My Race: Defining The Undefinable

Jose VilsonJose, Race

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 …