By Guest Contributor T. F. Charlton; originally published as Grace is Human
A couple nights ago I made an offhand comment on Twitter about the conflation of “Black” with “African American” – the two aren’t synonymous – in response to a tweet referring to Nelson Mandela, y’know, the Xhosa, South African Nelson Mandela, as “African American.” It touched off a long and really interesting conversation about race, ethnicity, and identity, which is Storified and shared below.
A conversation on blackness, ethnicity, nationality, and identity. Not in strict chronological order – somewhat rearranged so the conversation flows more logically.
By Guest Contributor Sarah J. Jackson; originally published at Are Women Human?
Naming and Politics
In February 1964, Cassius Clay became the heavyweight champion of the world. A month later, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. For months–in some cases years–journalists, members of the boxing establishment, and occasionally his competitors refused to call Ali by his new name. Grant Farred (2003)contends that Ali’s name change was “simultaneously an act of negation (denial of his slave name) and self-construction (adoption of his Islamic name), both…the acquisition of an unprecedented ideological agency.” (28)
The controversy that erupted over Ali’s name then hinged largely on the perceived ideological danger of a black man in America refusing “safe” narratives of black masculinity and politics. Ali’s choice to rename himself, alongside his conversion to Islam, and later refusal to serve in Vietnam were treated as anti-American, threatening, and unstable. The social and economic consequences were years of denigration in the press, alongside a formal ban from boxing in the United States.
In what can only be described as a combination of social and political progress and severe historical amnesia, Ali is now commonly lauded as an American hero with little acknowledgement from the media of the ways he was socially disciplined for his decisions. Contemporary constructions of Ali rarely discuss in any detail the anti-colonial politics that lead to his dissent around Vietnam or the domestic racial politics that lead to his identification with the Nation of Islam and name change. Ali’s identity then continues to be shaped by forces outside of himself, but the necessary negotiations around it have left a lasting mark on the way our country understands sports, politics, and race.
I am total a geek. Who’s a geek here? That’s probably a rhetorical question at a TED conference, right? I love Star Wars, I collect action figures, and my favorite biography is the biography of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style–for God’s sake, I read a book about the writing of another grammar book. How about those geek credentials?
I’m here today to talk about grammar, but not the “gotcha” grammar of split infinitives and the misuse of “whom” because frankly, I hate it when grammar is used to belittle others. I am here to talk to you how grammar is a tool, to be used like a pair of glasses. When employed at the right time, grammar can bring the world into sharp focus, and when used at the wrong time, it can make things incredibly blurry. And this all starts with the subjunctive. I remember talking to my dad about the subjunctive, and because he wasn’t a native English speaker, he didn’t understand all the nuances of the subjunctive. “Listen, Dad. You can say something like ‘If it hadn’t rained, we would have gone to the beach.’” And his response? “That’s a stupid thing to say. Why are you talking about something that didn’t happen?” (A staunch reader of non-fiction, my father has a similar opinion of fiction. “Why do you want to read books about people who never existed doing things that never happened?”)
Here’s a quick refresher of the subjunctive: in English, we have three moods: indicative, subjunctive, and imperative. If we use the indicative mood in writing or speaking, we view the verb’s action as factual: “I am talking at a TED conference.” And the subjunctive mood is used when we view the action as nonfactual: “I might shit my pants.” The imperative mood is used when we view the action as a command: “Bring me a change of clothes.” The subjunctive comprises all the nuances of non-fact: potentiality, possibility, and contrafactuality.
The subjunctive mood allows us to look into the future and see multiple, highly nuanced possibilities with just a little sprinkling of could’s, would’s and might’s. Similarly, it also allows us to look into the past, to envision a world that didn’t happen but could have happened. The subjunctive is the most powerful mooda time-space dream machine that can create alternate realities with the idea of “would have been” or “should have been.”
And within this idea of “should have” is a Pandora’s box of regret and hope.
