Monday, March 31, 2008

Balancing Racial Identity

Roadkill Refugee pointed out this article that made me want to talk about this subject of race just a tad more. (Well, maybe more than a tad.)

I pointed out yesterday that I am Mexican. I am also Irish. We weren't raised immersed in the Mexican culture; we were raised in Santa Cruz! People were always asking my mom about her heritage, and it's a question I get sometimes, as well - although people always guess wrong. I get Jewish a lot, and my mom is presumed to be Chinese. My mother comes from a time where assimilation was the thing to do. It was better not to stand out - particularly when married to a white man! I was raised to be color-blind.

She did attempt a few times to teach us Spanish, but we just didn't see the value in it at the time. I was more interested in learning sign language (although I never got further than the alphabet). We picked up a few phrases here and there, but didn't really consider ourselves "Mexican."

We didn't consider ourselves "Irish" either. We were raised that we were Americans, first and foremost, and that our race should not matter. Of course, on those forms, you can't just say that. You have to pick a race. For a long time, I picked 'Caucasian.'

When we moved from Santa Cruz (where I was considered "ethnic") to East Los Angeles, can you say, culture shock? I was one of the whitest kids there, and no one believed me if I mentioned being Mexican as well. Although, one year, I let some girls do my hair for picture day. "Chola" is really the only word capable of describing how big it was! I was also guilty of picking up the cadence every now and then...bugged the heck out of my parents!

In high school, we discussed race on a new level, particularly when it came to college admission applications. I was encouraged, by every teacher and my parents, to select 'Hispanic' as my race. It took some getting used to for me. It felt dishonest somehow. In the end (and I'm sure I had some help on figuring this out, but I can't remember who earns the credit for it), I decided I was helping to re-define what 'Hispanic' meant by not being what was considered a typical Mexican. I was a 3rd generation Mexican from a middle-class, interracial family.

The other interesting note about race that I encountered at the time was that my long-time high school boyfriend was African-American. (I think we still said "black" then, though.) I remember once we were asked about how our parents felt about us dating. We didn't quite understand the question at first; we both had to have it explained to us that they were referring to whether or not it was a problem for our parents that we were dating someone of another race. I asked my parents how they felt about it; my dad's answer was that he didn't care, so long as we avoided the South, where he feared our safety. (He was born in Louisiana, and after his years as an Army brat, ended up in El Paso, TX, where he met my mother.)

My own encounters with racism or prejudice are much like I described yesterday. A few years ago, at a multi-cultural school event no less, a mother told me that she was transferring her daughter out of our daughters' mutual class because there were only "three white kids" in the class. Again, I was pretty shocked. I did point out that we were Mexican, and she started her back-tracking dance - which I might have found amusing, had I not been so irritated!

When I was working on the cruise ship, there was an older gentleman passenger who, when hearing that I and another entertainer were from Los Angeles started to go off on how the city's gone "downhill" since the "blacks and Mexicans took it over." That was the hardest encounter because he was a passenger, and our job was to make sure he was satisfied, but neither of us were willing to compromise ourselves in order to make him happy. I don't think it occurred to him that either of us could be Mexican (which we both were) - luckily, my colleague did the majority of the talking. It was a great lesson for me in how to be diplomatic without compromising yourself.

I know I'm sort of rambling here, bear with me. My point is, that it really never affected me so much as it seemed to affect other people. But I guess that's pretty much how racism and/or prejudice works, huh?

Not really knowing any other way to do it, I've raised my girls the same way. They're aware that they're Mexican, Irish, and Greek (their father is full-blown Greek). However, I've also had to stop and ask myself which box I should check when it comes to those forms. They're "less" Mexican than I am, and I read in the L.A. Times once that it actually helps on our CHOICES form to put "Caucasian" rather than "Hispanic" because "Caucasian" is the minority here. I still hate the whole thing. I still hate having to check a box.

My oldest daughter has also been accused of not being Mexican enough. I hate my answers to her because they're contradictory: "First of all, you are Mexican. Second of all, it doesn't - or shouldn't - matter." I hate having to talk about it.

