“What Are You? Confusions of the Racially, Ethnically, and Culturally Ambiguous”
“What are you?” is a question I have heard all too often throughout my life. You would think that, after being asked it so often, I would by now have more clarity on how to answer it. But it seems the more it is asked the murkier the waters get.
In our society “what are you?” is how we ask about racial, ethnic, and cultural identities. But how do I even begin to answer this question? Sometimes I want to say “a humanoid” but I know that answer will only beg further questioning, so I resist.
In America racial, ethnic, and cultural identities have always held tremendous weight in regards to status, achievement, and perceived value. With so much weight placed on this one single question, I better get it right.
Both of my parents parents have roots in Juana Diaz–a city in Puerto Rico–but they both grew up in New York City so most would refer to them as “Nuyorican”.
My mom (and all her siblings) gives the outward appearance of white and she associates as a white Latina (I believe but I honestly have never asked but we will operate on that assumption). Though she is 1/8th Taino Indian and embraces those roots as well. So I guess that would expand her identity to White Taino Rican. Still with me?
My dad is dark skinned. His African roots are very apparent in his features and All his family is very melanated. The history of my father’s family I am not so clear on since I was not raised by my father and have limited interaction with my dad’s side of the family. The last name he passed down to me is Cosme. Its place of origin is France. “Saint” Cosme brought the name to Brazil while doing missionary work to spread Christianity. Saint Cosme was actually the inspiration for the Christ the savior statue in Brazil. I’m unsure of how this has stretched to Puerto Rico and if I have French or Brazilian heritage or Cosme was simply the name of a slave owner that held the rights to the livelihood of my paternal ancestors. Whew!! That was a trip! Did I lose you yet?
Now, if I just go by that I would answer the “what are you?” question as follows: “Racially I am black, white, and native. Culturally I am Nuyorican. Ethnically I am Taino, and possibly Brazilian, French, and/or Moorish.” Wow that’s a mouthful. Now what does all that mean?
These identities are important to who? No really to me. I could care less about answering the question of “who are you?”. I feel these identities limit who I am. I feel my being expands much further than these identities. So who cares about these identities? I mentioned earlier that it is society who cares. Society defines these identities and enforces them. If that is the case and all these identities are defined and reinforced by society does that mean these identities are agreed upon by society, and what metrics does society use to place people in each designated identity? Let’s explore this last question further.
For race I will use my two favorite formal definitions according to dictionary.com because I want this philosophical delve to retain a sense of scholarly repute. At the same time I want to have a little fun here, if you’d be so kind as to indulge me.
Race formally defined below:
- an arbitrary classification of modern humans, sometimes, especially formerly, based on any or a combination of various physical characteristics, as skin color, facial form, or eye shape, and now frequently based on such genetic markers as blood groups.
- a socially constructed category of identification based on physical characteristics, ancestry, historical affiliation, or shared culture.
In my opinion, these two definitions do well enough to encompass the totality of what is used in America to classify someone based on Race.
Now let’s define culture and ethnicity.
- Anthropology. the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.
- an ethnic group; a social group that shares a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, or the like: Representatives of several ethnicities were present.
- ethnic traits, background, allegiance, or association.
- (of a human being) displaying characteristics, as in physical appearance, language, or accent, that can cause one to be identified by others as a member of a minority ethnic group.
After reviewing these definitions it becomes apparent why I have been unable to feel comfortable identifying solely with one cultural, ethnic, or racial group. Based off my racial makeup I cannot associate only with one racial group. The wildcard then becomes historical affiliation and shared culture.
Nuyoricans, in general, have historically affiliated with and shared culture with black Americans much more than any other American racial group. That being said I think one thing missing there is acceptance by said group of black Americans in order to identify and that is something I’ve never been able to obtain by any racial group.
My awareness of race and feelings about it have changed and developed throughout my life. These changes have been influenced by how racial groups have treated me, which has varied over time depending on my age and/or the environment I was in. Anytime I would come to a new basketball court black folks would always refer to me as “the white boy”, “the Spanish kid”, or simply “chico”. All evaluations being quarter or half truths. I honestly never had much interaction with white Americans beyond the age of 8. At that young age and because of my racial ambiguity I was not fully aware of race or how people viewed me racially. While interacting with white identifying Latins they made it clear to me that I was different. I was never called black by them but I was always considered “non-white”. Then, when I got to college I began interacting with white people in an environment where they felt comfortable expressing their interpretations of my racial, cultural, and ethnic designations. I had a slew of classifications given to me, most being “half and half” as in being half black and half white. I’ve never had a situation where my native racial designation has been guessed or assumed by others. That and my lack of historical affiliation with native culture makes it hard for me to stand behind that affiliation. Racially I’ve always felt I’m too black to be white, too white to be black, and too black, white, and americanized to be native/indigenous.
Culturally things are just as confusing. I definitely associated strongly in my childhood with black culture growing up around black people early on in NYC and having firm roots in black american and black Caribbean culture once moving down to South Florida at the age of 8. But I would say even in those cultural associations I always felt like an outsider looking in. The same applies for Puerto Rican or Latin American culture especially because I have never been fully fluent in Spanish, my mom’s main dishes that she cooked were Lasagna and Baked Ziti, and I spoke very “White-American” English. My
I feel all these things drive home the point well enough that culturally, racially, and ethnically I do not fit into traditional categories laid forward. Currently, the reality of our society is that these identities that others place on me has put in positions of disadvantage, privilege, and confusion based on various circumstances, especially in the context of our current era of increased consciousness towards racial issues and even more so in activist/organizing/movement spaces.
