and contours of identity. I think it's really important for identities that have so often been spoken for and about, to be able to take a self-reflexive moment and ask, who are we really? Is racial identity merely skin color? Is it politics? Is it a shared experience of privilege or lack there of? Is it geographic--bound by national or transnational ties? Is it about family, community, about who takes you in and makes you feel grounded and home? Is it about the way you're treated by others and viewed by the systems at large?

I would argue that it's about all of these things and that everyone should feel empowered to name themselves. At the same time, identities come from somewhere and have histories. And that is something very crucial to understand, especially when it comes to the ways in which racial identities become marginalized and oppressed. McKenzie is definitely speaking to this point. But I would like to push back a little on the Black Girl Dangerous article and how this point can be very limiting for multiracial people who may have white/light-skinned privilege and yet identify themselves as a person of color (POC).

As you all know by now, I'm often harping on this idea that identities are political. They are political
because they function in a system of power and privilege, of exclusion and inclusion yada, yada, yada... you get the point. The “Man” made the system, the system’s broken and destructive, and we’re all inextricably tied to the system no matter how white, how mixed or how black, we may be. Politicizing identities was also a very strategic posturing that many social movements like the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the LGBTQ rights movements all used to stake claim to space and recognition and advocate for rights and equality. That is not to say, however, that identities are only political.

I think that the really powerful anti-racist, social justice school of thought and action that I and others like me are steeped in can sometimes be very limited in its understanding of this. We focus a great deal on marginalization, and identities of "oppression”—of being defined by what privileges you don't have, what you weren't given, what is not recognized. It is a very powerful way to develop identity and a critical understanding of systems of oppression and how to dismantle them. But it also runs the risk of essentializing and reducing identities. So, while blackness is most definitely about the painful history of Africana people being dehumanized and enslaved, of being conquered and colonized, of being marginalized and discriminated against, it is also about the beautiful history before colonization and enslavement, and of resistance and struggle, of survival, of community, of building new homes, cultures, families--of starting new races and peoples and nations and imagining more just and vibrant futures.

Throughout U.S. history, blackness has encompassed all manner of individuals and communities that "white" society deemed “less-than,” illegitimate, pariahs, unassimilable. The one-drop rule was a construction of a white supremacist colonial system that depended on classifying race in order to protect its grip on power. Actually, the individuals photographed for the (1)ne Drop book that may look "white" or "not black" would have very likely been classified as "black" at so many points in our history. Fun fact, Irish immigrants were once considered "black", as were early East Asian immigrants. The white poor in the U.S. were often called names typically used to degrade black folk. The labels “black” and “white” were never only just about "skin color." That was the front. That was the lazy, surface qualification that propped up the whole system that was always deeply aware of its own frailty, fearful of its own demise, constantly thinking of more insidious ways to maintain its power.

Things became inextricably attached to skin color—the system gave it deeply inscribed meanings. Skin color then came to dictate whether you were someone’s property or someone’s master, if you were the conquered or the conqueror, if you were closest to evil or closest to godliness, if you were an animal or a human, if you were stricken by poverty or capable of amassing wealth, if you were illiterate and uneducated or if you were literate and educated, if you had no history worth a damn or if your history was the glory of human civilization….. and on and on and on. And so skin color came to matter. It came to mean a lot of different things. And still, the labels were shifted here and there, lines were bent or erased entirely. White people today were not necessarily considered white people a century ago. And while we allow whiteness that freedom, that strange anonymity and inconsistency, we continue to essentialize blackness. Blackness, which is so complex, and so incredibly diverse gets reduced and policed day in and day out all over the color line.

I hear what McKenzie is saying, loud and clear and 99.9% of the time I’m saying the same thing. Yea, I bristle at the idea of a blonde haired, blue-eyed "white" person coming up to me and saying they identify as "black". But I also understand that identity is so deeply experiential and subjective.  I also feel like McKenzie’s article lumps together privileges a little too freely. I definitely don’t experience all my privileges in the same way and they are also in dialogue or conflict with each other and other parts of my identity at any given moment. They are all accessed, played out and read externally in very distinct ways.

I don't actually know any "white" person who goes around saying they're black. But I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that's not a conversation I necessarily think we should shut down every single time. While they may not carry a “political” experience of blackness, there may be cultural, geographic even gendered, classed or religious reasons why a white person may say “hey, I’m black”. And there may be that one white person in ten thousand billion where we can hear them out and say, “yeah, actually I get that.” I think sometimes we’re too quick to say “nuh-uh, you can’t just come over here and say that. Stay in your box. You can’t understand this pain, you can’t get this identity.” And we play misery poker and shut folks down. And yet, there are times folks accuse light/white-presenting folk who have African ancestry (ex: Mariah Carey) but who claim other parts of their identity or say they actually identify more closely with their “non-black” identities of being self-hating, or confused or “you know, you’re just a black person like the rest of us.” That reaction comes from a very protective and defensive place and it, too, has a history. And so the great complexity of it all is something we all navigate and grapple with.

