“Are you black?”
Entertaining as it’s been to just watch, Joey’s argument with his friend about racism has brought up Darwin, The Velvet Underground and a beer or two, and now he means to bring me up as well.
But Joey, a former UVU student who was born in Memphis, means to shake things up a bit for his friend, who so far has been referring to racism as if it only ever makes white people guilty of something.
“Are you black, Matthew?”
See, it’s a trick question.
“How many Mexicans do you think it takes to clean my room?”
I used to ask. It would take two: one guy would take out the trash and then either his sister or his mother would vacuum.
Which of the two is more politically correct than the other: ambivalence about racism, or representing a non-white person accurately?
When I was required to identify my racial heritage, I would never identify my Puerto Rican mother in a way that made me have anything in common with Latinos.
But her white skin is what made that easy to do.
My Haitian father, however, was my claim to inner blackness.
If I looked like a Mexican but wasn’t, then surely I could pass for black, even though I sounded and acted as if I was white. Right?
By the time I was old enough to drive, I’d earned the nickname “Oreo,” black on the outside, white on the inside. That means, especially in Utah, I’m just barely black enough.
“Matthew, why don’t you ever listen to Tupac, man? Don’t you like hip hop?” “Why are you reading books all the time, bro?” “What do you mean, you hate basketball?” “Dude, pull a Will Smith for us … wait, what do you mean you’ve never seen “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”?
It’s a trick question.
My mother could pass as white no matter where she went in the United States because she came from Spain, she came from a wealthy family who was high class in Puerto Rico, and was fluent in both written and spoken English.
The translations of her social and racial prejudices are rough and complex, but even without setting foot on Spanish soil, spending time in elite parts of San Juan, and even years of training in a different language, I still inherited a distrust – and even a distaste – for anyone who isn’t white, and especially those darker than me.
“I don’t mean to sound racist, Matthew, but you might be the whitest … not white person I’ve ever met!
My father was exiled from Haiti for fighting against its political leadership. He fled for his life to Canada, where he became a citizen. He keeps that citizenship because although he’s spent most of my lifetime in the U.S., he’s only an alien.
During the election of the first black president in this country, I was standing in line in an elementary school to vote while my dad stayed at home, same as every year, eating a cold dinner and watching TV.
“Well, then,” Joey’s friend says, “if you don’t identify as black, then what do you identify as? White?”
He thinks he’s making a joke.
Who gets to be ambivalent about racism? A hint on this one: it’s often the same people who say they’re so sick of hearing about it.
I inherited my mother’s racism, a kind of white supremacy that doesn’t necessarily share in what every non-white person experiences on this campus, a campus that brings together so many students from all over the globe yet sometimes uses cultural divides to keep the ethnic “Other” where it belongs.
Only a white person who spent the most formative years of his or her life in a society where running into someone not white is something of an event would find the relationship between all this the least bit surprising.
Is racism ever ultimately about who is white and who isn’t?
I laugh when I hear the word “white guilt.” I’m annoyed by the word “colorblind.” I get confused when I hear the word “anti-racist.” And I’m positively stunned, sometimes angry, when I hear someone say “anti-white,” or use the phrase “reverse discrimination” to imply the same. Are they code words?
Black on the outside, white on the inside. See, it’s a trick question.
Since I always liked to read, I wanted to learn how to read well. In 2008, I took a class from Dr. John Goshert on multiethnic literature.
I read “Puddn’head Wilson” and “Those Extraordinary Twins” by Mark Twain, “The White Boy Shuffle” by Paul Beatty, “The Confessions of Nat Turner” by William Styron and “Flight To Canada” by Ishmael Reed. I watched Robert Townsend’s 1987 film “Hollywood Shuffle” and Spike Lee’s 2000 film “Bamboozled”.
I learned to think critically about blackness in the U.S. I learned to re-examine my ethnic and national heritages as a displaced and confused encounter between the Spaniards in my family and Native American Indians, Haitians, Canadians, Puerto Ricans and finally me, fraught with contradictions and paradoxes, a U.S. citizen. More specifically, head to toes, from the Yukon to the Caribbean, an American.
And I decided to never identify as black again. But is that a choice I get in America?
How about this one: what’s more racist, ignorance or ambivalence?
Being a UVU student changed how I encountered the ethnic “Other” in Utah because I took the time to learn what racism is.
This campus provides a great opportunity for everyone to do that, but most people miss it if they think, uncritically, that having classmates from South Korea makes them globally aware, or getting their fake Mexican burrito from a black girl is just lunchtime.
And speaking of lunchtime: ever wonder why there are only white kids working at Jamba Juice?
No one who talks about “white guilt” knows what it is unless they are not white. And only a white person who spent the most formative years of his or her life in a mostly white town would fail to understand racism so miserably as to use a word like “anti-white.”
Joey takes a sip from his beer as he says to his friend, “You will never understand racism in America until you understand blackness in America.” I couldn’t put
Writer’s note — In solidarity with my colleague, Felicia Joy.