Tina K. Russell

April 1, 2008

Mixed-race America

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 7:26 pm

Who Are We? New Dialogue on Mixed Race – New York Times

Carmen Van Kerckhove, a diversity consultant who runs a blog on race and popular culture, racialicious.com, said she doubted that the uproar that greeted Tiger Woods when he described himself as “Cablinasian” (for heritage that includes Caucasian, black, American Indian and Asian) in 1997 would be as strong today.

I was surprised when I read that; I was in elementary school in 1997, and never heard of that uproar, and I guess I grew up with the popular image of Tiger Woods as a syrupy mix of ethnic goodness. So, I did a Google search and found an article, from that time, about that incident. (God bless the Internet.) It’s very interesting!

 Whites, Hispanics and Asians can — in part depending on their class — define themselves, make up their own identities independent of race. It’s much harder for blacks to do that — partly because whites won’t let them, but also because, as many of Funderburg’s subjects relate, other blacks won’t let them.

That’s interesting to me because I totally identify as having Norwegian heritage, in that I trumpet that above all else, despite the fact that I am actually only one-quarter Norwegian; my dad was born to a German and a Norwegian, grew up in Norway, and moved to America as a young child, while my mom’s ancestors hopped over on the Mayflower (the first illegals!) and had Dutch ancestry. (My mom is rather proud that she despoiled her until-now pristine, Daughters-of-the-American-Revolution heritage, and I’m glad she did, ’cause I like my Viking blood.) Moreover, though, I like videogames and comic books and I love to write and draw, and I’m often seen using my beloved tablet computer. I guess, when you’re black, you have less choice in the matter because you’re seen first as being black.

But also… you saw above how I was able to pick and choose from my ancestry how I want to define myself, right? My dad’s Norwegian birthright is where my thin claim of Viking-hood rests, and yet I feel it makes me an authentic Norse maiden (efficient and with a very high standard of living, if you know what I mean). If I want to, though, I can go into my full ancestry; I sometimes joke that a mom from the Mayflower and a dad from Scandinavia makes me whiter than white, making Leave it to Beaver look like Shaka Zulu. But if you’re black in America, often, you don’t have that freedom to define your racial identity because your ancestors’ history was wiped clean by brutal slave-traders. That’s a tragedy.

So, I guess I can see why black Americans got angry at Tiger Woods for going against this common problem by discussing his ancestry, unlike many of his black friends and probably his black father as well, who are unable to give such a nuanced and poetic description of their heritage. (Look at the pride focused on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Frederick Douglass: this is an armchair observation, but I would imagine that, when your documented history does not go back far, you focus on what you have. It just so happens that these two were badass.) Perhaps that contributed to early skepticism of Barack Obama, with black Americans weary of a man proud of his well-documented ancestry across many nations and faiths. The Islamic movement in black America was based on the fact that any black American’s ancestors were simply very likely to be Muslim. And unlike me, who can state proudly that I’ve got a father from this place and a mother from there, most black Americans can’t say, oh, yes, my dad’s from Ghana and my mom’s from Burkina Faso, but with a pinch of Namibian spice. I hope that enters the discussion as we (hopefully) reopen the issue of race in America and resolve to heal, at long last, these old racial wounds.

By the way, I went to the first session of my African Studies class today. It seems like it will be fun, with lots of guest lecturers. Anyway, our teacher mentioned one woman he knew, who was bothered by the title, Survivor: Africa; I presume this was not due to any fault of the show, but that, because of our ignorance of Africa and its diversity, Africa gets the only season of Survivor named for an entire continent. I’d wonder if this sad cleansing of African-Americans’ roots plays into our ignorance of Africa’s 49 nations. Then again, another element is probably the way the British and French carved up the continent with a Sharpie while completely ignoring ethnic and tribal boundaries. Man, us white people have serious issues. We shouldn’t be pointing fingers at anybody.

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