Look, don't get me wrong, I'm not invested in opening up spaces for "white" people to start claiming all kinds of POC identities. But I do think that its important for us to take whiteness and POC-ness to task and push against those boundaries. The theoretical side of me wants us to burst open these labels and understand the fullness of what all these identities really are. It makes me sympathetic to the hypothetical "white/ white-presenting" person calling themselves a POC.  I know several multiracial people who may "pass" as "white" to the masses, but they self-identify proudly as POC and I would be loath to question that. I know plenty of Latin@s who are definitely “white-presenting”, but who consider themselves POCs because of language, culture, national ties etc. I also know some folks from South Asia and the Middle East (ex: Persians) who are officially considered to be “white/Caucasian” but who consider themselves POCs as a result of their identities as immigrants,  as post-colonial subjects or even because of the dramatic shift in how the U.S. viewed people from South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa after 9/11. Marginalization and oppression don't draw neat little lines and racism is often tied up with classism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia etc. etc.

I am deeply committed to fostering dialogue that allows multiracial people to be able to name themselves. For me, part of empowering multiracial identities is allowing multi people that freedom of naming themselves and their space in various communities. I think Black Girl Dangerous' point does not really allow for that. I also don't think it's something multiracial people have historically felt "entitled" to do, nor is it a freedom we always have, to claim our identities. It's not an easy formula based simply on the way we look.

So let's go back to Zun Lee's statement. Zun Lee clearly isn't going to mistaken for a black person any time soon. But his statement speaks to a kind of experience of alienation and marginalization that is familiar to many people of color in the U.S. But what I really love about his statement was that he chose the box he felt most at "home" with. I don't know what his circumstances were. He doesn't really elaborate. But perhaps that was the community that took him in, that let him feel like he belonged. His statement really challenges us to think about what identity means to us and why we claim the identities we do. Privilege is a very important piece of the identity puzzle. And I think that allowing for more fluid, more transgressive understandings of identity will allow us to engage in deeper dialogue and work to dismantling oppression. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

La Negra Tiene Tumbao: The "Afro" in "Latina"

The Dominican population "has tried to disconnect itself from its African roots to the point where they've constituted a community that's mostly mixed" but calls itself "indios," wrote historian Frank Moya Ponsin in the prologue of the book "Good Hair, Bad Hair."- Huffington Post "Artist & Educators Aim to Tranform Thinking, Laud Black Heritage in Color-Obsessed Dominican Republic"

America parade in Madrid, Spain; Dominican immigrant youth. circa 2008
I was born in beautiful Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic. And while neither of my parents were
Dominican, I still hold on to the island as a part of my identity. My first passport was a Dominican one. In it, my "raza" or "race" is described as being "trigueña." According to urban dictionary the term means:

In the Caribbean (specifically, Dominican Republic) trigueña or trigueño depending on whether the person is male or female, is someone identified of three (tri)cultures. Namely, someone of indigenous (carib, quisqueyano or taino indians) african (from the slaves brought over by ships) and Spanish (Spain)heritage. It has been used in the Latino/Caribbean culture as a term of endearment, a compliment but also at times as a descriptive word when neither 'morena' or 'blanca' seem to completely describe the subject.
I often wonder what the officials filling out my information saw when they saw 8-month old me. Did they see my brown skin and deem it not too light, not too dark? Somewhere in between, just 'right'? Did they look at the shiny black curls and deem them potentially "pelo bueño" (good hair)? The reality was that I was neither indigenous nor Spanish and my West African father arrived in the DR not on a slave ship, but on a plane to attend medical school only a few years before I was born.

Growing up in the United States, very much aware that I was always being seen as black first and foremost, it intrigues me to think that at some point in my early life, in another country, in another racial order I was seen as something else entirely. And as intrigued as I am, I am also deeply disturbed, knowing the lengths to which the DR has gone to shed its ties to blackness and the African diaspora throughout its history. Being called triguena and morena as a "compliment" basically means you're, thankfully, not  a "negra (dark-skinned, black)." It's downright disturbing to me, to be praised for my "canela (cinnamon)" complexion and supposed pelo bueno.  I am invariably complimented on how "nice" my hair is at Dominican salons. But as an adult I still pay an occasional visit to the Dominican hair salons. I go mostly out of nostalgia for getting my hair done with my mom growing up and because my mixed hair means neither the white salons nor the black salons really know what to do. I also feel very at home in those spaces because whether they would identify themselves as such, I see them as Afro-Latinas, like me. 

