“What Are You? Confusions of the Racially, Ethnically, and Culturally Ambiguous”

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Culture

  1. Anthropology. the sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another.

Ethnicity

  1. an ethnic group; a social group that shares a common and distinctive culture, religion, language, or the like: Representatives of several ethnicities were present.
  2. ethnic traits, background, allegiance, or association.

Ethnic

  1. (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.

 

 

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American dream

American Dream

I grew up hoping one day I can be me
So foreign, so hard for so many to conceive 
Realized early that me didn’t produce enough GDP
So I put me on hold, shit was too costly 
Then I thought if I work hard I can set me free
But by then me has been held so long in captivity 
That we couldn’t even figure out who me be
So I go back to paying for my occupancy 
In this one man cell but shit at least I keep it fancy 
Work so hard and so long I said fuck it
I just forgot to be me, forgot to be free
I guess that’s what they meant by the American Dream  

A Breath of Fresh Air

A breath of fresh air
A saying that goes without saying Goes with out words indicating That it is a positive in the life of the person it is permeating
But how different this breath can be

You step off the 747 plane and onto the island of which it’s inhabitants you know nothing of
Fuck do you care you just trying to soak up the sun
Vacation, your breath of fresh air

I wonder how the fuck I’m going to pay my rent this month
Landlord beating down my door
Unemployment rates sore
My son wonder why I never take him to the store
Why the gift flow has slowed
Does daddy not love him no more?
I light up my spliff hoping to mend my soul, it’s torn

Take a breath of fresh air
You lay back on the beaches soaking in the sun
See a cutie wearing little to none 
wink your way as she takes her morning run
You smile and take a sip of that pineapple rum
Breath of fresh air

I demean and destroy myself everyday 
Not sure how it got here, shit we don’t own no boats no planes
At least with this my happiness is feigned 
The only time I’ve seen this much white is when I look at those in power
I pull that powder so deep I can barely see
Through my nose I breath my breath of fresh air 

You come back from jet setting
To invest heavy in the oppressed deadly addictions
Fast food, consumerism, and television 
Check your accounts and realize that you are set for life
You can retire early and your kids can take their time and find themselves 
You done enough dirty to take care of them till they are past thirty
You lean back in your leather chair overlooking the skyline of the city you tear 
And take a breath of fresh air

I fight and scrap because that’s the only way I know how
Shit I’ll fight my brother if it means we can move up out this town 
Swollen fists, bloody noses, guns, knives are my tools chosen
It’s how I express my intent to live 
By any means necessary 
My mean is necessary to survive 
My cope is so dope no lyric heard, read or spoke could give you this feeling
So I’m leaning back feeling it flow through our veins forgetting all the pain, all the pain,
I breath my last breath of fresh air 

– Written in memory of Jose Cosme, Jaime “Jimmy” Cosme, and Juan “Lefty” Rivera. 

Nuyoricans lost to the system too soon. 

RIP 

Crass Enlightenment

“Trappers attracting all the yellowbone InstagrammersBut what about us?”

Lu alludes to the subdued

State of our mind

Colonized to think 

Lighter color lines, refined

We attracted to the twerk

And get a pass cuz of work

We do to enlighten ourselves

In areas we’re oppressed

Never stopping to realize what about the rest

Invest our time, fantasize bout fandom dimes pantomime oppression live 

Looking past for a mind not an ass so vast 

I guess even the enlighten one isn’t immune from the crass

Who Is Really For Peace???

Who is really for peace?

It has been about a year since I first started to really entrench myself in movement spaces.  The murder of Mike Brown was a catalyst for many of us to get up, speak out, and act accordingly. I was no exception.  Before being deeply involved in movement spaces and organizing I would say I had read a number of books and heard a plethora of speeches by Martin Luther King Jr, El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, Huey Newton, Kwame Turee, Angela Davis, Che Guevarra, and many other revolutionaries of their time.  Their time was characterized by massive civil rights protests, actions, legislations, and even guerilla war based revolutionary overthrows of governmental structures

The argument of militancy vs. non-violent direct action is a common theme in most of these texts and speeches.  This argument has been muddied greatly over the years to mean “Violent vs. Non-violent” or even “peaceful vs. non-peaceful” action. I always find it very peculiar how interpretations of the words violence and peace can vary so widely amongst so many people.  This division in ideologies has always made me very interested in the word “peace” because the meaning of it seems to vary so greatly depending on who you ask.
I was confronted more directly with this idea when I went to a confederate flag rally this weekend as a means of non-violent direct action in which a group of local activists intended to march through the path of the confederate flag supporters to express our discontent with the symbols they choose to honor.

