My Race: Defining The Undefinable

Jose VilsonJose, Race17 Comments

Dominican Republic and Haiti from Space

For those that haven’t pieced it together from the plethora of race essays I’ve written here and elsewhere, I self-identify racially as a Black Latino. I’ve found it’s probably the most appropriate title for this idiosyncratic, deeply political experience I carry. It was probably what I might call the difference between compromising my understanding of race in this country and the world without compromising myself. I understand the skin I’m in limits what others might consider me in their eugenics charts, but my experience growing up around all types of brown hues in my family and all of them “Dominican” leads me to believe I don’t fully have the Black experience here in the States.

Whenever I get that deep with people, I get responses that might be original to them, but typical of what we surmise about what I identify as. Frankly, I don’t even have a definitive answer, because no one’s ever been able to explicitly define what Black, Asian, or any of that means in a way that takes into the history prior to 1492, or whenever we believe The Conquerer arrived at the Western Hemisphere. Let’s look at some situations and I’ll tell you what I may be:

1) Around my Dominican family, I’m Dominican. I dance merengue, speak a modified Spanish, and eat rice and beans with some major meat (chicken, beef, or pork, in that order). Unless …

2) I’m in Dominican Republic. Then, I’m obviously not full Dominican. I’m either gringo, Dominican-American, or Dominican-American-Haitian, or something that’s not pure Dominican. So I walk around like a tainted paint bucket.

3) Around my Haitian family, I’m … Dominican with a bit of Haitian. I respect that. I qualify for only two out of three of the major culture points. I dance zouk and eat the food (which is very similar to Dominican food, by the way), but I can’t speak a lick of Creole besides Sak Pase, and unfortunately, that phrase has become … passe.

4) Around my African-American friends, I’m Black. For the most part. I can identify with the struggle, and when there’s a discussion about Blackness, I can speak up without fear. That is, of course, unless some people in the African American community start discussing things or people I had no idea about until pre-college, like The Color Purple, Nina Simone, Prince, Zane, soul food, Toni Morrison, the electric slide, or anything that belongs in the pantheon of the African-American experience. It’s not that I didn’t want to learn about these ideas; the minute I got access to Carter G. Woodson and Maya Angelou, I inhaled the stuff. Before college, I wasn’t learning about anyone’s history but the predominant American history.

5) Around my White friends, I find myself having to do a lot of balancing. Even when I don’t realize it, I assure them of my identity while leaving enough of a connection open enough to let them in. If they let me listen to my Talib Kweli, I’ll turn around and play Kings of Leon. I’ll switch between rum-and-cokes to Blue Moons with them. I’ll make the commercial joke, but make the statement concerning diversity and equity that no one in the room’s considered. I don’t need to make anyone feel like they have to go out of their way to be something they’re not (insert White guilt here), but I find ways to meet people halfway.

6) Around my Asian friends, my Mexican friends, or any other friends who I haven’t mentioned, I’m just Jose. People bring their own thoughts and prejudices to the table, so I counterbalance with whatever I feel is appropriate. One time, in the midst of company from work, one Indian man decided to make an offensive and not well-executed Black joke in my direction, thinking I’d find it funny. Instead, I just said, “Well, that was appropriate.” It shut him down for the next three years with anyone who wasn’t doing business with him.

Seeing my Black-Asian godson grow every day via Facebook (and whenever I get the chance to visit him), I see how much easier it will probably be for him to understand the world around him. Unlike me, he has people around him who know how to help him come into his own cultural and racial being. I think anyone who fully feels the pull of two races inevitably goes through the phases of denial, anger, rage, settling, blending, and eventually, enlightenment.

I understand it’s a social construct, but it doesn’t make it any less real. It’s inextricably tied to the culture here. I don’t know how to define Black or Latino for anyone, but I know the things I’ve felt and done in my lifetime fit best with these titles. I’m still a writer, a thinker, a lover, a friend, a brother, a son, a poet, a speaker, a teacher, a man to someone out there. It’s these experiences that affect the rest of those titles, and how I approach them.

I could simply call myself human as well, but I … I haven’t settled that one, either.

Jose, unedited for the masses …

Comments 17

  1. Liked this Jose. My mixed heritage has not been as issue for me for a long time. My dad is Mexican, born here which is different from many people of Latino descent that are my age, and my mother is Irish. I define myself by the things you mentioned: a father, a son, a teacher, an activist, a unionist and I do go human being a lot.