What Dominican salons have perfected is the art of taking the "African" out of a curly girl's head. And the fact they are so freakin' good at it and will talk about you and how your hair is too thick, or too nappy (ie: pelo malo, said behind your back, assuming you're a black American and can't speak Spanish) means the whole establishment is steeped deeply in race and some intense colorism. One could write volumes on race and colorism in Dominican salons. So if that's so incredibly palpable in a space like a salon (and I've been to ones in Europe and on both coasts of the U.S. and it's the same story) can you imagine what it's like in the motherland?*

Both in the U.S. and in Latin America we have some serious problems with denying the "Afro" in "Latino". Haiti is a devastating example of how maligned African ancestry in the make up and formation of Latin American peoples is. People: Haiti, was the FIRST BLACK REPUBLIC. It was a symbol of freedom, struggle, revolution and triumph. Today Haiti is among the poorest countries in the world. Scores of Haitians risk their lives every year on the treacherous waters between the DR/Haiti and Florida. The DR has had a pathological anti-Haitian mentality that at it's most perverse resulted in the "Parsley Massacre" or El Corte by dictator Trujillo in 1937. More recently, the DR has passed stringent and blatantly racists anti-immigration policies against Haitians. What message is the DR sending? The outright denial and explicit self-loathing of anything to do with it's African ancestry is maddening and so inextricably linked to the colonial project in the DR and the rest of Latin America.  In Costa Rica, where my mother is from, the story is a little different since the black presence in the country came in the form of Jamaican migrants (who were British subjects the time) in the late 1800s. Blacks in Costa Rica were segregated until 1948 despite there being several generations of Caribbean migrants that called the country home. If Latin American societies historically and presently, can't seem to shake their racism and colorism, then how much more complicated does that get when migrants from those countries are confronted with the U.S.'s unique brand of racialization, colorism and racism? 

My mother is Afro-Costa Rican and if we want to talk about color, she's a shade or two darker than I am. Ok, so she isn't my biological mother, we know that now. But my rootedness in my Latina identity has everything to do with seeing her navigate her own identity as an Afro-Latina in the United States. Neither of us are ever read as Latina at first look and that was cause for a lot of frustration for me, and still is.  I was always proud to be both Cameroonian and Costa Rican. I was proud Spanish was my first language. I was proud my favorite foods were mangu, queso frito and flan. I was proud of the black cake my mother made for Christmas every year and the jamaica/sorrel we drank. I was proud of the mixedness of the Caribbean identity of my Costa Rican family. For me being Latina inherently encompasses being of African descent. Those two were always seamless in my family. Being black to me inherently encompasses being Latina. So, I get rabid every time I see a form where I'm asked to check the "Hispanic/Latino" box if I'm Hispanic but not black, and asked to check the "Black/African-American" box if I'm black, but not Hispanic. So ummm... what exactly am I supposed to check? 

The external reading of my latinidad is usually regional-- in New York, I'm sometimes asked if I'm Dominican. I've also been asked if I'm Trinidadian, Guyanese or if I have some "Indian" in me. Which now knowing that my birth mother was (East) Indian seems ironic. Living in Los Angeles, I got to be the invisible Latina. I got to give servers in taco trucks heart attacks with my perfect, rapid-fire Spanish. On the whole, though, most Americans think Latinas look like JLo not Zoe Saldana. And we can laud JLo's African ancestry insofar as it gave her a donk, and lambast Zoe Saldana for not being "black enough" to play a certain role.

Our language is also limited in how much it can capture.  The terms "Latino" and "Hispanic" privilege Spanish-speaking, former colonies of Spain. Yet, Latin America includes former French, Portuguese, British, and Dutch colonies. In addition, a distinction is often made between the "Caribbean" and "Latin America," when in fact they are all part of the same continent and geographic zone.  It's incredibly hard to contain all those multitudes and create an umbrella term for all of them. As with most other identities, we crave new names to better reflect our distinct histories, cultures and realities. But the U.S. racial order thrives on oversimplification and reductionism. So everyone gets lumped together despite having very different identities and subjectivities. Not only do Latinos get lumped together, but depending on your perceived "color" and socioeconomic class you are commanded to step into the black-white colorline accordingly. There's all this talk about how "mixed" Latino identities are and the Latino community is very vocal about celebrating mestizaje, but I think a huge part of the strategy of becoming a recognized political identity in the U.S. system has been to reduce the definition of Latinidad to an limited understanding of mestizo, to simply mean the mixing of indigenous and European ancestry. And while, that might be more true of some countries (like Mexico, Chile, or Argentina to name a few), African ancestry is a huge part of the racial makeup of a number of Latin American countries.

