Applying for a social security card for my daughter, my hand stops over the voluntary ethnicity section. I know that these categories have changed over time (the boxes used to say ‘free’ or ‘slave’ or ‘mulatto’) and reflect a global system of white supremacy.
While I know this history, when I fill out forms for myself I rarely think twice. But this time I am answering for my daughter. I check the boxes for “White” and “Hispanic” and then I stop.
What is the government going to do with this information? Will my daughter be targeted if I make her visible to the government in this way? I think of “Operation Wetback” in the 1950s, of the ICE raids in Portland in 2007, of the families who are still, this moment, in danger.
Then I think about affirmative action programs and college scholarships. I think about my hometown near LA and its increasing Latino majority. Isn’t it important to be visible?
I’m acutely aware that all of my angst is about the box labeled “Hispanic.” I don’t feel any uncertainty about checking the box labeled “White.” I’ve never had to think about these boxes before and how they relate to me or my family. There was never a box for “German-American” or “Rural Poor White Class.”
If I refuse to give this information, does that mean that I am ashamed of my daughter’s heritage? Paranoid about racism? Trying to opt out?
As I reflect, I begin to wonder if I am using my daughter to examine my own complicity and place in the system. Is that fair to her or helpful to me? I don’t know.
After much internal debate, I print out a new application. This time, I don’t check any boxes. I leave them all blank.
What do you do when you fill out these types of forms? I’d love to hear your thoughts or insights.
I’ve been away from this blog for months now, busy being a new mama. Now that my daughter Elena is nearly three months old, we’re settling into a routine that includes nap time aka mama-blog-time. I’m excited about a new campaign by Showing Up for Racial Justice, a non-profit that organizes white people to be visible for racial justice. I downloaded their education toolkit and got ready to snap a pic of me and Ellie being visible for racial justice.
Then I remembered that my daughter isn’t (all) white. She has pale skin, which is to say, she looks white. My daughter’s racial and ethnic heritage includes a grandfather who is Latino and a great-grandfather who immigrated to this country (undocumented, thank you very much) from Mexico.
When my wife and I adopted Elena, we wanted to honor her birth family and their ongoing presence in Ellie’s life. So Elena has a Spanish surname as part of her name, and this has prompted people — brown people, white people — to ask us: so IS she Mexican?
Recently a friend shared with me the perception by people outside the US that our American obsession with percentages in racial identity (i.e. “half-white”, “25% Black”, etc.) is shocking. “We only talk about racial percentages with animals,” the friend said.
Questions from friends about Elena’s race are hard for me to answer. I can talk about Elena’s great-grandfather, because that is a story which involves revolution and border-crossing and courage. Being an immigrant’s daughter myself, that story rings in my bones. But I don’t know how to answer the question of who Elena is racially.
I know the impetus behind my friends’ questions is to determine how to relate to my daughter. She looks white, and both of her moms are white, so I sense that other people will feel more comfortable if we just live as a white family.
But while we carry pale skin privilege, we aren’t a white family, because Elena isn’t (all) white. Having a close friend who was raised by her adopted parents to be white (just chuck that “other” heritage out the window because we don’t know what to do with it), I flat-out refuse to minimize, obscure or “%” Elena’s indigenous Mexican heritage.
I’m suddenly aware that generations of parents do this for/to their children: they shape how their children see themselves racially. I model for others how to see my daughter’s race, even as the public assumes something based on our skin. Being able to choose what to claim in racial identity is itself part of white privilege.
What if my daughter regrets our insistence on her indigenous Mexican heritage as she gets older? How MUCH heritage do you need to have before you become a person of color, anyway? The “One Drop” rule comes painfully to mind. Is it just skin color? What about language and community? Am I Elizabeth-Warren-ing my daughter? I don’t know. This is tricky and I’m a sheltered, privileged novice.
I will raise Elena with awareness of her pale skin privilege, because that’s what I do know how to offer. But I also want to give her role models for navigating a racial identity that is complex and multi-layered. So I need you, my allies. I need your stories of passing-for-white, I need your thoughts on how we talk about racial identity, on how we respond to assumptions based on skin color.
I’m a coward. Tonight’s class was full of cultural appropriation, racism and silencing. I said something, but not enough, and I drove home thinking of all the things I could have said if I’d been clever, clear-witted and focused instead of angry, hurt and sad.
Theatre of the Oppressed gives the audience a chance to re-write a real-life example of oppression and do it over. The rules are that you don’t get to change the person being an oppressor (because that would be easy) and you don’t get to change the person being oppressed. All you can change are the bystanders, the allies. That would be me, the silent white girl who says too little too late, there at the edge of the room by the door.
So here is the real-life scene as it occurred just hours ago, along with the interventions I thought of in the car on my ride home. (STOP! indicates an intervention I could have said.)
Setting: Classroom at Marylhurst University. 11 White students, 1 Native American student, 1 White teacher.
