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Posts Tagged ‘internalized racism’

As best I can remember, it started in high school. Being told I don’t exist, or at least that my understanding of myself either wasn’t possible or wasn’t allowed. The form looked something like this:

RACE (choose one)

  • Caucasian (non-Hispanic)
  • African American
  • Asian American/Pacific Islander
  • Native American
  • Hispanic/Latino

I sat in my desk, puzzled. I had no idea what I was supposed to check. I approached the teacher and asked him what he thought I was supposed to check. He advised me to pick whichever option seemed right to me. The other kids in my predominantly white class didn’t seem to be having this problem. They were already filling out other sections of the form. I returned to my desk, still puzzled. I am white, I thought, looking at my absurdly pasty skin. But I am hispanic, I argued with myself. OK, but I’m not Latino, I countered. Yes, but the form means Hispanic and/or Latino. I cannot check “non-Hispanic,” that definitely wouldn’t be true. I checked “Hispanic/Latino.” I would not deny that dimension of my identity.

Obviously there were other problems with this form. There was, for example, no multiracial option to speak of. But the problem for me was that it confused race and ethnicity, requiring me to choose between being white or being hispanic. The form told me that I don’t exist, or at least that my understanding of myself either wasn’t possible or wasn’t allowed.

Hispanic is not a race. Hispanic people come in all human colors. The t-shirt I acquired at a hispanic multicultural festival in college, however simplistic, attempted to illustrate this: a black person, a yellow person, a white person, and a red person leaping into a bowl with the caption “Diverse ingredients make the best salsa.” We are descended from peoples of many nations and cultures from every populated continent. Many of us are multiracial.

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Hispanic. Not all of us like the term. Not all of us use the term. But it includes all these people and more.

Some of us are white. In 2010, the majority of American hispanics (53%) identified themselves as white to the U.S. Census Bureau (see Table 2 here). I am a white hispanic woman, even when forms don’t allow it. I’ve got the knapsack to prove it. But despite the high profiles of people such as Cameron Diaz, Martin Sheen, and Alexis Bledel, it seems that a lot of Americans still haven’t caught on. They think of “hispanic” as a race, a race that excludes us from being white and receiving white privilege.

So the denial of my existence continues. Almost a month after Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, I started seeing claims here and there that the media had “invented” the concept of a “white hispanic.”

“He’s only a ‘white Hispanic’,” said Bernard Goldberg, “because they need the word ‘white’ to further the storyline, which is ‘white, probably racist vigilante shoots unarmed black kid.’”

“The media then created a special rubric ‘white Hispanic,’” wrote Victor Davis Hanson, “when its narrative of white-on-black crime was endangered by new information that Mr. Zimmerman had a Latino mother, although it normally does not use such terminology for others of mixed ancestry — Barack Obama himself being a good example.”

A Real Clear Politics headline explicitly shouted, “The Media’s Latest Invention: ‘White Hispanic.’”

At least some of the sources of this narrative got the timeline right, as Hanson did, even if they got many other things wrong. Others, such as Goldberg, didn’t even seem to get the timeline correct. Here’s what really happened, chronologically speaking:

  1. The initial police report on February 26 identified Trayvon Martin’s shooter, George Michael Zimmerman, as a white male. This was the basis of the earlier media identification of George Zimmerman as a white male.
  1. On March 15, the Orlando Sentinel published a letter by Robert Zimmerman, the father of the shooter, which claimed: “George is a Spanish speaking minority with many black family members and friends. He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever.” This letter led many news outlets to update their previous use of “white” to “white hispanic.”

Looking at the chronology, it’s clear that the media didn’t add “white” to “hispanic” in order to fabricate a “white-on-black crime” story. George Zimmerman was already identified by police as a white man who shot an unarmed black teenager, and reporters later modified Zimmerman’s race with his ethnicity to accommodate his father’s elaboration.

Comments like Hanson’s frustrated me in more than one way. “White hispanic” is not some novel invention of the media. It’s me. Being hispanic doesn’t mean I’m not white and don’t receive white privilege. For the love of God, quit telling me I don’t exist!