In the U.S., Afro-Latinos get subsumed into the "Black/African-American" box, which is cool and all. That box is used to making room for all kinds of folk depending on what time in history we're looking at. But in that camp, we face similar problems in encompassing the multitudes. Caribbean immigrants and African immigrants are seldom visible members of the "community". Africa is ancestral, not a modern, post-colonial continent. The Caribbean is a tourist destination-- not the historical site of black radicalism, black revolution and the first independent
black nations in the New World. Afro-Latinos are cool until they start speaking too much Spanish or blaring their salsa and merengue down the street. Immigrants are cool until they start "taking jobs". Lines are drawn, borders are demarcated between Black and Latino and to me it makes no sense.

The issue of immigration has become synonymous with Latino political identity.  There are thousands of undocumented black immigrants that are working and being exploited all over the country and even if there weren't, immigration is not just a Latino issue. But according to the media, immigration is apparently ONLY a Latino issue. Few are taking a step back and smelling the rat. Smelling the fact that the arbitrary divisions are made to pit communities against each other and against themselves. How quickly we forget that in cities like New York and Los Angeles, blacks and Latinos have lived and worked side by side for decades. Back in the 60s and 70s the Young Lords modeled themselves after the Black nationalist movement and saw themselves as part of the same struggle of black resistance. Cultural productions like salsa and more recently, reggaeton are unmistakeably Afro-Latino..... look, I could go on this rant for pretty much ever.

I say all this to say, I am incredibly proud of my latinidad and my blackness. I love to think of my mixed identity as part of the complicated and rich histories of people of color in the Americas. I gain a lot being able to think about my mixededness in the context of the hybridity and creolization of Latin America. I navigate being all I am as an American because of my understanding of the cultural and political histories I am a part of. I struggle against the racial order of our country that makes multitudes invisible and reduces complex identities. I really believe talking about race within the Latino experience is a conversation we can all benefit from having. I think it also opens a lot of doors for building political coalitions and fostering solidarity. In my ideal world, this dialogue can also pick up the very crucial conversations about U.S. imperialism, neoliberal policies, exploitation and labor in Latin America and elsewhere that many African-Americans, Chicanos, Nuyoricans and others were very vocal about during the 70s and 80s. These conversations can be cultural, political, global and so incredibly relevant in their scope. Instead, we build walls, we stake claim to certain identities and struggles and not others. We don't see how the struggles and experiences of one group are a window into our own struggles and experiences. And we let a racial system built on oppression, marginalization and white supremacy dictate who we are and who we aren't, instead of standing tall and proud in our collective struggles and histories of resistance to build better, more just and democratic societies.

Note: There has been a growing movement and coalition between Dominicans and Haitians in the diaspora to confront the anti-hatianismo and racism in the DR.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

What My Mother Gave Me

[Blogger's Note: While mixed identity is a very personal and political issue for me, I don't usually use this space to write exclusively about my own life. Though my work and writing make it clear I identify as black, African, Latina, mixed, multi etc, on both the Mixed Dreams twitter and Tumblr sites I've still been asked "what are you?" Since what really spurred me to begin this crusade was so deeply personal and so inscribed in that very question and the realities of my  life, I thought we'd take a break from our "usual programming" to reflect on the evolution of my own mixed story. This post is dedicated to my parents.]

"To lose your mother was to be denied your kin, country, and identity. To lose your mother was to forget your past."
                                                                                                -Dr. Saidiya Hartman

I am the spitting image of my mother.

Three years ago I learned the 'truth' about my origin story. The 'truth', however, didn't make the myth of my early life any less real--any less a rooted marker of who I was and who I am or will become. And that, I owe to my mother.

 Mom and I in 2009
You see, three years ago I was told that I was kinda, sorta adopted-- not legally with paperwork and red tape, not brought from some far off place to an entirely different family, but taken in quietly, seamlessly, secretly by the love and determination of a woman who loved my father very much. That woman became the only mother I have ever known.

My father, who I write about in "Native Speaker," has always been a very strong and visible part of my identity. The Cameroonian name I inherited from him, make my African identity proud and visible against a face that is sometimes hard to place. My Cameroonian family is large and spread all over the world and the blackness I share with them is rooted in a vibrant ancestral past  and a contemporary post-colonial African present.

And yet, in key ways it was my mother who gave me kin, country and identity. 

I did not have the luxury of forgetting. For in order to forget, one must first remember. Instead my early past was simply erased from my young memory by those who rewrote my history to protect, to move on, to survive. In that way my story is no different than the countless mythologies created as people leave homes and re-fashion new identities --always moving, surviving, leaving behind imprints and shadows of their private truths and hazy fictions as they go.

I am the spitting image of my mother. And yet, she was not the woman who gave birth to me. 

My mother is Afro-Costa Rican. We're both "mutts", as she likes to say. Her skin looks just like mine, her first language is my first language, we were both born in Latin America. And, she too, did not grow up with her biological mother. The similarities are striking. Three years ago when I found out she wasn't my 'birth' mother, that my 'birth' mother was Indian, that after all that, I was a classic taboo--a "forbidden love child"-- it was my mother's Afro-Latina/Caribbean identity that anchored me in the face of a simple truth that threatened to uproot and displace me and all I was.

