At the end of October, my partner and I went to get our marriage license. As with all governmental processes, The Man wanted us to tell him our race. When it was my turn, I turned to my partner to ask which box should I check this time. These things are always a real annoyance for me. Poor man shrugged his shoulders and the clerk apologized for the limited nature of the categories that I had to choose from. After looking together at the list again, we settled on “non-white other.” I’ll get to why I settled, with much ambivalence, on this one as the category that suited me best in that moment.
I have to tell you though church, I’ve been running away from writing this particular post about racial identification, much like Jonah ran from delivering the word of God’s judgment to Nineveh. If you are me, you are so properly tired of thinking about, talking about, teaching about, and writing about race, your second book project has been devised entirely around one imperative: this will not be about race. I’ve wondered about the continued relevance of saying racial categorization is problematic. Isn’t it kinda like beating a dead horse? Hasn’t everything about the problems with official categories of race been written about ad nauseum? I’ve wondered about utility. What’s the point? It’s not like I have anything new to add or anything resembling a solution to the continued limitations of the persistent necessity of racial categorization. It is not like I have come up with a theory to stall once and for all the way race continues to function in pejorative and discriminatory ways. But I’ve had more than a couple “come to Jesus” moments since the first time this topic of official racial reporting got lodged in my brain three weeks ago. While the message here is not apocalyptic like the one Jonah had, so I don’t end up in the belly of a fish – to push the metaphor – lets talk about the problems I have had with racial identity since I moved to America in 2001 and became black.
The first come to Jesus moment that got this post percolating in my mind arrived a couple weeks ago when my ladies threw me a Bollywood themed bridal shower. The instructions they gave me as I travelled to Miami for the shower was to pack something fabulous for the bachelorette, a pair of nice shoes, and they would take care of the rest. At the shower, I was presented with a bridal sari and jewelry, and they even had a henna artist on hand to do designs on me and the other shower guests. Lovely, no? They made me cry because I felt all the feels and it was just beautiful. But here’s why I raise this as a thing that got me thinking about how America races me: Bollywood wasn’t entirely a fun party theme that my friends and family appropriated on my behalf. It is within our realm of familial experience because my father is of East Indian descent and his family did not begin marrying outside of their race until his generation. While they procured all the elements for the shower, my ladies knew it would be important to me not to appropriate in fetishistic ways a culture that was not entirely mine, and guarded against that by asking people who knew where the boundaries were. Though my father was born of parents who were themselves born of people who travelled to the Caribbean from India, my bridal shower last month, which also went down on my 35th birthday, was the first time in my life I had worn a sari.
Obviously, there was some work that went into draping the thing though; like roti-kneading, I’m guessing sari-draping is a thing you begin to learn when you are young, at the hands of a no-nonsense maternal figure. There was no one like this in anyone of my bridal party’s lives, and so they watched YouTube videos, the woman who sold them the sari gave them tutorials. You see, none of our mixed-race Jamaican rainbow coalition actually learned anything substantial about the ethnic traditions of the parts of our families who arrived in the Caribbean, after the emancipation of slavery, in the nineteenth century. This ignorance is not generalizable for all mixed-race Jamaican (or Caribbean) nationals, but it does exist among my cohort of friends. While the manifestations of our mixed-ness (hair and complexion mostly) functioned as elements of social class privilege that guaranteed we were doted on and adored in a Caribbean society deeply fissured by colorism, other facets of our East Indian or Chinese cultural heritage (language and religion for example) disappeared from our familial cultural practices. This is in part due to British colonial prerogatives that used things like Christian conversion and English language acquisition as pre-requisites for education and civil service or other white-collar employment. This went as far as the Anglicization of names, which explains why my family name is as traditionally English as, say, the surname Cooper. In our surname alone, it is easy to see how rather than maintain ties to the Indian culture they came with, decisions were made to go with the hegemonic flow, as the history books tell me, for social and economic advancement, while making life in the British West Indies.
I started to think about the consequences of some of those decisions at my bridal shower when the henna artist said immediately as she came through the door, and took in my very bare midriff, “come, let me drape your sari properly.” She’s an Indian national, and an observant Muslim, who threaded my eyebrows during the Miami years. She missed evening prayers to stay and celebrate with me through a meal, games, presents, and so much big loud laughter. Her “proper” wrapping covered my midriff. My Trinidadian friend, who was raised by her Indian grandmother, who she called Nanny, like my father called his grandmother, concurred at the end of the night, “she draped it the conservative way.” I linger here on clothing and who has knowledge about how to wear a piece of clothing associated with a specific ethnic culture – depending on their relations with ancestral traditions and histories – to think also about how much of who we are gets erased by colonial history and national narratives. So much so that though our bodies bear genealogical imprints of other ethnicities, many of us have no cultural memory of these identities that got filtered out to create idealized versions of English outposts or later, in the case of the late-twentieth century Caribbean, postcolonial nations. Come to Jesus moment #2 arrived when a J-School student asked to interview me about my experience of being a black professor in the wake of Ferguson. We did the interview when I got back to the Midwest after my weekend of bridal festivities. The henna was still fresh on both my hands.