For those who are unfamiliar with activist/organizing/movement spaces a lot of these spaces are very race and culturally conscious. In this consciousness there is often an emphasis on uplifting groups that have typically been oppressed or silence, rightfully so. If you are of a group that is typically the privileged group than you should be more of an observer and learner in spaces that focus on the group traditionally silenced and/or oppressed. This is easy to decipher for me in groups based on gender because I identify as male it is obvious I am the most privileged in these spaces and am able to decipher my role clearly.
This becomes complex when you have people that don’t fit as cleanly into the designations and classifications as I have shown I do not when it comes to race, culture, and ethnicity. An example that captures this well is from a movement conference I attended previously. It was an amazing conference with incredible movement people from across the US. In this conference we had some breakout session. One of these breakout session had a topic that was deliberate and intentionally about blackness. I can’t necessarily remember the name of the breakout session but it was something along the lines of “What does it mean to be Black?” After we all reconvened from the breakout sessions it was brought up by the group that held the “What does it mean to be Black?” session that only black people attended the session and that they felt this was in itself a lack of acknowledgement of blackness in these spaces. I had not attended that session either and what followed was a very frank conversation where people were very open and honest about a lack of acknowledgement of blackness by “non-blacks” in the group. This whole situation was very confusing to me because I don’t know what I qualify as or fit into. Does the critique pertain to me? Had I attended would I have been counted as a “non-black” individual who attended the session? Or had I attended had the same response occurred? Even after the fact speaking to the woman who voiced the group concerns I was still unable to gain clarity. I told her my feelings through the experience and she replied by asking me “well, do you identify as black?”. I tried both times to remove egocentrism from the critiques and comments to take in the feelings and emotions of her words. It has been something I have learned greatly from.
These type of situations happen often. I have certain people who I feel highlight and want me to claim my blackness more while I have others who want to constantly remind me that I am not black at all. When we have dealings and interactions with police officers this becomes the case as well. I am told since I am white I should be the one to talk to officers.
This lack of identity leads to heightened criticisms of what causes I support. I feel I support the causes of oppressed people in my community and try my best to maximize my efforts to causes that are most needed and most winnable, but I have been criticized strongly. The main critique being is that I should “stick to my own kind” when it comes to helping them attain equality and justice in our society. As stated above “my own kind” can become a very confusing alternative as “my kind” changes depending on the angle you look at it from.
Recently I had the privilege of traveling to Denver, CO and while staying in an AIR BNB there I stepped outside for a smoke. I met an older black couple from Chicago. I introduced myself to both of them and we began talking. As usual with me small talk turns into deep conversation about race, ethnicity, oppression, and revolution. The man began speaking to me about Islam and the type of work he has done to help the black community in Chicago. When he talked about the black community and things that needed to be done he kept using the pronoun “we.” At first I wasn’t sure if he was including me in this “we” but it seemed so the way he was speaking directly and passionately to me as if he was convincing me to take up his cause. Then he started speaking directly about the things the black man needs to do to uplift the black community and I was shaken out of the daze I had entered from listening to his patriarchal rhetoric by him directing action now towards me specifically and saying that I “as a black man” need to take ownership of these things to uplift the black community. This took me back a bit. It was the first time I was included in the “our kind” category by someone who identified as black. This confused me before it began to provide clarity.
Through all these frustrations and confusions though it is very easy for people who are racially/culturally/ethnically ambiguous to forget just how privileged they are. The fact that I even have the autonomy to share in mostly if not all “black spaces” and be somewhat accepted and still be able to be viewed by whites as acceptable to a certain degree as well affords me incredible amounts of range in terms of my experience and understanding of the world as well as just sheer greater volume of opportunities. Not to mention the ability to blend into Latin communities. Though my Spanish speaking is mediocre, my ability to speak fluent Latin American slang English and relate to cultural experiences affords me higher levels of success within the Latin American community than most. These are in themselves huge blessings. To have various groups of people from very different backgrounds feel very comfortable around you to let their guard down and allow you to see into their world.
I can tangibly say that this has affected many things that have accounted for my perceived “success” in the world. My name being very ambiguous I am sure has resulted in more callbacks for interviews as many studies have shown. My current profession is as a sales person. My ability to sell has been impacted greatly by this ambiguity. I can sell anywhere from Miami to West Palm Beach because I can blend into most, if not all, environments. Now I might not personally feel comfortable in all environments but that doesn’t change the fact that I can blend in to them if I so chose. There is a lot of power in that choice. Very much like Rachel Dolezial and her Transracial claim. Whether or not you believe her to be truly to be transracial or whether or not you believe that the designation is even a valid one, it goes without saying that people who can blend in with whiteness as well other racial/cultural/ethnic groups have a strong amount of privilege afforded to them that many others who have what America deems as “more prominent” black features do.
In the exploration of my ethnicity, culture, and race I seem to have come full circle. I sit in a room and watch Diane Nash, a very white passing woman who led SNCC on some of the toughest campaigns of racial justice fighting for black people, owning her blackness. I come to a bit of an epiphany. Who does care about my racial and cultural designations? Society does, but to pretend that societies designations and validations of my various doesn’t affect me is naïve and if I refuse to own my identity the world will surely own it for me. In the world we currently live in these designations are important and we have to own them, embrace them, and understand them so that we can use them in the most appropriate ways. Yes I am diverse, yes I can claim many designations, yes others can place their perceptions of my race, culture, and ethnicities on me, but through this exploration I have decided to take more ownership over this designation. I acknowledge my privilege and I acknowledge my ambiguity. At the same time I cannot deny the parts of myself that identify most strongly with. I am black and I am Nuyorican. I once was lost … now I may have found a bit of clarity.