I dedicated my undergraduate life to developing my black consciousness and in particular, my Afro-Latina consciousness. I even spent a summer with my maternal grandmother in Costa Rica unearthing the lost histories of blacks in Limon, Costa Rica-- empowered by their rich transnational narratives, their liminality and their resistance as Africana people. Fluent, familiar Spanish danced effortlessly on my tongue. Rice and peas, escovitch fish and platano tasted like home. I saw my mother's face-- my face-- in everyone I saw and I felt keenly a part of a history, a people, a legacy. It was then that I realized that it was my Afro-Latina identity moreso than my Cameroonian identity that connected me to a living history of blacks in the Americas. It was my Afro-Latina identity that carved out a space for me to understand the breadth of mixedness-- of blackness, its contours, it's depth, it's beautiful distress. It rooted me to a sense of place and home that weaved me seamlessly into a diverse black Atlantic legacy charting it's way from west African shores to Jamaica to Costa Rica to my birthplace in Santo Domingo to Jamaica, Queens where I spent my early years and even Staten Island where I grew up black and middle class in an overwhelmingly white wealthy suburb-- a proud part of the multitude that contained multitudes. 

Don't get me wrong, while grounding, my parent's identities did not spare me my black girl/mixed girl woes. Sure, having two black parents should have been easy enough. But from an early age I could sense that our family identity wasn't quite the 'norm.' The "mixed-up" anxiety I had and the struggles with identity I faced growing up and into my college years were a product of an alienation born from being a "hyphen"-- an "and" in a system where that hyphen is still rendered illegitimate, where multitudes are bound and limited to sound-bite definitions and caging boxes. I was a black girl in a white world. An immigrant daughter in American society. A first-generation African girl in an African-American culture. An Afro-Latina/Caribbean girl in a mestizo Latino world.

Dr. Saidiya Hartman writes "To lose your mother was to be denied your kin, country, and identity. To lose your mother was to forget your past." I lost my birth mother-- Not to death, but to the past, to culture, to tradition, to destiny.... who knows? I was denied entry to an identity, to kin and to a country that should have been my birth right. 

Last year, I traveled to India for nine months to find out more about this identity, this country, this kin that was erased from my history. And as I wrote in my post "And I'm Either No One, Or I'm A Nation" India, too, felt vaguely familiar. For the first time in my life I was not automatically read as "black" and to my incredible surprise I found myself passing. That "passage" felt like an act of trespass and yet it was deeply validating. But as in most spaces, that validation gave way to the more familiar sensation that I am perpetually a stranger in a strange land. And well, that's okay. It's who I am.

Since my time in India and over the last three years I've reflected a great deal on how transgressive my racial history has been-- how constructed and (re)constructed. My experiences have shaken my previous conceptions of what race is, what family is and what identity is. They have profoundly underscored cultural critic Stuart Hall's mantra that "Identity is always in the process of being and becoming." That goes for someone with as complex a history as mine as for a whitebread kid in Ohio. The paradox of identity is that it is meant to ground and define and yet by its very nature it is always in flux. So, what do we hold on to? 

For now, I hold on to my mother. The woman who gave me everything. I hold on with the understanding that this is not who I will always be, but that at the core of my mixed journey is knowing that while we may not always be writers of our past, we are creators of our future. That identities come from somewhere and have histories, but they also have transgressive and yet unwritten futures. I stand proudly in all my truths and contradictions.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Shades of Black (The Flip Side of the 'Zoe-Nina' Debate)

In 1966, the woman born Eunice Kathleen Waymon penned 'The Four Women', which begins, "My skin is Black/ My arms are long/ My hair is wooly/ My back is strong/ Strong enough to take the pain/ Inflicted again and again." Nina had the posture, past and physicality to make this song not only brazen, but also believable and therefore revolutionary in it's telling. How can Saldana possibly bring the pain in an afro-wig and, God-forbid, dark makeup?   - Nicole Moore "Disappearing Acts: Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone & The Erasure of Black Women in Film"
 Zoe Saldana                                              Nina Simone

The blogosphere floodgates flew open two weeks ago  as news broke that actress Zoe Saldana would be playing the role of the iconic Nina Simone in an (allegedly "unauthorized") indie biopic of the late singer and civil rights activist. The film is said to be less of a portrait of the legend and will focus on a speculative love affair between Simone and her assistant/manager Clifton Henderson (to be played by British actor David Oyelowo)

News of Saldana's role unearthed difficult questions about blackness, race and issues of authenticity. While critiques ranged from the legitimacy of the story itself  to the need for more black directors, screenwriters and producers to tell our stories in a more sensitive and critical way than the usual Hollywood "whitewashed" versions, the overwhelming number of critiques focused on the casting of Zoe Saldana in the title role (as an undeniable product of Hollywood "whitewashing".)