    When I was a kid I took some crap from white people because I looked white but I had that last name that confused them. “Is that Italian?” I would often hear. “No I’m Mexican-American on my dad’s side.” The response was usually a quizzical look of “Oh.”

    Latinos were probably a little more accepting but still very puzzled. Especially when someone Mexican would ask where my dad was from and I would say Chicago. To this day I don’t know where my grandfather was born in Mexico and I don’t think my dad knows either. I mean Papi Jose came here in the 1930’s. All my aunt’s and uncles were born here.

    My daughter is quite a mixture. Along with my Irish-Mexican genes, she also is Black and Native-American on her mom’s side. She handles it so well for a 10 year old. She proudly claims all of it. Her school is 50-60% Latino and I think a lot of people assume she is Puerto Rican until she lets them know. I really think she is going to be cool with it because as I see it she defines herself as a student, a good friend, a singer, a dancer, a comedian, a future star.

    I think my daughter and your nephew will be great to see in several years. The face of America is changing and they represent it.

  2. The Community Alliance in my school just started planning our annual “Day of Awareness” today at lunch, and when I had to leave early to meet with my middle school advisory group, we were talking about themes along the lines of identities, perspectives, and understanding and respecting differences. It is stunning how a thoughtful, beautifully written article on just these topics fell into my lap this evening, and I’ve shared it with the group.

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  4. Saw you post this via . . it popped up on Facebook.

    I identify myself as black. My father is black and my mother white.
    I was raised by my father and in an all black community. I watched the Color Purple, read Alice Walker books, Maya Angelou books, and Toni Morrison books. By the time, I entered high school, I was reading about (and loving) Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, and H. Rap Brown. I read Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice” twice (that book was out there crazy to me).

    My family, on my father’s side, was the only family I knew. For the most part, I was just like them, black. It was funny though to see me with my cousins in pictures, boy did I stand out. My father and his family are very dark.
    When we visit down south (where he was from) my family had a joke that people were staring at me not because I was pretty but because they were not use to white people being on this side of the railroad tracks. SMH.

    I didn’t experience my first real friendship with a white person until I started working as an adult. She turned out to become a good friend.

    My mother and her family? She left when I was young and her family will have nothing to do with me. My Irish grandfather doesn’t want. . or have any black grandkids. Pretend if he must.

  5. Post

    NYC, I’m surprised at my own impact. I’m trying to be like you.

    Jim, thanks for the back history. I didn’t know about your background like that, though something told me you had an interesting past. I’m glad the face is changing. I hope the mind changes with it.

    Bill, thanks for sharing this. All good to me.

    Sharon, isn’t it interesting how you always have that one family member who has to grow into liking you? Or never acknowledges you at all strictly because of your existence? I’m sure you’ve done for yourself since. G-d bless.

  6. “I could simply call myself human as well, but I … I haven’t settled that one, either.”

    If your humor didn’t save us (as it does), your grace would.

    As I stumble towards my finiteness, I cannot overstate how much joy your words give me.

  7. I am so glad that I found this piece. It really breaks down exactly how I feel about my identity.

    My family and myself identify as Puerto Rican just to keep it simple, but when we break it down, like most families from the Caribbean, we are a great mixture. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a very white Spaniard with green eyes that was raised in Puerto Rico and married my tiny, very tanned Taino grandmother. My patriarchal grandfather’s family is Spaniard from the Canary Islands who married my snow white looking grandmother with light green eyes, who is said to be Spaniard with Irish somewhere in her background. All of that mixture has made me a very white skinned, green eyed, freckled, light brown hair with red and blond highlights having, Puerto Rican… and I’ve had to pay for that fact all of my life.

