Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Since when is African-American a race and other thoughts on racial politics

This is perhaps a roundabout away of getting to my point, but I was reading an article by field negro on Tiger Woods today, which led me to a variety of other articles on race. One in particular by Carmen Van Kerckhove, I found particularly perplexing.

Van Kerckhove self-identifies as Chinese and Dutch. Umm. Carmen, dear. Neither of those are races, but nationalities. That Van Kerchkhove would "nitpick" about race when she self-identifies by her ancestors' national origin is just plain wacky. Which brings me to my next odd example of race in America.

I recently was asked to sign a contract which asked for my racial identity. I was perplexed by the selection. The options were:

African American
Native American
Mixed race

Since when did African American get to be a race? That term has only been around for about 20 years! I am 46 years old and I can remember when black people, regardless of nationality, were referred to as Negroes. At some point in the 60s, Negro was thought of as condescending. So then it was Black. Then it became Black American. Now, it's African American. As if all black Americans are of African origin. I'll be honest. There have been times when I have thought that these shifting ideas about what to call POC was merely a way to prevent white Americans from having any sort of voice in the race discussion. As long as you can shout down the majority group by making them feel prejudiced for daring to open their mouths, you own the direction and tenor of the discussion. Bad form, I say.

The black community seems to think that Tiger isn't black enough. At least, that's my take on it. He doesn't date black women. He doesn't seem to want to be "one of them". I don't have any problem with Tiger's behavior. Tiger self-identifies as Cablinasian (Caucasian, Black, American Indian, and Asian). I sort of like it that he hasn't allowed anyone to own him, racially speaking. I think we should let people be what they want to be. If they don't agree with our ideas of race, so be it.

If we are to split hairs, and since this is my blog I will, shouldn't the options more appropriately be:

Mixed-race with primarily Caucasoid features
Mixed-race with primarily Negroid features
Mixed-race with primarily Mongoloid features
Mixed-race with primarily Australoid features
Mixed race without categorical dominance

I'm just saying. I don't know that I have the answer about how best to identify race in the first place. Aren't we all "Out of Africa"? There is no scientifically meaningful way to describe race. Race is, whatever we want it to be. I think I'm going to start self-identifying as mixed race. After all, my ancestors include some colorful people.

Of course, my comments are not meant to belittle the experiences of persons of color who have been actively discriminated against based on racial prejudices. But when I read a recent blog post on Feministing wherein people say that if a minority calls me an epithet, it's just being rude, but if I call a minority an epithet, it's a hate crime, I wonder how f*#@'d up our ideas about race have really become.

It would seem that Tiger Woods, a mixed-race individual, has had several affairs, all with white women. field negro appears to think that white America has given Tiger a wake-up call to the effect that his ass is actually black. I never actually thought of Tiger as black. I thought of him as Asian. I guess this is my prejudice. He looks more Asian than black to me. But it is almost as if we demand that some racial group own him lock, stock, and barrel.

Like Tiger, we are not all black or all white. We are not all white culture or all black culture. I think that the "black experience" in America has been well enough known to me that it has influenced who I am and how I look at myself. Yes, I have had black Americans treat me as though I had a sheet hanging in my closet because I am from Appalachia. Weren't they surprised to learn how far that was from the truth.

We are a human race. Our blood flows into and between us all. I'm not prepared to throw Tiger Woods or anyone else under the bus based on their skin color, racial identity, or sexual proclivities. Tiger is a man. He has to deal with his stupid shit, same as you and I do. I would suggest that race has very little to do with his current issues. Money and fame make everyone colorblind.


  1. Wow. I'm kind of surprised to read this from you at this point, D. Sooooo many things. I agree with you that Carmen VK's racial identification is imprecise, but racial identification is by nature (as you point out) imprecise. Many, many countries have considered themselves to be races unto themselves, and they can't be said to be wrong any more than they're right.

    "There have been times when I have thought that these shifting ideas about what to call POC was merely a way to prevent white Americans from having any sort of voice in the race discussion. As long as you can shout down the majority group by making them feel prejudiced for daring to open their mouths, you own the direction and tenor of the discussion. Bad form, I say."

    My jaw HIT the floor here. Let us say, at best, I think you over-estimate the extent to which "People of Color" think/care about what the majority does. That is, while "proper" identity terms have been at times used quite certainly to make others feel prejudiced, I would basically scream out loud that that is not why they were developed. They were developed, in my educated amateur-ish opinion, because after black Americans finally got a fucking VOTE in what we would be called by majority culture, which was only 40+ years ago, we had and have trouble figuring out what it should be. It shifts constantly as we try to find our identity constantly, and debate what we want to emphasize, own, spurn, celebrate, face up to in terms of the willy-nilly thing that is "black culture" in the US. Race, and culture, are impossible to precisely define, but I would definitely say there is a "pole" around which the African-American/black culture centers, and a "pole" for majoritarian culture, primarily the culture of those who don't necessarily have to give explicit thought to race. (There are of course many other poles, especially for the other large racial minorities, but let's confine ourselves for the moment.) That is to say, and I'm trying not to be shrill here, but honey, the terms black, Negro, Colored, African American, Afro-American, Black-American and others are not about you. We're not shifting around to annoy you (the bulk you--majoritarian culture), we're shifting around because we want a term that will do the impossible.

