Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Hyphenated Racial Identities

I figure since I don't feel like sleeping and I've been knee-deep in Asian readings all day, I can discuss a little of what I've been reading and meaning to write about now. One such topic that I've been promising for a while now is hyphenated racial identities, and now I'm going to do my best to give you my thoughts on that.

If you'll notice, I don't use terms such as "African American" or "Asian American." I say "black," "white," "Asian" and "Latino." As a black person, I cringe when I hear or read "African American," though I feel like people use that term out of some PC notion that that's the nice, proper way to refer to a black person. People think they're doing a good thing by referring to blacks that way, basically. But I never hear or read it without pausing and thinking about what I'm about to write in this blog post...and when I hear it, I have to fight an urge to "correct" a (usually) white person. As I understand it--and I could be wrong--there are Latinos out there who oppose the term "Latino" or "Latin(o) American"...and I view people's use of that term ("Latin(o) American," anyway) in a similar way as "African American," i.e. PC nonsense.

In my last post, I was saying how my view is that Americans are white people--nobody else. If you take that literally, that could piss you off. But if you read between the lines, hopefully it makes sense. Now, let me say here, I'm fairly certain there's no consensus among blacks on what black people should be called or whether or not "African American" is fine. That said...I spend so much time observing and thinking, and my observations and thoughts on this particular subject is that the majority of blacks, Asians and Latinos don't buy into their American-ness any more than white people do. Sure, you sometimes get these spiels about America being about diversity, built on immigration of people from different nations, how we all should just call ourselves "American" (this argument usually from white people who say that while, in the same breath, referring to people as "black" and so on) and la di da. Nobody believes it. And I'll tell you why I don't think racial/ethnic minorities believe it.

My observation of black people, for example, is we, at the very least, almost never refer to ourselves as American. In fact, if you ask us about our identities...unless we're in a foreign country or talking to someone who is not from the US, we're not even going to think to say "American;" we're going to say "black" or one of those PC terms I hate. These lofty ideas that white people have of America and what it means to be American...the symbols white people associate with American-ness...the charges of if you don't do/think/believe/support XYZ, you're unpatriotic...we hardly think about that stuff, we don't talk that stuff, and we don't engage with that stuff. Like I said, this is not all black people. But, to date, the only blacks I've seen defy this observation have been black Republicans, and we all know that the Republican party is the patriotic-to-an-insane-degree party.

My own personal experience is never having called myself American except when I've communicated with people from other nations (usually online in foreign chat rooms, back when I was into that kind of thing), or when I get up in arms about people in the US helping out other nations before our own. And the times I've communicated with others, calling myself American, it has been strictly as a way to let them know where I'm located. It had nothing to do with how I think of myself. When I really get down to it, I think of myself as nation-less. I'm black. There's no destination for that. There's no origin for that, because, thanks to slavery, that origin has been broken. To me, Africans and recent American-born Africans are extremely different from me and other "black Americans." I feel that a lot of blacks feel this way on some level, at least with respect to feeling nation-less. Many feel as if something is missing. Some of those people seek to find it by learning about Africa, by visiting Africa...or even by trying to assimilate into the US population. Apparently, this happens with Asians and Latinos born in the US, as well. It's just, to me--and from the reading I've done--what you find when you go to places like Africa, Korea or Puerto Rico as someone of that nationality but not born there...is that you don't fit in there, either. Whoever you are...it's no longer there. That's why I not only reject "American" in naming myself, but also reject "African."

I didn't mean to shortchange the Asian and Latino discussion, but...basically my argument for them was going to be the one about visiting the homeland ("homeland" used as place of ethnic origin only) and so often realizing that going there doesn't solve the issues and questions you have surrounding who you are and where you fit in. And like I said, this all comes from my understanding based on works I've read only...so I could be wrong. And I'm sure some people do go to their homelands and feel...at home. And then for me, my discussion is complicated by the fact that there's another homeland for me to deal with, i.e. France. I consider that more parallel to what American-born Asians and Latinos deal with than blacks and Africa being parallel, because with the majority of Asians and Latinos they still have cultural links to the homeland through parents and/or grandparents. Blacks don't have that with Africa.

But another reason why I don't think Asians and Latinos, in particular, buy into their American-ness--nor black people's American-ness--is because, from the readings I've done...they have almost all very consistently spoken of American-ness in terms of whiteness. So many of their stories tell of growing up predominantly around white people--in white schools, in white neighborhoods. And they tell of wanting to be like "everyone else" and wanting to be "American," but their stories clearly indicate in various ways that all these people they wanted to be like were white...because they only talk about white people in their stories, and they only describe white features that they wished they had in their stories. Well, if you conflate whiteness and American-ness...then you realize that if you're not white, you can never be American.

