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.