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. 

14 comments:

  1. Yaba Blay is promoting the "one drop" myth because she is (1) jealous and wishes to God she were whiter and (2) trying to force whites and other non-blacks into her "race" kicking and screaming. She is not for freedom of choice. She promotes the "freedom" to pretend to be "black" only and nothing else.

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    1. No, she is kicking them out because they are not black. You cannot choose your race if both parents are white you are white. If you have two different race parents you are biracial and not black. Black is not a decision, but a race and identity. White people don't let biracial people claim white. You know there are some black people who are authentic blacks and want to stay that way don't want watered down non-black people representing us. And when black people say the same thing other races say we are being unreasonable. Rasheda Jones is not the same as Lupita. These people were never in our race to begin with. They are not part of the black community or do they care about black community problems. Where are they in any march or issue?

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  2. I don't know or pretend to know what Yaba Blay's personal reasons for taking on this project are. I think when looking at a text or an artistic project, the intentions of the creator become irrelevant at a certain point as readers and viewers undertake the very important process of making meaning and interpreting what's before them. I only know what appears in the book. To me, I interpret it as being about freedom of self-identifying (or choice) and about challenging faulty notions of what "black" looks like or means. Furthermore, by having images of a diverse group of individuals I think the work also invites us question what "white" and "Asian" and "Latin@," etc. mean as well. The book doesn't seem to be promoting the one-drop rule as gospel truth that must be abided by, but taking it on as an prime example of the constructedness of race and the reality of its fluidity. Perhaps, some other writer and photographer may get together some day and make a book called "White" where people who may not "look" white self-identify as such and we can add that to the conversation as something equally valid and worthy of dialogue and critique.

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  3. Nicole,

    Welcome back to the blogsphere! I miss your insightful observations. This is a great piece.

    Yaba Blay's project is a wonderful project and Zun Lee's narrative in the "(1)ne Drop" (pages 90-93) are the most poignant in the book. I hope you will pick up a copy.

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    1. By the way, there is a lot MORE to Lee's narrative than his first paragraph.

      Keep up the good work!

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    2. Thanks Steve!! As always, I so appreciate your support and insights! I have my very own copy and found Zun Lee's narrative to be really compelling and critical.

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    3. It would be nice if there were no boxes and people were identified by there character but that is my own fantasy world. If he wants to identify himself as black because it is the most comfortable description for him so be it, as long as he understands, in most societies especially the U.S. it is not always in your best interest to claim you are black. As for someone stating he will never be mistaken for black, just know he may not be mistaken for black but there are black people who just happen to look asian, I say do what makes you feel comfortable, but know you may pay a heavy price for your comfort.

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  4. *thumbs down* too much nonsense in the article.. if zun is half black.. that is his business how he identifies.. the article talks about letting people identify as they see fit..and then the author tries to force her pov about someones racial identity.. just odd... bump the "people of color" nonsense... bump the lumping non black people into the black struggle.. and bump this article.. lol. as far as light skinned privilege.. i would love to read the authors explanation of that in 2014...

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  5. This is a good article, addressing some of the issues of the fluidity of identities in relation to subjectivities and context. It feeds into the conversation of identities as an abstract yet very tangible social construct, as well as to the issues of performativity (j.butler) and relationships of audience/character/subject and relationships between the social, political and historical.

    Lingers the question of what identities would be like in a system where oppression and hierarchization do not exist or have been left behind. The possibility of claiming a common human identity and after an identity that is not as politicized but instead appreciated as part of the human experience and diversity. Unfortunately, this sounds utopic and problematic, as the historical processes of oppresion and exclusion are not to be disk acknowledged so as not to dis-empower these ( currently and historically ) marginalized-oppressed identities.

    Definitely lots of questions but perhaps some hope as what stands out is that there are no fixed boundaries but blurry and elastic ones...

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  6. I've read a million articles taking on this question, and this by far is the one that resonates best with me. Thanks for putting it out there.

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  7. thank you for writing this. it feels necessary, critical, and coming from a deconstructive relationship to race, rather than a moralistic one. please keep writing pieces with this kind of commitment to interrogating how we collectively keep these issues in conversation with each other.

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  8. Thank you so much for this. I had my own responses to these complex issues, which I wrote about on my blog:

    http://chico-moreno.tumblr.com/post/75589585838/intervening-on-racism-and-privilege-easy-as-1-2-3

    It's so important that we not reduce experiences of racism to skin color and experiences of interpersonal racism. Structural and institutional forces have shaped what is possible for us through the generations. While the visual elements of race do play a large role in so many moments, I appreciate your developing a much more nuanced perspective on these issues. So many thanks.

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  9. I'm old enough to remember when black folk had a tradition of accepting anyone who sincerely embraced black culture and wanted to self-identify as black. One drop - even ZERO drop was fine with us. The best example of this was R&B legend Johnny Otis. He chose to live in Watts, he married a black woman, made black music and preached in a black church. He wanted to be black and we were happy to have him. I'm not sure the present generation is as accepting, but I hope so.

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