To make clearer why "American" doesn't apply to blacks, I feel--and, I guess it'd be the same for Asians and Latinos--though some of us talk a good game about America being about diversity, a lot of things associated with American-ness are things that are really associated with being white. And they are things that are set forth by white people to indicate American-ness. And let me say this--I know that, ultimately, there's pretty much no one in this country who truly is American. I don't mean to leave Native Americans out. But when you hear phrases like "the girl next door" or "the all-American girl," you know that the people using those phrases aren't referring to Native Americans...nor anybody black, Latino or Asian. And somehow, black-@ss football has shown itself time and time again as the most popular sport...yet, white-@ss baseball remains touted as the "American" sport. And when I call baseball "white"...not only do I mean the majority of the players...I mean the majority of the viewers, as well. Funny thing is white lesbians are always running around conflating lesbianism with softball...which we all know softball is the white chick's version of baseball. No thanks. Even when white people apply these sweeping generalizations to include all of us, it's still hard to feel included...because we (many of us) don't relate to the images/appearances, the descriptions, the symbols nor the hobbies/interests that they describe as meaning "American."

As a black person, I've got to say this--not only have white people "stolen" "American"...I say let 'em have it. After all, the majority of the world hates Americans, and the real positives to being American are things that those of us who aren't white are pretty much never going to have full access to (except if theories that someday Asians and Latinos will be "white" come true...still, blacks will never have full access). So what do we really get out of being "just American" or "Asian American"? I say next time our loyalties are questioned or an anti-America terrorist pops up on the scene, we just shrug and say, "Hey, we're not Americans, isn't that what you've basically been saying to us all along, whitey?" Maybe next terrorist attack, we can get out of dying for a country we don't really belong to. In other words (and all half-kidding aside), while I think a lot of black people have subsconsciously made peace with not being accepted as Americans, my readings tell me Asians and Latinos haven't. So, what I'm saying to them, I guess, is...it's not really a bad thing. You can and do...do a lot for the nation to contribute...you just won't get credit. Then again, you've never gotten credit. What's the difference?

Of course, we'll have to find something to call you. Blacks have "black," which doesn't tie us to a nation...although my personal preference is, and has always been, to be called "brown." "Black" conjures up images of--as my mother would say--someone who is as black as coal, burnt to a crisp, slaving away in the fields during the 1800s out in the hot sun and then dancing around all happy for "massa" and "missum." Be that as it may...if "Asian American" and "Latin(o) American" aren't proper terms, then are "Asian" and "Latino" proper? I doubt it, especially for Asians.

But we could also keep trying for inclusiveness, trying to incorporate some of ourselves into the definition of "American." At times, it seems like we're getting somewhere with this...my personal preference is still to just let white people have "American" in all its overinflated glory.

My final observation is that, as I mentioned that I don't think Asians and Latinos see blacks as American...I don't think blacks see Asians and Latinos as American, either. I thought about it for myself, though, and I realized that my assumption when I encounter an Asian or Latino is pretty much always that they were born in the US. I thought about this because this semester there was a Japanese female in one of my classes...she hardly spoke in class, but when she did it was a bit hard to understand her because she really is from Japan. And I realized...when I hear Asians and Latinos--but particularly Asians (probably because I grew up around Asians all my life, which was not the case with Latinos)--speak with an accent, it surprises me. Still, accent or not, born here or not, it doesn't necessarily make me view them as American.

And this might be another reason why I feel that white people can just have their white-washed fantasy of America. Because to me, us standing on the periphery of American identity is, in many ways, good. I associate so many negative things with, I suppose, the image of "American"--from classism and racism to extreme arrogance and self-centered-ness. Yet, these are not necessarily traits I associate with blacks, Asians and Latinos, with the exception of racism (although all those traits exist in all groups--I just view whites as more extreme, and racism more harmful from whites since they have the power). And I also think not viewing Asians and Latinos as American, for me, goes back to everything I wrote above about "American" meaning "white"...and not being a function of a different physical appearance, racism, xenophobia and the like...because when I look at black people, I don't think of them as American, either.

I think what I will try to do soon here is explain my position on immigration, since that's a hot topic lately...and give an honest response to the charges that anti-immigration automatically equals racism. Until then...I should force myself to sleep.