And, don't get it twisted, I'm right there questioning whether a story not even authorized by Nina Simone's daughter or her estate should really be going around masquerading as a 'biopic' and helllllll yes we need to take control of our own narratives and representations in the media. But reading the following statements and countless statements like these that made up the hailstorm as the public sounded off on Zoe's casting was troubling to say the least: 

"She's (Saldana) too light-skinned to be taken seriously as Nina Simone."
"And besides--she's a Latina. She's stealing jobs from real black actresses." 
Whether you're a Saldana fan or think she has the acting skills of a pineapple is one thing. But a disturbingly large number of responses to the news said things like "Saldana is too pretty to play Nina Simone" (ummm, and by "prettier" you mean what exactly?? confront your own skewed colorism and then maybe we can have an intelligent conversation.) "Zoe Saldana isn't even black, she's Dominican (responding to that would take a separate post entirely--but let's just say we all came on the same ships, they just stopped in different area codes.) 

I was torn. On one hand, I believe Nina Simone is an iconic figure whose story in film should match her revolutionary spirit which was a profound reflection of her experiences as a black woman. And yet, the discussions surrounding the issue were making me uncomfortable. Was it merely just my light-skinned guilt smarting-- a little light-skinned privilege with no place to go?

 I felt like I wanted to come to Saldana's defense, a fellow Afro-Latina who has invariably been cast in roles that don't recognize her latinidad and yet have established her as a black actress from playing Judith Scott and Bernie Mac's daughter in Guess Who and Nick Cannon's love interest in Drumline (you all know that was a black movie) to the barrier-breaking Uhura in the J.J. Abrams film remake of  Star Trek. Then all of a sudden, Saldana is being accused of capitalizing on blackness for "monetary value" or "taking jobs from "REAL BLACK actresses" when she's only ever been seen or identified herself as black (the operative word in AFRO-Latina; and, since when has being black ever added any 'monetary value?' People, pleeassee.)

Many comments have also failed to recognize the fact that Saldana has been just as much a product of racialization and an industry that has made it a habit of rendering black bodies (and other bodies of color) invisible. Is Saldana's own racial and ethnic erasure in film illegitimate? Why is her body seen as the vehicle of black erasure?  Does her skin color or her Latina heritage make her own struggle as an actress of color navigating one of the most racist industries any less difficult-- any less real? Are we just talking about skin color or something else altogether?

How would we have felt if actress Kerry Washington had been cast  as Nina Simone? Or if Saldana was cast to play black (and since all we can seem to talk about is skin tone--very light-skinned) revolutionary Angela Davis? Is REAL BLACKNESS less about which side of the paper-bag test you fall on and more about an assumed identity politics that go along with it

Nicole Moore's article "Disappearing Acts: Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone and the Erasure of Black Women in Film" states: "Because Simone's blackness extended as much to her musical prowess as to her physicality and image, it's perplexing that the film's production team, led by Jimmy Iovine, expects anyone, particularly in the black community, to (re)imagine Nina Simone as fair-skinned, thin-lipped and narrow-nosed?"

This statement makes me wonder what we're really seeing when we look at Zoe Saldana. Are we measuring her nose and lips (which are really not that much thinner/ "finer" than Nina Simone's)? Or are we looking at her skin tone, her straightened hair, her thin frame, her mainstream fame and summing up the extent of her "pain" and "struggle" accordingly?  Additionally Moore's article likened Saldana's performance to a type of racial "drag" comparing Tyler Perry as Madea to Saldana as Simone even going as far as to suggest Saldana in "black face" asking How can Saldana possibly bring the pain in an afro-wig and, God-forbid, dark makeup? What makes this actress' racial identity so illegitimate, so inauthentic and so far from blackness that she would need to don an 'afro-wig' and 'dark makeup'? Why can't a 'cafe au lait' complected, 'Afro-Latina' Zoe 'bring the pain'??

So, as you can see, I've been all kinds of mixed up. And it's taken me a few weeks to write this.

I've poured over countless drafts and have had one too many late night conversations with any dear friend that will listen about why the "Zoe-Nina" debate has got me sick and damn tired. I've read countless articles and opinion posts (the most critical and well-executed being Nicole Moore's article quote above and this article by Emmanual Akitobi.) And while I agreed with much of what was being said, I felt like not enough was being said about some of the vitriol being spewed in the other direction against a largely anonymous, generalized mass of  "light-skinned women" and "multiracial women" that were being accused of erasing blackness. I also felt that while the blogosphere lent itself to making sure many voices were heard and people could address the controversy head-on, it was also creating a space where no further meaningful discussion could be had because the reaction especially from black women was, understandably, visceral and swift.

