On Monday, Joan Walsh wrote a compelling article on Salon, “Are the Tsarnaev brothers white?” She begins with a discussion of a piece by David Sirota, written after the bombing and before the suspects were identified, that expressed the hope that the bombers were white Americans and the shitstorm that followed once the suspects were identified. The shitstorm, stirred up on the right-wing, was premised on the “fact” that the bombers turned out not to be white. Walsh writes
But are we sure the Tsarnaevs aren’t white? They are quite literally Caucasian, as in from the Caucuses: Rebecca Eisenberg helps with this handy map. And ethnically in this country, we count Americans of Russian descent, as well as Chechens, as white….So why are the Tsarnaev brothers not white, at least to right-wingers? Is it only because they’re Muslim? Muslim immigrants? Or is it because they’re “bad,” and whiteness must be surrendered when white people are bad?
It reminded me of a bizarre situation I found myself in at my last job. In this job, I would meet with families of young children who had developmental delays or were at risk for them. The risk typically came from factors associated with poverty. The home visiting work I have done for the past twenty years has always been with and in marginalized communities – with first-time teen parents, in the poor urban areas of Holyoke and Springfield in Western Massachusetts.
On this job, as part of meeting these families, I would gather information about them – their concerns and dreams for their children, how to best provide support to them and their family, resources and strengths they already have and ones that would be of benefit to them. It is work that I have loved deeply.
As in all (most?) social service jobs, we also had to collect demographic information, which includes racial/ethnic identification. Typically, the form that collects this information has categories that are pre-assigned (as opposed to asking the family how they self-identify). In the case of my last job, these were divided into two major categories: ethnicity first, race. Under ethnicity, there were a slew of options, typically of the state I live in, plus the ubiquitous “other __________________” option. Under race, there were far fewer options, though a family could choose more than one – this is an improvement over past restrictions and reflected our nation’s changing understanding of multi-racial identities. Racial categories includes Black, white, Pacific-Islander/Asian, American Indian, and another I am now forgetting. It did not include “Hispanic,” because that was covered as an option under ethnicity.
The majority of the families I served in this job were Puerto Rican. I do not know if this is typical of Puerto Ricans in other parts of the mainland U.S., if this is reflective not just of an ethnic identity but also reflects class affiliation, but nearly every Puerto Rican family I have worked with in my capacity as a white social worker has referred to themselves, or their community, as “Spanish.”
At first, with my elite college education and my devotion to empowering language of and for marginalized peoples, I was confused: I thought the proper lingo should be “Latino/a” and it would be even better to be specific, such as “Puerto Rican.” Nope. “Spanish.” And it was clearly not Spanish from Spain. If I used “Latino/a” with the families I was serving, it created an undesired distance (though not with the Latino/a service provider colleagues, so maybe class plays a big role here).
Filling out the ethnicity section with these Puerto Rican (and sometimes Dominican) families tended to be really easy. Not only was “Hispanic” an option for them, there was a sub-category that specifically said “Puerto Rican” (or “Dominican”). Yet the racial categories part was always difficult. To a one, these families did not see themselves reflected in the racial categories presented by the form. There certainly was no “Spanish” but there was not even what they were looking for: “Hispanic.”
Acknowledging the flawed options for race on the form, my boss gave us clear instructions for how to complete the demographics section of our paperwork, particularly as it related to our Puerto Rican families. Because the governing funding source did not allow for families to decline to give this information (wtf??!?), if they did decline, my boss directed me to fill it in on families’ behalf, by choosing both black and white.
Are you still breathing? Or are you seething? I think I’m having a mini-PTSD moment here as I write, so I’m on the seething side.
Yes, I know that the social construction of race is totally arbitrary, utterly complex, and relentlessly insidious, generating bizarre solutions like the one above. I do not (solely) blame my boss, though I resented being compelled to take part in a protocol I found to be not only lacking in integrity, but subtly damaging – to my conceptualization of fellow human beings and to our agency’s authentic engagement with the families we were serving.
Because I am, at heart, a rule-follower, and because I needed my job, my solution was transparency. With each “Spanish” family who found themselves stymied by the offered racial categories, I explained to them what would happen if they did not choose for themselves: that I would end having to put down both “black” and ‘white.” Of course, they were surprised (some were shocked, others outraged). We then engaged in conversations about race. Sometimes we talked about Puerto Rican history, spoke of the Taíno (the indigenous peoples of the island who were wiped out by European presence). These conversations were some of the more compelling moments on the job, though the job was one of the most compelling I have held. Home visiting with families with young children is awesome.
The vast majority opted to choose for themselves, saving me from having to do the unsavory task of choosing for them. Occasionally, families choose multiple categories of white and American Indian (reflecting that Taíno connection). Not once did they choose black and white as a combination. But more often than not, no matter the color of their skin, these Puerto Rican families would choose “white.” Even parents with skin darker than Oprah’s, would choose, “white,” often telling me that they are “Americans,” so of course they are white.
At first, I worried that was a reflection of racism we find in most (all?) cultures that denigrates darker skin. Perhaps it is. If so, it’s worrisome. Or perhaps it is a buying into that historical process of assimilation of immigrants that in becoming American, one must also become white. In the same Joan Walsh article, she describes this process:
Over its long history America has regularly featured a process of sorting white from non-white, even among European immigrant groups. I’m not a huge admirer of the now-dated whiteness studies academic movement, but those scholars did help illuminate the way various groups of European immigrants, particularly the Irish, but also Jews, Italians and Eastern Europeans, “became” white over time, in a complicated process of determined assimilation, gradually lessening prejudice by existing “white” society, and most important, the arrival of newcomers to take the place of the scapegoated non-white other, alongside the definitive non-white scapegoats, African-Americans. Embracing racism and xenophobia, sadly, could be a shortcut to white status for previously non-white European immigrants.
Again, if so, it is worrisome.
Now I wonder if, in addition to the above concerns, it is legitimate to see this as a creative, radical subversion of an involuntary, warped system. I must admit I take delight in the idea that Elizabeth, one of my more memorable clients, a woman with dark caramel skin, is living her life, raising her child, proud of her Puerto Rican heritage, yet the data-driven institutions of the state that are so devoted to cold statistics and dangerous categories have her listed as white.
I do not want funding for life-saving programs to be diverted away from communities of color because the theory that informs the data collection process is not shared by the communities being counted. Though I believe we are one human family, I embrace and celebrate the diversity of all of us, rather than stress the commonalities my white (and other privileged identities) encourage me to see (which is what I think funds the endowment for the School of Color Blindness).
Yet like interfaith unions, like people who understand themselves to be biracial or multi-racial, there is an unwavering human impulse towards…love. (Yes, yes, there also seems to be a relentless drive towards self-destruction, too, but that’s for a different post. Both/and, not either/or…)
Love, you say? What does this have to do with love? Regeneration. Reconstitution. Resistance. All these, energized by that Great Pulse, what some call God, others Mystery, that calls us to show up, again and again, surviving individual and collective insults and threats to our authentic selves, finding love even with the forbidden, disregarding categories and borders.