    Let me give you a brief parallel: so, I work on food. I recently listened to a talk by the fantastic manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council, Wayne Roberts. He pointed out that the term "food security" lacked an immediacy and confused people, especially post-9/11. The accepted definition of food security is something like "access by all people at all times to enough and appropriate food for a healthy and active lifestyle", but post-9/11 people think more in terms of "secure from attack." Hunger and malnutrition are neither sufficient because they don't inherently entail the issue of access (the prevalent, by far, cause of hunger/malnutrition/food insecurity); food sovereignty is a growing term but lacks common currency in the Global North, over-emphasizes an ideal of the nation-state, isn't clear as to what group is the appropriate unit of "sovereignty", etc. Similar problems evolve from "food democracy." All this is to say, there is no one term that can encompass what we need to encompass within food justice circles. We can't all agree, and the terms in favor shift all the time. We're not doing this, certainly, to keep people from understanding or speaking about food. We're doing it because it's impossible to have the "one right term." The same is true, if not more so, for terms for racial groups.

  2. Then you go into the "we're all human" and "we're all mixed race" and "we're all out of Africa." Well, those things are all true, but the years of research debunking a deep biological meaning for race simply mean that its primary importance and meaning comes from the social. And just because something is socially defined doesn't mean it's not real, it's just different in kind than a strict biophysical property. "Race" is a social construct; but then so are the identities "Christian", "Hindu", "Atheist" "Agnostic" "Democrat" "Republican" "Anarchist" "Bat-shit Crazy Follower of Ayn Rand's Fucked Up Ideas." Yet we'd never argue that "there's no such thing as Christians", or "look, all religious beliefs and lack thereof originate from humanity's inability to know and understand everything; I'm going to say we're ALL agnostic because all faith or conviction against faith hinges on the problem of 'a-gnostia' (the word I just made up meaning "a state of not-knowing")".

    I mean, yes, of course it's important for us to emphasize, identify with, realize and cherish our shared humanity. And race is not all-defining and should not be; even under slavery, race was not *all* that a human being was, master or slave (though it did determine, if you were a slave, nearly all of how you would be seen by others one could argue). The fact that we share a common ancestor is relatively immaterial to all this, because as you imply the biology of it all is a red herring.

    By debunking the red herring, you haven't really said much about the actual import of the situation I'm afraid. Tiger's deal is a complicated one, and the race aspect originates in a combination of internalization/indoctrination and earlier solidarity. That is, the rules under slavery were "one drop of black blood makes you black". Impossible to enforce in real life, of course, but certainly true in terms of if a black ancestor could be reasonably identified for you, you were automatically not white. If you were fair-skinned and, say, had some kind of social status, and it wasn't your father or mother but perhaps grand or great-grand that was black, you might hold onto not being a slave or total second-class citizen. But first class was closed to you.

    Well, a couple hundred years of that attitude, and African Americans/black (which I use interchangeably for blacks within the US) internalized a lot of it. Self-policing means that if you have, let us say, "some drops", and (primarily these days) some subset of typically black phenotypes, you are considered "black." There is/has been a lot of push-back from mixed race people, but let us remember that openly mixed-race kids has only stopped being of some significant degree of social note in your own lifetime, I'd think.

    As far as "I read a recent blog post on Feministing wherein people say that if a minority calls me an epithet, it's just being rude, but if I call a minority an epithet, it's a hate crime, I wonder how f*#@'d up our ideas about race have really become", I thought we'd already had this conversation. But in any case, I alluded to my opinion of this here and more directly here. I'm heavily indebted to this essay by Stanley Fish. I disagree with much in the article, but not with the overall point here: "The hostility of the other group is the result of [racist] actions, and whereas hostility and racial anger are unhappy facts wherever they are found, a distinction must surely be made between the ideological hostility of the oppressors and the experience-based hostility of those who have been oppressed." The details of this formulation may be more arguable in a world where oppression is more subtle, but its substantial truth, I think, remains.

  3. It seems to me your panties got rightly in a knot over some of the foolishness around Tiger. That foolishness, however, doesn't invalidate all race, just as the East Anglia data set debacle doesn't invalidate Global Climate Change. We may be much closer to a world where "Money and fame make everyone colorblind", but we are not there. Money and fame makes a lot appear colorblind, and we are perhaps closer to that than the world of the joke "What do you call a black, Harvard-educated bank president?" Ans: "A nigger"; but we are no more wholly in the wealth & fame colorblind world than we are wholly in the one of the joke.