Growing up in Pennsylvania as a Vietnamese refugee, I would sometimes think about what would have happened if my family hadn’t escaped Saigon in 1975. Would we have been imprisoned like my father’s cousin, who spent years in re-education camp being tortured and sentenced to hard labor, or would we have been killed like countless other South Vietnamese unable to escape that April? The night we were fleeing Saigon, my entire family–grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles–were scheduled to board a bus. As the bus was loading passengers to go to the airport, I begin crying, shrieking uncontrollably–so much so that the entire family decided to wait for the next bus. And as that bus pulled away, it was struck by artillery fire, exploded, and killed everyone on board. As a young kid, I thought a lot about our good fortune and about what could have happened. I didn’t know it then, but I was pondering things that my parents couldn’t ponder–all because of the English subjunctive. Continue reading →
Four baby girls are born in China to families who are unable to keep them, largely because of China’s “One Child Policy.” Instead of being raised by their biological parents, the baby girls are raised in orphanages, and then eventually adopted by American families to be whisked halfway around the world to the United States. There, they grow up with Sesame Street, hip-hop, and Twitter. They describe themselves as “bananas”: white on the inside and yellow on the outside. All is well, until they hit their teen years, when their pasts pull at them, and they begin to wonder, “Who am I?”
All four know they were probably “given up” because they were girls (they are understandably uncomfortable with the word “abandoned”), and grapple with issues of race, gender, and identity more acutely than most their age.
Documentaries have been made before about international adoption, but they have always been from the point of view of the adoptive, Caucasian parents, or the adult adoptee. Young women’s voices are rarely heard—especially young women of color. SOMEWHERE BETWEEN lets four teenaged girls—Fang, Haley, Ann, and Jenna—tell their own stories, letting the film unfold from their points of view and shedding light on their deepest thoughts: about their families, their feelings of being “other,” and their powerful connections to a past that most of them cannot recall.
The film captures nearly three years in the lives of these four dynamic young women.
Two days ago I was walking on my way to work and, as always, I have my coffee on Flinders Lane in central Melbourne. While waiting for my coffee, a well-meaning Australian came up to me and asked me what my ethnicity was. I had no idea who he was nor did I know what he wanted. Who is he, and why is he so enthusiastic to ascertain my identity–where I come from?
Did I find him racist and condescending? Yes.
Was there a power dynamic inherent to this question? Yes, there was.
On this occasion, I pondered the situation silently, which put the questioner in an awkward position. “Here we go again,” I told myself. Do I answer this, or tell him what I think, that he is just another racist trying to judge people by where they come from or what they look like? If I were to question or argue with him, would my actions be interpreted as reverse racism on my part? I chose to simply walk away rather than answer the question. Continue reading →
I stepped out of my car, pink skies streaking dusky blues overhead. The hot desert heat stung my skin while the temperature simultaneously dropped dramatically, stirring up that Maghrib winds that conjures up images of swooping invisible jinns snatching at your uncovered hair. Apprehensively I stood, looking first at the large American flag gracing the chain linked fence of the house across the street. I then looked at the mosque, which was really just a 1970s California ranch style house that was being used as a mosque–the Al Nur Mosque located in Ontario, CA. It was hard to think that this was the “scary Mozlem temple” that elicited three pig feet being thrown in the driveway only days earlier by two women in a white truck during the sacred late night Ramadan prayers.
Last time I had been in a mosque was last year when my mother had died, and the last time I had been in this mosque was for the special prayer we held 48 hours after her burial. It was the most spiritually connected moment of my life. I hadn’t been that connected since then, and it held me paralyzed as I stood breathlessly by my car. I wondered how I’d be accepted in this space, showing up alone without my Mom by my side. She was my community conduit. The mosque was created and attended by the Bangladeshi immigrant community that raised me but I was an adult now and building my own communities. But the events of the week weighed down terribly on me, and I knew that I had to be present in this particular mosque as a show of solidarity–or maybe more as a statement. I practiced my Islam defiantly, wore my religion on my brown skin politically. I was Muslim, despite America’s fear.
I stepped into the backyard. I was greeted by foldable tables lined up in rows, paper tablecloths whipping in the wind. The tables were covered with plates of pakoras, channa, dates, and glasses of rose flavored pink drink. Men in white kurtas and thupees sat on one side of the yard, women with dupattas wrapped around their heads sat on the other. The imam caught my eye and smiled at me in recognition. I meekly smiled back. Last time I had seen him we had gotten into a fight over my insistence of having the women’s prayer section up front next to the men’s section for Mom’s funeral prayer instead of hidden in a back room. My Islam was radical in that way.