The confederate flag rally supporters and participants envisioned a meet up at the first park where they would socialize briefly till everyone arrived and then hang their confederate flags outside of their car and drive to the second park.  Once they get to the second park they would have a nice barbecue reflecting on their “confederate heritage” and the like.

Our intention was to throw a monkey wrench in their plans by making it known that people were in opposition to what was going on.  We showed up with signs in protest and we blocked the entry way to the park in order for the people to stop and recognize our opposition.  We were chanting many of our typical chants, black lives matter, no justice no peace, etc. While doing so we were welcomed with a plethora of racial slurs and degrading remarks.  Many of the people in our group returned the favor and decided to make degrading remarks in return.  Eventually a confederate flag was burned.  We then moved out the way and they began their drive to the new park.

We were able to beat most of their participants to the new park but and we blocked the entry again with similar chants.  They began to push us out the way with their cars.  We moved out the way to allow them to enter the park.  We followed them in and continued marching and chanting.  This led to some of our participants having one on one break off dialogues with their participants discussing the implications of the flag and mutual feelings on the topic.  These conversations ranged from productive to embattling.  There were allegations that one of our participants threatened a dog of one of their participants.  There were allegations in turn that participants on their side pulled a knife and a gun.  Police reports were filed.

It was a tense and heated exchange throughout.  Tears were spilt on our side.  A lot of ranges of conflicting emotions from hope, distraught, pain, and strength.

When I was leaving this action, which was while we were blocking entry into the second park, I walked past a car where two women with confederate flags flying saw my shirt, which said “world peace” on the back. One woman   complimented it saying “does your shirt say World Peace on the back?” I said it did. She then insisted on being overtly complimentary of the message on my shirt, which led me to believe she was mocking me.  Anyway, I thanked the lady for her compliments and went about my way.

Now why would this woman be mocking my shirt saying “World Peace” in this situation?  Yes, we were making noise by chanting and disrupting their normal pathway in order to express our discontent.  By my definition we were being peaceful and our action was derived solely from the desire to bring peace and harmony to a world we all love so dearly.

To better understand this let’s examine a few definitions of peace to see where incongruences may lie.

3.  a state of mutual harmony between people or groups, especially in personal relations: Try to live in peace with your neighbors.
4.  the normal freedom from civil commotion and violence of a community; public order and security: He was arrested for being drunk and disturbing the peace.
6.  freedom of the mind from annoyance, distraction, anxiety, an obsession, etc.; tranquility; serenity.
7.  a state of tranquility or serenity: May he rest in peace.
8.  a state or condition conducive to, proceeding from, or characterized by tranquility: the peace of a mountain resort.
9.  silence; stillness: The cawing of a crow broke the afternoon’s peace

Source: Dictionary.com

After reviewing the definitions it becomes quite obvious where the disconnections arise. When I speak of peace I am referring to definition numbered 3 above.  From our interaction it is possible that the woman I spoke with was referring to definition numbered 9 though there may be a lot of overlap between there.

When Dr. King and most movement people speak of peace we are speaking of the mutual state of harmony that can exist in the world if we all do our part to be global citizens. This means keeping our governments, businesses, people, and ourselves accountable for respecting the states of disadvantage many people in our society are encountering so that we can all be uplifted to a state of harmony that is not reserved for those born into more privileged social, racial, or economic classes.