Of course now the 'in' thing is to be in touch with your heritage. I always groan at these school projects. I probably shouldn't. I probably should embrace their quest to learn about their heritage. My mother helps a lot, as does my dad (for which I am grateful) when it comes to those assignments.

I'm still trying to balance this whole race issue out for myself, and for my kids. That article (referenced above) is probably the first one I've read that talks about me, as a whole person, and my girls. I don't want them to deny any part of who they are, and I don't want them to feel like they're stuck in any box. I understand the values of the boxes a little more - that it can help show how far (or not) we've come in racial equality - but is it too much to ask for those boxes to start letting us pick all of who we are?

I've noticed on surveys that I fill out that more and more, they're letting me say that I'm Caucasian with Hispanic descent. I think that's the most apt definition of who I am, and who my daughters are. And maybe even a definition of how far this country has come as well.

Edited to add: I just found out today was Cesar Chavez Day - guess I'm more out of tough with my Mexican culture than I thought!


Anonymous said...

Interesting. I guess if you want to get technical, I am French-Czech (my MIL initially thought I was Jewish). My great-grandparents on both sides came to the United States and became farmers in the Midwest. As far as I'm concerned, I am as white and as American as a white American can be! Any traces of Czech and French blood running through my veins is so miniscule that I wouldn't ever identify with being European.

My sister's three children, however, are 50% Mexican (their dad is from Guadalajara). My sister and I had the "box" discussion before. Do they identify with a certain race to suit their personal agenda. For example, will checking "hispanic" help them receive more college aid? Will checking "caucasian" give them a leg up on a job? It's an interesting conundrum. All of the kids are bilingual and spend summers in Mexico. They look "Mexican" more so than "white" so I can't imagine anyone making a racial slur at them in error.

Now my younger sister's daughter is 25% Mexican (her dad is 50%). She's as blond as blond can be. You would NEVER guess that she's of Mexican heritage. Because her dad is not a part of her life, I doubt she will ever acknowledge that part of herself.

LunaNik said...

Oh boy, great post. I love the whole "box checking" perspective. Very interesting. This article also kinda affects me...well, ok, not ME but my girls. They are half Cuban. I wonder what box they will choose to check once they get older?

OHmommy said...

Very interesting post. They should elminate the check boxes, don't you agree?

April said...

Lis - I wonder how many cultural projects your kids will get? I can definitely relate to your sister's concerns! This is why I wish we could check all the appropriate boxes and hopefully it would work "for" our kids most of the time.

Lunanik - I'd love to see Obama answer this question for both himself and his kids (mainly out of curiosity, but also to hear his reasons).

OhMommy - I'd like to say that it'd be better to get rid of the boxes, but unfortunately, I don't think we're there yet. On the upside, I think the dialogue (by the mere inclusion of discussing bi-racial and multi-racial Americans) is progressing nicely!

Florinda said...

I found this post, and the whole discussion, fascinating.

My second husband is tall, fair-haired, blue-eyed, and has a Latino last name. His heritage is Mexican on his father's side, Irish and German on his mother's. His coloring and appearance are actually pretty similar to my first husband's, who is WASP through and through.

My parents were children of European immigrants and identified people first off by their ethnicities. We still do this, but it's gotten a lot tougher to pin down.

Anonymous said...

hmmm, I tried to post up my comment last night but for some reason it didn't take.

Anyway, what I wanted to say was that I've always found those 'check your identity here' boxes really aggravating. I mean, really can any one person be defined by one characteristic? I've always thought that we should all be "other", you know, since we all are.

Tara R. said...

I guess you could say that I'm a mutt... but that box would never be an option. I appreciate reading this discussion from your perspective. I too hate that race, ethnicity, is still an issue.

Single Working Mommy said...

I agree with flornida. I found this post to be particularly fascinating, as well.

I'm a blonde-haired blue-eyed girl who grew up in a very small, very northern, mostly-white town. I think maybe we had three black/African-American people in our town. I didn't know any Jewish people, any Mexican/Hispanics, anyone other than white people, and the few African-Americans.

It was quite a culture shock to go to college!