The mood was calm, normal even. There was no fear hanging in the air, nor were there giddy pleasantries. It felt placid. People saw me and nodded wordlessly, as if after all these years, they’d been expecting me. It had been a long hot day of 109 degrees and people were ready to break their fast. Somewhere in the house, the imam began azaan and the call for prayer. Dates were eaten, water sipped. The tables emptied quietly as people filtered in to pray and as if on cue the desert wind kicked up, knocking pink drinks all over the paper lined tables. The calm mood struck me as odd, but it made sense given the context. If there’s something you learn from a day of fasting in long and hot weather, it’s that you have no time for bullshit.
I, on the other hand, was festering from the weight of the Islamophobia of the week. Continue reading →
As a preface, I encourage you to read this edited excerpt from Harsha Walia’s response to this incident on the Racialicious blog:
“To my Sikh sisters and brothers: this incident is yet another reminder of what it means for us to be racialized as Others and as eternal Outsiders…We cannot see and name ourselves as ‘accidental’ victims of Islamophobia, which suggests that somehow Muslims are more “appropriate” targets of racism…Striving to be more desirable within an oppressive system–that is built on our social discipline and compels our obedience–will never set us free. What will set us free is our collective liberation and thriving as the proud brown people we were meant to be.” —
I am a Sikh. Or at least half. With his hair shorn. Yeah, it’s kinda nebulous. This has been my refrain for as long as I can remember. I’ve been as attached to “my” Sikh identity as strongly as a stray hair hanging out from the back of a poorly-tied turban (though not my father’s, let me assure you. No stray hairs there).
South Asian social mores would dictate that a child (a son, no less) born to a Sikh father would undoubtedly raised a Sikh. He would don a little bun wound into tightly-wrapped cloth (joora) atop his head, murmuring Guru Granth Sahib verses alongside a set of twangy, off-key pajis and, at least in the US, being shipped off to various camps to memorize, recite, and maybe–just maybe–internalize something. Well, that was not the case with me. In fact, for a variety of reasons, some intentional, most not, the development of my identity as a Sikh was not quite “marginalized,” but certainly somewhat subverted, and I was reared a good Hindu boy by a mother suspended somewhere between Punjabi goddess worship and post-colonial, urban, middle-class Brahminism.
The world in the 1980s. The Golden Temple incident; Indira Gandhi has been assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards; Hindus and Sikhs are busy killing each other in the streets of Delhi; we live in a Bronx neighborhood where outsiders, despite this being New York City, are not particularly well-liked. So, the decision is made: he will not wear a joora and, as such, the Sikh bit a fell to the side. Though the decisions may not have been conscious, Punjabi was eschewed in favor of Hindi, and Guru Nanak eschewed in favor of Durga. To be fair, I learned how to recite many verses and went to the gurdwara and sat through langar, as well as the many in-home readings of the holy book, that both sides of my family, despite one being Hindu, decided to keep–but it wasn’t quite the same. At the end of the day, the Sikh-est thing about me was my middle name–and, well, the manifestation of that which pulses in all Sikh blood–the ability to two-step to a little bhangra. Continue reading →
I’m not going to lie. I’m not a big fan of the Olympics and in fact every four years I think I hate them more, for all of the obvious reasons. Vancouver 2012 I disliked the most because when watching the opening ceremonies with my then eight year old insomniac, in what must have been the middle of the night, he looked at me and said “When is Team Anishinaabeg going to be entering the stadium? Probably before Team Haudenosaunee, right, because Anishinaabeg begins with A?” As all Native parents know, the colonialism talk makes the sex talk look a lot like a platter of cupcakes with a chaser of ice cream cones.
This year, I’ve been lucky and I’ve mostly been able to ignore the whole conspicuous spectacle, except that during the opening ceremonies I had to unfollow Billy Bragg on Twitter because he was so enamored with Danny Boyle’s lefty take on the ceremony, that he failed to notice Boyle skipping over the four hundred years of colonialism, genocide and occupation England’s heaped on Indigenous nations globally. And yes, this year my entire Olympic experience is mitigated through my Twitter feed which is made up almost exclusively of Indigenous artists, academics and writers. Which means in addition to the Billy Bragg incident, the only Olympic related news I’ve heard is confined to the two racist athletes expelled from the games, the four Indigenous athletes from North America including Anishinaabekwe Mary Spence and today, Damien Hooper. Continue reading →
Race, Culture, and Identity in a Colorstruck World