I've swung back and forth between saying what's on my mind or holding  (read: policing) my tongue because I understand profoundly that colorism is real-- that light-skinned privilege is real--that talking about colorism as a black woman hurts and  that talking about light-skinned privilege as a mixed woman is treading dangerously through a painful minefield.

While I love me some Zoe Saldana, I'd be the first to say I'm very doubtful she would live up to the role.  I do believe that Hollywood has a serious and disturbing color problem.  And I do believe that lighter black actresses, are more palatable to a gaze that has yet to confront its own oppressive and marginalizing tendencies (read: its white supremacist nature)-- and no where is that more keenly felt than on the body of dark-skinned black women. 
Adepero Oduye
Paula Patton
Viola Davis
But let's not bash the actresses. In discussions about the debate, along with Saldana, actresses Jacqueline Flemming, Paula Patton, Thandie Newton and Halle Berry have been grouped as the ostensive "Wannabes" against actresses like Adepero Oduye, Viola Davis, Anika Noni Rose, and singers India Arie and Lauryn Hill who have all been suggested as recasting alternatives for the Simone film.

What I find interesting is that all of the actresses in the first group would have been called black just a a few short years ago and now they are being called "bi-racial" and "light-skinned" to differentiate them for "real black" women.  All of these women at one point or another have identified themselves as black, some even clearly stating they are NOT MULTIRACIAL. 

Ultimately, no matter what shade we are, we're still pawns in a system that doesn't value or respect blackness-- its beauty, its history or its incredible diversity. And, the very fact we're  having this conversation is because black women (whether we're dark or we're fair) are still scrambling for scraps and an equal place at the table. 
And light skin does not have to be inherently anti-black. In the United States, it is a reality and a reminder that white blood and mixed blood have been an inextricable part of black history. Let's not forget that the one-drop rule was made to confront multiraciality and to police light skin. And today the value on lighter and bright is no less an instrument of the same system-- just a different manifestation. It has been used as a tool to divide and marginalize black folk. And that's where my heart kinda breaks a little. Let's dismantle the system, not each other.** 

** There is a strong petition in calling on Jimmy Iovine and Cynthia Mort to recast Saldana and what I really appreciate is that it explicitly makes it about the system and not Saldana. 
In 1966, the woman born Eunice Kathleen Waymon did indeed write 'The Four Women'. It was a song about the realities and pain of black womanhood. Each of the four women was a different shade-- black, yellow, tan and brown.  Their collective and individual pain was just as real... And each was just as black as the next.

My skin is black My arms are longMy hair is woolly My back is strong Strong enough to take the pain Inflicted again and again What do they call me My name is Aunt Sarah My name is Aunt Sarah Aunt Sarah 

My skin is yellow My hair is long Between two worlds I do belong My father was rich and white He forced my mother late one night What do they call me My name is Saffronia My name is Saffronia 

My skin is tan My hair is fine My hips invite you My mouth like wine Whose little girl am I? Anyone who has money to buy What do they call me My name is Sweet Thing My name is Sweet Thing 

 My skin is brown And my manner is tough I'll kill the first mother I see My life has to been rough I'm awfully bitter these days Because my parents were slaves What do they call me My name is PEACHES

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Hypervisible Man: Obama as the First Black, Mixed-Race, Asian American and now Gay President

“I have always sensed that he [Obama] intuitively understands gays and our predicament—because it so mirrors his own. And he knows how the love and sacrifice of marriage can heal, integrate, and rebuild a soul. The point of the gay-rights movement, after all, is not about helping people be gay. It is about creating the space for people to be themselves. This has been Obama’s life’s work. And he just enlarged the space in this world for so many others, trapped in different cages of identity, yearning to be released and returned to the families they love and the dignity they deserve.”  -Andrew Sullivan, "The First Gay President" Newsweek

I admit, I've missed quite a bit being oceans and continents away from the US of A. But one watershed moment managed to reach my little apartment in Udaipur last week as I was sipping my morning chai. Front page of the Times of India was Obama's declaration of support for marriage equality. Between you and I, I was always of the camp that believed Obama's previous stance was no more than a mere (albeit calculated and predictable) front to protect his political hide as the over-hyped newbie presidential candidate. Seems my sentiments were shared by Andrew Sullivan in his cover article in this week's edition of Newsweek, which featured the above image and the headline "The First Gay President."

