Earlier this month I turned 40. Forty (for me) has brought about a number of things including a greater desire to engage in discussions that might be deemed controversial. I find myself harking back to my college days where I liked to challenge people’s perceptions and ideas (mostly respectfully). Those who know me well, know I love to play Devil’s Advocate just to see where people sincerely are coming from. Recently, in celebration of my impeding 40th year, I was having drinks with several colleagues and associates and one of my long time acquaintances made some comment about my lifelong “privilege” (their words, not mine). Apparently, that “privilege” being my skin color (which I suppose is fairly light), light-ish brown eyes, and whatever features or hair type is deemed as “privileged”. However, the truth is, any Caucasian from Brooklyn to Florida will look at me and know that I am NOT a white woman of European descent nor do I share that particular privilege.
On the flip side, African Americans will look at me and know that I am one of many multiple mixtures that exist among the various people of African descent, especially those who come from cultures and countries that have been colonized over the centuries. Latinos will look at me and… well, that’s a really mixed bag. I say that only because of the recent acceptance of the term “Afro-Latina”. A term has more recntly come into the mainstream American consciousness thanks to actresses like Zoe Saldana and Rosario Dawson.
But here’s my reality. I was born to a very brown first generation born Bajan (Barbados for those who don’t know) woman and a white looking (green eyes and all) Puerto Rican man. That makes me Caribbean American or a BajaRican. During the 70’s and 80’s most people who saw my parents just assumed I was bi-racial but my father does not (let me repeat, DOES NOT) consider himself white, he considers himself Puerto Rican, pure Boricua, nothing else. Papi’s (what I still call my father) consistent attitude over the last 75 years of his life has been he knows who and what he is, you don’t need to get it because it doesn’t matter, the ONLY thing you need to know is that he is Puerto Rican. He only identifies culturally, and yes, as a Puerto Rican if you didn’t get it the first couple of times, he doesn’t do the race thing and won’t be baited to playing that game.
My mother grew up in the 60’s here in America and quickly assimilated into African American culture (Bajan’s weren’t a prevailing majority in Brooklyn) and so she was Bajan at home and “Black” when she was out in the world. That means all the issues faced and bore by brown women during my mother’s formative years were her experiences. Ultimately, as many did in her generation, she felt her brown skin, full lips, curly hair were ugly. She grew to hate light skinned women (yes, careful what you hate, it has a habit of ending up RIGHT in your family and in my mother’s case, in her womb). My mother attended Erasmus Hall HS here in Brooklyn, when the majority of students were White and Jewish (a la Barbara Streisand), and high achieving. In spite of that, she was encouraged by her guidance counselor to be a cleaning lady because she was told she would not achieve much else. Ultimately, to my mother’s credit, her confidence and encouragement to succeed came through joining the civil rights movement and owned her Blackness. She went on to obtain a BA, 2 Masters, and her Doctorate. (Just saying she’s pretty kick ass).
Why all this context? Because this is where I come from, this is who I am, these are my people, this is my culture. These are the stories and realities that surrounded me as I was growing up as a culturally mixed girl in a pre- hipster, pre-Obama Brooklyn. Where bi-racial was sort of new and folks only identied as either/or. I was warmly welcomed by Black Americans and rejected by Latinos for not looking like a “typical” Latina. Nor did I “behave” like a typical Latina because my father did not raise me to wait on men, cater to men, or take care of men. I was raised to be an independent, opinionated, un-accented, and assertive woman. Not the qualities my Latinos were really big on during my adolescent years. Oh yeah, and I was “too dark”. Too dark to be a true Latina. Never mind that in Puerto Rico I saw A LOT of Boricua’s that looked like me. But the NuyoRican culture here, didn’t quite embrace it (yet). So, here in Nueva York, I didn’t quite the fit. But my lighter Puerto Rican cousins did. The overall result?. I stayed away from the Latino community for years dismissing my Puerto Rican side totally. My resentment and anger remains close to the surface with Latinos. I have managed it better, I am learning to get over it, but I won’t lie, I still walk with it often.
Why is THIS important? Because these collectives experiences, while sometimes painful, never felt like a “privilege”, rather it served to help shape my view of race in America. Ultimately, once I entered undersgrad at Chatham College and joined the Black Student Union, I suddenly found myself dealing with African Americans women who were not New Yorkers and the issue of race relative to the light/dark dissent became more of an obvious issue in my world; while I came to realize that it was really someone else’s issue, the reality is that I had to bear a portion of someone else’s anger due to this social construct that we’ve agreed to abide by.
This experience helped shape my views in identifying the real core issue here – race as a means to division will always keep people from observing and acting on class struggle. During the process of self identification, I sought to identify culturally, rather than racially. In doing so, I sought to challenge everyone rather than concede to the either/or notion – no one was exempt, my parents, friends, family, and strangers. Ultimately, I found solace in those women of any race who had a shared socioeconomic class experience with me. While I still struggled around the “race” issue, I found that in spite of race, having a common concern as women, as women seeking education, as women who were seeking to define themselves as thinking beings rather than a mixed chick from Brooklyn, or a pretty Black girl from Maryland, or a White girl from Harrisburg, we were much stronger when we focused on shared issues, experiences, and concerns in our world. This led me to realize that coming together on matters related to class are much more dangerous to the status quo because it serves to unite people rather than divide.