    My identity has always been a struggle for other people, from the kids who would beat me up everyday in school and call me a white b****, or for the many other poets who want me to renounce the Spaniard in me. For me, I’ve always known exactly what I am. When asked, I simply say Puerto Rican. If pressed further I will break it down for anyone who is interested. Though when other Caribbean Latinos hear the words Spaniard and Irish, I tend to get an immediate “Oh…” followed by a role of the eyes or the need to remind me that “I’m brown on the inside” simply for acknowledging exactly what is in me. I have also gotten the ever infamous “So you think you’re better cause you’re white??” But that’s just the thing… I don’t think of myself as white. For some reason everyone wants me to identify as afro-latino when I do not feel, nor look the part. Unless I tell someone that I am Puerto Rican, they simply assume that I am white or mixed and treat me in a very dismissive manner. Though when they know what I am, their attitudes change. I go from enemy to friend in the blink of an eye. That is of course until they hear me say Spaniard or Irish, then I just become shady in their eyes, as if I’m some sort of wannabe white girl.

    I understand what ethnicities flow through my blood and I am fine and dandy with whatever else may be in me whether it be Chinese, black, Indian… I do not care either way. I could be green with purple polka dots and I’d be fine with it.

    But it never fails to surprise me that the ones who have the biggest problem with me are other Latinos. They want to pin me down and make me choose a side, but I will not have a power struggle within myself to please anyone else. For that reason I usually relate better to people of mixed cultures and feel more comfortable around a group of multiple ethnicities because the atmosphere is more free flowing.

  8. Post

    Matt, well, that too.

    Noemi, I find that the reason why people try to play that game is because it’s an us vs. them mentality. Furthermore, it’s a “we need more people on our team” mentality, too. The more brown people, the better. Unless of course, you go too deep, then they don’t start liking you. I’ve felt that before. Maybe it’s OK to not be human.

    Michael, thanks for that. Maybe your planet and I will co-exist after all.

  9. I find myself confused when people respond to this topic with ‘ ____ is just a social construct’. Can anyone show me a human who lives outside social constructs? That exists only in asylums or states of heavy medication. Can anyone even conceive of any idea, philosophy, faith, or object that isn’t a social construct? I guess people mean to say that the category or identity in question is arbitrary. Well exactly what in our experiences is not ultimately arbitrary contingency? Seems to me the social precedes the personal, even if we don’t initially experience life that way.

  10. I did not answer the question on the census regarding RACE because my race was not there . I later received a call from the census people asking for an answer to this question I responded proudly that I was An American the young thing did not get it so she asked where my anscesters were from I replied they too are American. For some reason this upset her and she said she needed a supervisor but first could I answer one more question I had missed What ethnicity was my son ? well I’m an American his father was an American so he is also an american the Supervisor said I refused to answer. Why don’t Americans count on the census? I’m still proud to be an American but am embarrassed by a civil gov’t who obviously is not. When will we leave the Dark Ages and admit what the founding fathers created a nation of AMERICANS

  11. I once worked with a woman from England who had travelled extensively,she told me that only in America did people not identify themselves as the nationality in which they lived. Germans are German (not white) Ireland is Irish and India is Indian. She thought it very strange that a person from this country would say they were Italian when clearly they were never even in Italy.
    She asked me why? I ask you why??
    Isn’t it good enough to be American do we have to be African American etc.
    I’ am American I told her. How would you explain this oddity ?

  12. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more Black. I think you know what I mean, Jose; I don’t have to explain this to you. While I still have a lot of hope for a multicultural/anti-racist society, I have felt the need in recent years to get back in touch with my Black self. Reading a lot of James Baldwin will do that. :)

  13. how can i be white when i’m american a mixture and a country and proud
    if you want to be from another country why are you trying to fit into this one
    my skin tone does not define me
    i am who iam & my country accepts me as i am except on the census

  14. Unfortunately, for those people who CAN’T choose their skin color. Skin color DOES define us whether we want to acknowledge it or not. It defines the way we react to other people who act on skin color. In this country, our cultures were born out of color. That can not be changed.

    Here’s something I find disturbing: That we aren’t able to celebrate our differences. The common answer: that we should all blend into one another in order to accept one another. A commentor mentions the changing face of America? In my humble opinion, I view this as a cop out. Our differences are what makes this world interesting and each one of us beautiful. It’s ok to be white. It’s ok to be asian. It’s ok to be black or brown. It’s ok to be a mixture of any of these.

    However, even if we mixed ourselves until there was no color line… there’d be another line. Whether it be how dark or light, eye color, hair texture, It’s human nature to find differences. Learning to accept others for who they are is the answer.

    I wish we could ‘celebrate our differences’. I check my box proudly. I love being me – skin color and all.

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