Terry, white lady from Sisters Oregon: So for my presentation I am going to play a fun game that will show us how stories in oral tradition get changed over time. First we have to send two of our tribe members outside the room. Then I’m going to be the elder and tell you our creation story. This story comes from the Quinault Indians.
STOP! Wait, so we’re pretending to be Quinault Indians, is that right? Wow, that’s offensive. I’m not going to “play Indian.” I’ll wait outside. Let me know when you’re done.
Terry: (reads her ‘creation story’ from a sheet of paper) Okay, so now that I’ve told you our creation story, let’s call the tribe members back. Now one person tell the tribe member our story from memory. You get the idea — it’s a lot like Telephone.
STOP! Wait, Telephone…you mean the child’s game where you whisper a nonsensical sentence down a line of people to see how messed-up and incomprehensible it becomes by the end? I don’t want to disrespect another culture’s sacred story by treating it as a game. Does anyone else think this is disrespectful?
Terry: Wow, that’s funny. Isn’t it funny? [many people were in fact laughing] Grey Eagle. Ha! It was Great Eagle. And the daughter didn’t have a name, you added that. See how the story changed? This is just like how Christianity was spread in Rome by the early Christians. A merchant told his wife who told her neighbors who told…
Me: Oral tradition isn’t telephone. It is a sacred practice in which stories are held by the storykeepers and passed on to those who must learn them precisely and carry them. I don’t think you can compare a sacred story from a Native American culture with word-of-mouth gossip.
Terry: Well I had to use a Native story. I couldn’t use a story from the Bible because you would all know it.
STOP! I don’t think everyone knows bible stories. Not everyone in this class is Jewish or Christian. An indigenous creation story is just as sacred as the biblical texts and should be treated with respect. Could you have made up a story?
Writing this, I realize that I’m changing the story to make myself feel better. Re-writing it now doesn’t remove the pain of this experience for my friend who sat there while the culture of her people was mocked and trivialized. But I want to re-write the story. I want to do theatre and absolve myself. Play the game. How am I any different?
The idea with Theatre of the Oppressed is that you get to role play the scene over and over until you come up with strong interventions that short-circuit oppression and open understanding.
But a sacred story isn’t a commodity, a trinket, a souvenir.
And surviving oppression isn’t a game, a play-acting script, make-believe.
Only my whiteness lets me see it that way. That’s what I learned from class tonight.
Oh no, another sports team mascot debate. I feel exhausted already.
However, if we consider this article as a sociological artifact and do a little linguistic analysis, it gets interesting. Painful, but interesting…a field study on the side effects of political correctedness. Ready? Let’s see what we can find.
1) The article argues that the original caricature of an Indian was insensitive, whereas the new patch of tomahawks is not. The new logo is great because it pays “tribute to the franchise’s history without alienating a group of people.” (Ah, the irony of the word alien.) I notice two things here:
a) The debate is defined as an issue of courtesy and civility. It is not about genocide, broken treaties, stolen land, violated sovereignty. The author of the article sets the bounds of the debate as being about hurt feelings, not dead people.
b) The goal of the logo change is not to reverse the legacy of cultural appropriation and dehumanization. The goal is to pay tribute to history. A history in which tomahawks are a symbol of wars between white and Indian people. Wars which result in the destruction of Native civilization, culture and religion.
The franchise’s history continues, using a cultural symbol to invoke the same message as before.
2) The author states: “The [old] logo strips Native Americans of any humanity and turns them into a one-dimensional character devoid of any sympathy or tribute.” Here we find the prompts about how we are supposed to view Native people, either in sympathy (“alcoholic, unemployed, impoverished”) or in tribute (“close to the land, spiritual, noble savage”).
So, breaking it down, the old logo was bad because it encouraged non-Natives to fear and despise Native people.
The appropriate way to view Native people is to pity or idolize them.
Nothing has changed. Dehumanization continues, it just gets a new look.
3) The new logo gets the ultimate stamp of approval: “Even Hank Aaron approves.” The article doesn’t quote Hank, but the photo below shows a black man (Hank, in case you didn’t know) waving his hand and smiling. This reminds me that:
a) If a person of color (but especially a black person) approves of something, then it can’t be racist. This argument is corollary to #1 above, because the issue isn’t about injustice but about hurt feelings. If Hank says his feelings aren’t hurt, then they aren’t.
b) White people don’t have to take responsibility or understand why something they did was wrong if they can get the blessing of a black person.
c) Because even Hank approves, the message is that white people would of course approve. AHA! Here is where I clearly see the understory of the racism within the article.
On the surface, the message is that all good white people are not racist, so of course they would support this new logo. Under the surface, the message is that all good white people either know they are racist or know that black people believe they are racist.
The ultimate answer to this vague feeling of white guilt is to get the blessing of a black person for the cultural appropriation of a Native symbol which honors the legacy of white violence.