Reading Sullivan's article, I remembered a talk I attended at Oberlin College for Asian Pacific American Month in 2010 where the speaker's last slide was entitled "The First Asian-American President" beneath two photographs of Obama, one as a child in Indonesia and one hugging his sister Maya Soetoro-Ng at his high school graduation in Hawaii. The speaker insisted that Obama's early childhood spent in Indonesia with  his mother and stepfather, his youth spent in Hawaii, his identity as a hyphen American, and immigrant son made his experience akin to that of many Asian-Americans and thus earned him the title "First Asian-American President." And in those terms it totally made sense. Obama could be Asian-American. Obama's identity lends itself quite easily to repeated acts of reading and (re)interpretation. Though he's self-identified as African-American, many still call him "The First Multiracial President." Because it matters much less what Obama thinks of himself than what we the people think of him--what images we project onto his being.

In my course, I used Obama's story, his identity as a tool to understand how multiraciality contains multitudes and how a multiracial critique could be instrumental in breaking down monolithic notions of identity. So I encouraged students to talk about multiraciality as part of black identities, as part of Asian-American identities, Latin@, Native, White, adoptee and queer identities. If anything multiraciality benefits a great deal from a queer critique-- queering race. And there's increasingly more out there in Academe that works at the rich intersection. That being said, I still found myself a bit surprised to see such a bold act of race queering on the cover of a mainstream American publication such as Newsweek.

I don't know if Sullivan was quite sure that he was actively queering race as he compared Obama's racial exodus to the experiences of queer folk. And while I think using a queer critique as a tool is vital to destabilizing notions of identity, it's also crucial to understand that "gay" and "queer" are highly political and politicized words and not colorful labels you tag willy-nilly. So just as it was kinda cute to say Clinton was the "First Black President," (no one, least of all black folk, really believed that), so to, does Obama's new title only serve its true function as symbolism if not just mere sentiment.

The article linking Obama's racial identity to queer experiences does give me hope for a shift in the conversation not just regarding marriage equality but to that notion I'm often going on about: our identities are fluid, y'all. Full stop.

Whether Obama is reelected for a second term, whether he goes down in history as a saint or a villain, a triumph or a failure, one thing is for certain: Obama's legacy will be marked by his symbolic currency. It is a Obama's ability to quite literally absorb our nation's imaginings, our own distinct senses of belonging/and yet not belonging, into his words and onto his "mixed/queer" body and weave it back into his life story and identity that makes him most powerful. I'd like to see you try to do that, Mitt Romney.

The Newsweek cover image itself warrants a little playful analysis: our still disarmingly debonair, now-seasoned President, appearing a little grayer, brow now gently (though, I fear permanently) furrowed, gazing stoically off into some unknown distance. What I find most intriguing is that rainbow halo floating proudly in a glow above his head. Obama as saint, Obama as martyr-icon, potentially committing a yet to be determined act of political suicide/sacrifice?  The halo- perhaps a crown marking his coronation by the queer community?....

Frankly, I think Obama's not in any real danger at this point. A little recklessness would do him a world of good. If anything, that glowing halo will serve the newly sainted/crowned Obama well in the upcoming election, helping him cement the support of the increasingly apathetic millenials who are credited for his sweeping 2008 win, and of course the mainstream gay community whose monetary backing is crucial. But let's not talk politics. For perhaps most significantly, once again, his words, his actions, his body, have changed the national conversation. Obama as symbol, Obama as icon, Obama as chameleon, Obama as both perpetual canvas and national mirror will long outlive Obama as politician...Obama as mere president.

From Newsweek, "The First Gay President" May 21, 2012

"[T]here is something on this subject [marriage equality] with Obama that goes deeper in my view than cold, calculating politics and a commitment to civil rights. The core gay experience throughout history has been displacement, a sense of belonging and yet not belonging. Gays are born mostly into heterosexual families and discover as they grow up that, for some reason, they will never be able to have a marriage like their parents’ or their siblings’. They know this before they can tell anyone else, even their parents. This sense of subtle alienation—of loving your own family while feeling excluded from it—is something all gay children learn. They sense something inchoate, a separateness from their peers, a subtle estrangement from their families, the first sharp pangs of shame. And then, at some point, they find out what it all means. In the past, they often would retreat and withdraw, holding a secret they couldn’t even share with their parents—living as an insider outsider.

“And this, in a different way, is Obama’s life story as well. He was a black kid brought up by white grandparents and a white single mother in Hawaii and Indonesia, where his color really made no difference. He discovered his otherness when reading an old issue of Life magazine, which had a feature on African-Americans who had undergone an irreversible bleaching treatment to make them look white—because they believed being white was the only way to be happy. . . .
“Barack Obama had to come out of a different closet. He had to discover his black identity and then reconcile it with his white family, just as gays discover their homosexual identity and then have to reconcile it with their heterosexual family. . . .

“This is the gay experience: the discovery in adulthood of a community not like your own home and the struggle to belong in both places, without displacement, without alienation. It is easier today than ever. But it is never truly without emotional scar tissue. Obama learned to be black the way gays learn to be gay. . . ."