Sunday, August 10, 2008
On the Right to Claim One's Own Identity
It seems appropriate that I found the picture for this post on a police site in reference to "identity theft." Obviously, they meant it in terms of fraudulently using another person's information to steal, whereas this post is about race - but is there really that much difference in how people see it?
As a bi-racial person that walks in the "gray area" between races, I have elected to choose how I identify myself, racially, based on my various experiences and how my life has played out as a result of those experiences. On a general level, I call myself, simply "mixed." Being more specific, I will tell people I am "bi-racial, with a white dad and Chinese mother." If really pressed on the issue to decide my final word on my racial identity: I am a mixed-race Asian-American.
Just to clarify - that last "identity" I wrote up there? That's one thing. It's a specific racial experience. The "mixed" part of it speaks to my physical ambiguity and the subsequent variations in racial treatment I have received from others. The "Asian-American" part of it speaks to my specific cultural connection to my Chinese side (and my subsequent "priority" of representing and bringing up Asian-Americans in this country). Put it together, and that's what I am.
Because, of course, neither one on its own fully speaks to who I am/what my experience has been. I'm mixed/bi-racial, but so is Barack Obama, and I would hesitate to say that we share a whole lot in terms of racial experiences. Sure, we could probably have a nice chat about the "gray area" and all that, but there would be a huge piece lacking for both of us in that conversation. And that's where the included "Asian-American" aspect comes in. Because that's what changes the experience from a generalized "mixed" blanket (which is so very wide) to my more specific situation.
And there have been debates upon debates in the media and elsewhere about this: is Obama "black" or "bi-racial"? All I can say to this is - obviously, all the people having this "debate" (I'd argue that it's pretty one-sided by both parties) are no mixed or bi-racial. Because there is no debate at all - he's a bi-racial black man. Period.
This "one or the other" crap is so decidedly mono-racial and close-minded. It again illustrates how hard it is for people to believe in or trust an experience different from their own. Mono-racial white folks think that this claim denigrates Obama's white mother. Mono-racial black folks think his claims to bi-raciality are "selling out." As a result, both sides mistrust his "intentions" in the claims he makes. All I can say to those folks is: yours is not the only racial experience. There is so much more out there that you have no clue about, and I respectfully ask you to open your eyes and mind to other possibilities.
Because Obama has clearly paid respect to his white side. And he has equally made clear that he is aware - personally - of the black experience and means to do something about that. It's not one or the other. It's both. That's the beauty of those of us in the middle - we have no need to "play sides" or "have it both ways" because we can't. We're equally of both sides and fully neither at the same time.
It never fails to blow my mind how often mono-racial people (of any race) like to try to tell me how I should identify. Those very same anti-racists that would tell others never to assume or pretend that they "know" what another racial experience is like are the same ones who - often - tell me "what I am." Nobody wants to claim us mixed folks until it's convenient - and to that, I say, "back off."*
Now, am I arguing that anybody can choose to identify themselves however they want, racially? Hell no. I had a conversation with a white friend once, and he asked me how I thought of myself, racially, so I replied, "Well, I definitely don't consider myself 'white.'" To that he responded, "I totally know what you mean - I don't consider myself white, either." Record-scratch - WHAT!!!???
If you're white, you're white. I don't care how many different "mixes" of European ancestry you have - you're still "white." If you live and breathe white privilege, it's not okay to take that privilege one step further to try to take on a different race. There is white culture, and just because it's not "exotic" enough for some people doesn't give them a right to steal other ones.
Whoo! And that general rule applies to everybody else - if an ethnicity isn't in your blood, then you can't claim it. I've been thought to be Latino many times - but I sure as Hell wouldn't claim to be Latino, even if that was the majority of my experience. I blend in with native Hawaiians and some Native American tribes more so than my actual racial precursors, but that doesn't make it mine.
So - racial claims must be rooted in blood and experience. It is an insult to all people of color to think it works otherwise. Stealing is no way to respect another way of being.
And so we bring it back full-circle to the issue of identity theft - in short, if it's not yours, don't claim it. If you have to make a circuitous argument to back a racial claim, then - likely - it's not yours to claim. As for us mixed folks - as our mixed-blood dictates, we are a combination of racial experiences, so let's just put an end to non-mixed claims to the contrary right now, okay?
* I'd actually use more choice words, but I'm feeling "teacherly" right now and don't feel that swearing is appropriate.