The problem with this article is that re-inscribes racism, relieves white people of responsibility, and reinforces our sense of things “getting better.” It tells us what “better” looks like. And “better” looks like more of the same.
p.s. Painful side note: in the comments below the article, the UP and DOWN votes serve to determine whose comments are displayed. If enough people vote down or flag a post, then the comment gets hidden. Reading through, I noticed that the comments by NDN (Native) people are being hidden because white-people-part-cherokee-princesses are voting them down. Look at how public discourse works to silence the minority.
I had the honor of sharing coffee and conversation today with my dear friend Rev. Melissa Bennett and new friend Dr. Dapo Sobomehin. We talked for a long time. We talked about isolation and the lack of accountability, how white and brown and black people are afraid of one another, how white people think and act like we’re better than other people, how people of all colors often forget that the person in the other shade of skin is a human being. We talked about war and poverty and education and violence and community.
And we talked a lot, a whole lot, about God. Dr. Dapo quoted a lot of scripture. He said the word J—- out loud so everyone could hear. [Wait, don't quit reading yet! Bear with me.] This is not a normal part of my everyday experience. The J word has been a weapon of violence against people who I deeply love, from individual friends to my larger queer community. I use that word with extreme caution.
It made me realize that while I’m nervous talking about race, I am terrified talking about You-Know-Who. I’m hyper-aware of the ways my protestant christian privilege goes hand-in-hand with my white privilege and systems of oppression. (The conquistadors, the slaveowners, the boarding school missionaries, the nazis, Matthew Shepard’s murderers — all christians.)
But I realized today that I need to talk about spiritual stuff if I am going to do activist work. (Fortunately I have lots of words for the Holy that don’t make other people twitch or reach for their coats.) I can’t do this work of authentic connection, this work of open-hearted listening, of taking responsibility, owning my mistakes, being present, and keeping hope without my spiritual life. Because I am limited by my blind spots, my fear. I am limited by my oh-so-excellently-trained-in-white-privilege-automatic-conditioning, my ivorytower education. The problems are too big, the challenges too complex, the solutions evasive.
In conversation with remarkable spiritual people today, I felt how the Divine is manifest in a unique way in each person. Each human being is this expression of G*d-Love in a specific intersection of time/place/culture/language/skin/shape.
Think of all the billions of people on this planet. Not just the friendly people but the broken people, the people who hurt and damage others. The mystery is that somehow, the Holy is in those people too. I think this is what Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. meant by “beloved community.”
At first glance, it may seem like a cheap cop-out, but in the end what I come back to is this connection that each of us has to the Sacred. Spirit is unlimited resources of Love, moments of everyday grace, miracles of reconnection and reconciliation, all rooted in the powerful full-body knowledge that I, and you, and each of us is deeply known and beloved.
None of these realizations are new or remarkable (except to me, of course). Other people have said it much more eloquently than I can. Tonight I am reading Womanist scholar Emilie M. Townes. In her book Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil she writes:
“We have dreams that can be more powerful than nightmares, possibilities more radical than realities, and a hope that does more than cling to a wish or wish on a star or sit by the side of the road, picking and sucking its teeth after dining on a meal of disaster and violence in our lives…
To combine challenge with hope is powerful. For together they enable us to press onward when we are at the verge of giving up; to draw strength from the future to live in a discouraging present. Challenge and hope make it possible for us to see the world, not only as it is, but also as it can be, so that it can move us to new places and turn us into a new people…
Hope cannot simply be given a nod of recognition, for it demands not only a contract from us, but also a covenant and a commitment. When we truly live in this deep-walking hope, then we must order and shape our lives in ways that are not always predictable, not always safe, rarely conventional, and protests with prophetic fury the sins of a fantastic hegemonic imagination (and theological worldviews) that encourage us to separate our bodies from our spirits, our minds from our hearts, our beliefs from our action…
We cannot hide from responsibility or accountability for we are never relieved of the responsibility that we have to our generation and future generations to keep justice, peace,and hope alive and vibrant…
Ultimately, somewhere deep inside each of us we know that perhaps the simplest, yet the most difficult, answer to the challenge of what we will do with the fullness and incompleteness of who we are as we stare down the interior life of the cultural production of evil is live your faith deeply.
This is not a quest for perfection, but for what we call in christian ethics the everydayness of moral acts. It is what we do every day that shapes us…these acts that we do say more about us than those grand moments of righteous indignation and action.”
Today as I sat at the coffee shop in conversation, part of me itched with frustration at the lack of answers, at the need to DO more. Conversation seemed like such a little thing.
Talk doesn’t replace the necessity for action. Yet Townes reminds me that authentic listening and presence in connection to Spirit are not little or less. Everydayness is essential. And speaking about the Holy is necessary, even though it is the very last thing I feel comfortable or ready or able to do.