Race is no small thing in America. It’s a very hard and emotional thing for us because of the historical context by which we understand it. Truthfully, I think we love to talk about it, cling to it, talk around it, make inferences about, but ultimately, I am not convinced we can never address it to a satisfactory resolution. Race can be utilized temporarily to bring us together under tough circumstances but ultimately, the divisions continue to arise. Because every group here and abroad that has historically been colonized by Europeans has had the wonderful parting gift of being divided according that socially constructed idea of “race”. Slave masters firmly established the concept of race into our collective psyches during the horrific period of slavery in America and it has remained since. The Spanish did it to the Taino Indians (which were the original inhabitants of Puerto Rico) after bring African slaves to the island of Borinquen creating divisions on color. The English did the same to the Arawaks and Caribs whom were the original inhabitants of Barbados… and so on… You see, we all carry this shit with us as part of a collective history if we come from any part of the world that has been colonized. And I guess its real easy and simple to make assumptions by looking at me if you don’t look like me and figure that somehow, in all of this, I’ve inherited a “privileged” that I haven’t quite experienced personally. No one knows my scars just as no one knows the scars of my mother, my sisters, my father, my lighter and darker cousins, etc.
However, with respect to race, we seem to like to talk about it… a lot…. still, with very little resolution…
Prior to his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. began moving past the race issue and began to look at the issue of classism in this country. He was convinced that the class struggle in America was the ultimate equal rights issue in this country. Malcolm X also began to focus on this issue. The reason this is important is because I am more convinced today than I was 20 years ago, that classism that IS the real issue that needs to be addressed in this country.
It’s the foundation of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit in New York State as a means of addressing the achievement gap in education and the means of providing appropriate resources in every public school classroom in New York State. The issue of class over race is now playing out with respect to college entrance and how schools will begin considering diversifying their student body – according to class, not race. Class struggle is the foundation of all human rights issues and something that is a worldwide concern. It is also a harder issue for many of us to get into because it means that collectively, we would have to move past our own singular and exclusive issues involving race and think in a more broader and collaborative context. It can be done. I’ve seen this take shape with the group Mom’s Rising. A multicultural group of women who are committed as working mothers to educate, advocate, and lobby as mothers on behalf of their children – these issues range from battling childhood obesity to providing parenting resources to mothers.
We can live with and own our history, our scars, our anger, and continue focusing on a singular issue relative to racial equality. However, the reality is that race is a arbitrary social construct used to divide, subjugate, and indoctrinate – if the analogy is that religion is the opium of the masses and spirituality connects the individual to the Creator, then race is the method used to maintain a clear division while confronting class struggle brings cohesion and potentially real progress. Realistically, we won’t all agree on the same measures by which we could make the “changes” we seek but we can work collectively on a shared goal or issue more easily.
It is worth noting that America is not a homogeneous society. And this is becoming more relevant with new ethnic groups coming into the country. Many countries outside of the U.S.find cohesiveness through a shared culture and ethnic identity; but we can no longer rely on race as a means of bringing us together on issues temporarily while engaging in infighting based on any number of variables that divide us. Many of us from the same socio-economic background whether pink, purple, green, or orange, understand certain fundamental realities about the world and can coalesce on that. Moving past the issue of race, looking as how the civil rights movement functioned, as a collective, with other races becoming involved AND openly supporting the cause AND dying for that shared cause is why that movement was successful. We have to get over the race issue in this country. It’s an imperative. And we have to get over the race thing because ultimately, if we don’t make it as important as we have made it, we will continue to see a clear distinction between the 1%, the 99%, and the 47% – issues brought front and center during the 2012 presidential race.
The number of bi-racial births in this country has grown from less than 5% to over 7% in the last year. That means that there will have to be a bridging of the race divide because we have a generation coming behind us that will have a different experience and outlook on race. We cannot ask children of multi-ethnic and cultural backgrounds to “choose”, they are both. Obama is both. Culturally, I am both. And the conversation will have to change, it’s not a question of if, it’s an issue of when. The Republicans are just now gearing up to discuss race politics. Given how far behind the eight ball they are, maybe it’s time for the rest of us to move towards a more comprehensive discussion.
So yeah, ask me about my “privilege”. I will tell you that my “privilege” stems from the fact that I was fortunate enough to grow up in the borough of Brooklyn, in a culturally diverse household that discussed politics, civil rights, and human rights (ad nausea). I was forced to attend various protest that I did not want to go to but it provided me with an educational experience in that I experienced other people’s pain in the world. I’ve met people from all walks of life from the poorest of the poor to those with some sick wealth. I’ve dated politicians, aspiring athletes, and regular joes from the hood most who have imparted some real wisdom and learning. My friends include people who were teen moms who barely got out of high school to folks who have completed post doctorate fellows in England, they are all good people and have their own struggles. I barely made it into college due to poor grades but ultimately received a Masters of Science in Urban Policy and Management (law school remains on my mental back burner). I have been on welfare and was ashamed about it. I’ve been hungry, I’ve been horrifically broke. I’ve come back from that too. My parents have been married 40 plus years and I did grow up in a two parent household – I was often the only person I knew who did. I married the first real man I ever met who accepted me warts (figuratively speaking) and all. Together we are raising a beautiful brown child of multicultural heritage, still in Brooklyn, in the neighborhood and apartment building where I was raised.
That is my privilege, none of which has a damn thing to do with how I look and everything to do with my sense of reality. A reality that includes the understanding that poor people whether upstate in rural New York, or downstate urban Brooklyn, whether in Louisianna, Florida, Memphis, Tennesse, or Maryland… Whether in the favela’s of Brazil, the ghettos of Russia, or the streets of the Jiangxi province in China, the slums of Puerto Rico, or Kingston, Jamaica… Poor IS poor. Struggle IS struggle. Pain IS pain, doesn’t really matter the color of it. When it’s there, it’s there. A lack of access to quality healthcare, a decent home, the capacity to take care of oneself and one’s family is horribly demeaning and dangerous to communities. Communities are the foundation of healthy people. Unhealthy and fucked up communities create unhealthy and fucked up people. That’s not a race thing…