But I am also pissed off that Hanson, among others, adopted Robert Zimmerman’s flawed reasoning. The shooter’s father has suggested that hispanics cannot participate in white privilege, are somehow immune to the prevailing racial prejudices of our culture, and cannot act on those prejudices in ways detrimental to people of color. In reality, however, we can and we often do. Because I do exist, I know this from personal experience, and I have something to say. Those of us who are white are often the recipients of white privilege, whether we want it or not, even if some of us contend with other prejudices and discrimination against us on the basis of ethnicity. Everyone imbibes the prevailing racial prejudices and stereotypes of our culture, even if we harbor other racial prejudices, even if we dislike and resist the prevailing prejudices, even if we have family members and friends mitigating their influence on our thinking and acting. Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s “doll tests” illustrated that even black people can internalize anti-black prejudices to their own detriment. Hispanic people like me and George Zimmerman are not any more immune.

When people raise the issue of Zimmerman being a “white Hispanic,” to me that does not erase the fact that an African American male was targeted and killed. You could be a Latino or white or Asian and still wrongly target an African American male. That’s the issue that we’re looking at…. Whether you’re a black or white Latino, indigenous or mestizo, once you step into the U.S., you begin to get racialized by the way the U.S. defines whiteness because of the way in which the country operates. Even a white Latino at some point gets racialized in the United States, some also get privileges because of the way they look. There is a dominant race framework that everyone is fitting into, that society is defining. That’s the world that we live in. I have a son who has a black mother and a Latino father. And culturally he may be raised with the traditions of Louisiana, Costa Rica and Mexico, but at the end of the day, he’s not gonna be judged by those cultural traditions, he’s going to be judged by what he looks like. (Alberto Retana)

See also: “Conservatives baffled at idea of white Hispanic people: A brief primer on race versus ethnicity” by Alex Pareene.

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I posted most of this as a response to Nikki’s recent post on transracial adoption; it was suggested that it would make a good followup post, so, here it is.

I think it can be tempting for potential adoptive parents to personalize critiques of transracial adoption, and this can make it difficult to hear what people who have concerns about transracial adoption are actually saying. This isn’t about questioning specific potential parents’ committment to equally love an adopted child of whatever race, or about weighing their parental skills. It’s about calling people to be the best parents they can possibly be to their children – something that doesn’t come easily to biological parents, or parents who adopt children within their race or ethnicity, either. People don’t always realize that parents of color aren’t automatically great at teaching their children an age-appropriate awareness of racism or teaching them to be proud of their identity.

As an example – I was raised by my biological parents, who emigrated from Nigeria to the U.S. when my siblings and I ranged in age from 3 to 8 years old. My parents had very little notion of the history of racism and race relations in the U.S.; now I realize that their understanding of race in America was only slightly more sophisticated than mine, if at all (i.e., that there used to be issues with racism, but that was all a long time ago, and now everything was more or less fine, with the exception of your occasional KKK member).

I don’t remember my parents ever initiating conversations about race with us, and whenever I did ask questions about race the answers I got were that 1) if we worked hard and kept out of trouble, no one would have a problem with us, and 2) people who complained about racism were either bitter and unforgiving, or they were using it as an excuse for their laziness. I don’t know that these things were said in so many words, but that was the definite impression I got from my parents. On top of all that, my parents had attitudes towards African Americans (as opposed to Africans) that were frankly pretty racist, and I grew up in predominantly white conservative churches that had serious issues with white privilege, classism, and racism. I internalized a lot of those attitudes.

All that to say, I have black parents, and I was completely unprepared for what it means to be black and a woman in this country.  I internalized harmful stereotypes and beliefs about what it meant to have black skin in America, and I struggled with self-hatred and prejudice against African Americans because of this.

Part of that is because my parents are immigrants, and they were getting an education on race in America along with their children.  They couldn’t teach me what it meant to be black in America because they themselves didn’t know.  If you talk to them today, their views on race and racism are very different than what they communicated to us even just a few years ago.

In any event, I’ve had to grapple with race and racism largely on my own, and carve out my own identity as a black American woman and as a member of the African diaspora, and all that is still a work in progress.  And I have to figure out how to help my biracial, black, American daughter make sense of these questions for herself, and sort through her own experiences of race and racism, which will be similar but also quite different from mine – all while I’m still working on understanding them myself. That’s not easy. But it would be a mistake to just not try because it would be difficult.

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