And then, we migrate to the US and encounter an entirely different set of erasures concerning our racial and ethnic identities. This became apparent the week before last, when two middle school students in Illinois, who are Jamaican, asked a substitute teacher to stop referring to them as African American (come to Jesus moment #3). Eight-grader Mia Thompson told Raw Story,
“All four of us that were sitting there got offended because none of us are from Africa, … I’m Jamaican. So we said, ‘can you please not call us that?’” “She continued to call us that and said, ‘It’s the politically correct term.’ Then she said, ‘Well, back then you guys would be considered the N-word.’”
Oh yes, church, you read right. Even though teacher added what she perceives to be the politically correct term for black people in America, American and non-American, she had no qualms about deploying the epithet it was supposedly meant to diffuse/replace. We also have to contend with the request to not be called African American. It almost certainly reverberates with age old animosities between West Indians and African Americans. The former in pre-Civil Rights days often received preferential treatment as model minorities (places in all-white northern universities where African Americans were refused places for example) to make a show of racial progress. Though these Jamaicans’ refusal of African American as an identifier may also resonate with a refusal to accept what is understood as an embattled and discriminated against identification, one that is also freighted with historical rejections, that is a matter for another post. I see it and will return to it, but in the meantime my concern here is the teacher’s too easy slippage between African American and the N-word.
Here’s the thing, ladies and gentlemen. I think this example makes clear how a mere lexical change doesn’t magically effect a change in the prejudiced perspective that belies the designator. Nothing makes this clearer to me than the un-nuanced sense that African American continues to be deployed as a politically correct way of designating blackness universally, American or otherwise. While absolutely not equal in epithetic quality, an ignorance of the complexities of individual personhood similar to the one that underlies the use of the N-word is also attendant with an indiscriminate deployment of African American in the name of political correctness.
The trouble for me is in the necessity and continued utility of naming or designating racialized identities in the first place. There is a world of history in the necessity for categorizing people according to race and the fact that this continues to be a facet of our existence today – 600 years after the beginning of European global expansion and Europeans’ first encounters with people of color– bothers me deeply. Changing designators (negro to black to African American to black to person of color back to black) once the term du jour begins to acquire the pejorative weight of whichever designator that preceded it – you know the one that it was supposed to replace and in turn fix problems of racial discrimination forever amen – doesn’t fundamentally change anything about the reality of being a raced subject in America or elsewhere. There is a clear (to me at least) irony in affixing African American as a racial, rather than a national designator in order to achieve political correctness, while at the same time fundamentally erasing the national and cultural identities of the people this designation is thrust upon. What this involves is the projection of a specific history of racial politics seeded in slavery and rooted in Jim Crow onto subjects who happen to be black, but who may nonetheless have no experiences genealogically or otherwise with forms of institutionalized racism like slavery or Jim Crow. This is not to say these subjects’ spaces of origin are bereft of institutionalized discrimination (racial or otherwise), but far too much is arrogantly elided in the one size fits all model that is the category Black/African American. It involves a lack of consideration for anything that is not a part of America’s story of race. It precludes mutual understanding among people of color about the reality of variance; it hinders all actual conceptualizations of what diversity materially means. Ultimately, it perpetuates an oppressive apparatus, functioning on the level of language that renders the specific invisible via effacing overgeneralization, and in turn also leaves systems of discrimination invisible and unscathed.
So, what does this mean for me, a mixed-race Jamaican woman, who last week (come to Jesus and write the post moment #4) gets an email with neither salutation nor closing from the HR department at her place of employment, an R1 University, asking her to voluntarily declare her race? Below are the options provided: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and White. As a government contractor, the university uses this self-reported information to officially document its institutional diversity. To my mind though, besides being offensive in its lack of any realistic sense of what diversity means in the twenty-first century, none of the categories it included give any indication of the actual diversity of my mixed race Jamaican person. Thus I elected not to report. That I have chosen invisibility is not lost on me, but what am I to do when the choice is between invisibility and effacement? What am I expected to do with my East Indian patrimony when reporting as Black or African American? Why is an ancestral history rooted in transatlantic enslavement the only thing that continues to matter about my identity in the twenty-first century?
This doesn’t mean that the availability of “non-white other” as a category at the marriage license counter was much better. At the very least though, it left things open for encompassing whatever the hell it is that I wanted to declare myself; like Raven-Symoné, lets eschew all things identity with some peacock colored hair. Fun and jokes aside, however, the problem with “non-white other” is that it perpetuates whiteness as the hegemonic standard against which all “others” are measured. It is all
kinds of bullshit that that is more appealing than the category “Black or African American.” Both are neocolonial in different ways, but at least one is not a self-effacing designator masquerading under the cloak of the ironically political correct.
This is not some Raven-Symoné “colorless” bullshit either though, so please don’t get me wrong. I understand why she does not want to be defined solely by her genealogical connection to the enslavement of Africans, but rather by the American connections that she can trace; why she doesn’t want to be known by her sexuality either, but simply by her nationality, American. Where she errs, I think, is in thinking that an eschewing of blackness as it is rooted in Africa – slavery to be specific – is the route to achieving this. To be clear, I am not about rejecting any facets of myself. Rather, I mourn the things that were lost to assimilation at so many junctures in my genealogy, and thus eschew institutional confinement to only one facet of myself. It effaces too much. I’ve already lost too much. I can’t roll a thin flaky roti to save my life. I can’t drape a sari. I don’t know what my family’s name was, just two generations ago.