When many objectors of protests and rallies speak about peace they are saying “Shut the Fuck Up!” without directly saying it and referring to definition numbered 9 above.
There is obviously a great variance between this these two perspectives. For example, definitions numbered 6, 7, and 8 refer to tranquility and having a state conducive to that tranquility.  For the confederate rally goers we disrupted their tranquility and thus are were not being peaceful in our actions according to definitions 6,7, and 8.  On the other hand we could make the same claim that their rally disrupted our tranquility and also refer back to definition numbered 3 stating that we must act to bring about that mutual harmony we were referring to.

We can go on for days with these variances and stances back and forth. But at the end of the day, both sides being are just as warranted in their feelings that the other side is not being peaceful and they are in fact the “peaceful ones.”  So what does that mean?  Who is really for peace???

This question brings me back to an idea by Huey P Newton of the Black Panther party:

“I think that words, I think that Language, I think that poetry, none of it works.  I don’t think that human language has caught up with the human evolutionary process.  Because it seems like every time we try to express a deep thing, a heavenly thing, a God like thing, we come up short…So what do we do when our words fail each other?  We wind up trying to touch each other…”

In the context Huey was speaking he was relating this to poetry and expressions of Love but I think this is applicable across all areas of human interaction.  When words fail us in a confrontation we try to touch each other in a way that we feel is appropriate to express the emotions of anger, pain, or frustration.

So what does it all mean?

That question is a daunting one.  If we cannot even find common ground in a word as simple as “Peace” what can we find agreement on?  Are we meant to find common ground on anything or is this polarity a necessity to the balance of life?  A ying to a yang so to speak?

Towards the end of MLK’s life he alluded to America being a house that is burning down around us.  There is genuine merit to that perception. If that is truly the case, is there a way to create a more cohesive dissidence between the people?  Where we can all maintain our autonomy of thought and uniqueness while being more constructive and cooperative in our dissent?

These are ideas we must confront and address to truly create a long-term sustainable revolution in the world we live in.  What will this future society look like? I hope not one of group think.  I hope we are truly able to maintain the ying and yang and balance of individuality while still creating a culture of worldly human interconnection.  That is the goal we must challenge ourselves to live out.  But with every great pursuit there is left many unanswered questions.

I believe there is much value in the unanswered question.  The unanswered question has driven humanity to heights we never thought were possible.  We must not shy away from them.  In the unanswered we will find our truth.

So who is for peace?  The lady at the confederate flag rally is, I am, we both are, and none of us are.  We need to find a way to come to each other with communication and understanding rather than condescension because as the house burns. . . more fire won’t be what puts it out.
-Sobreviviente

Editor – Iris Nevins

Cost of freedom

When did freedom become an economic choice 

I would be free if I could afford to just BE

Shit I know I’m difficult

How much does it cost to be a person like me

Nah for real, let’s break it down, economically

Standing against patriarchy

Refused adherence to euro-centricity

Deconstruction of white supremacy

Let’s run that tab, how much will all that cost me?

Love the biggest troll

How can I discover so much and still be so fucking lost?

So little I need, yet so much cost.

Every rebirth feels like another death sentence,

As I delve into new dimensions, losing each frame of reference.

Missing my totem since the inception,

Making investments while working towards capitalism’s divestment.

Decrepit in my methods

To battle the wretched.

Even in my best,

I can’t say I’m not just making more of a mess.

I text her to get it off my chest.

“I want to change the world”, I express.

Love, I think I need your help. 

Revolutionize the world, revolutionize yourself.

Collective conscious can’t be quelled,

Enlightenment can be felt, 

In every space and time you dwell. 

But love I’m scared, every step towards the light I feel I’m losing what’s mind/mine?

And love what about the people when is it their time?

Ellipsis is how she kissed me,

Told me without saying goodbye.

I am what you think I am 

I am an INFORMANT

I inform the people of their ability to be free 

To embrace every blemish

Every peculiarity

And see nothing but beauty

I am a SNITCH

I snitch on the pervasiveness of injustices that control the minds bodies and souls of our people

I snitch on the tactics of divisiveness that have kept us from revolting against the oppression that controls our food, our water, our land, and our pursuit of happiness
I am a COP

I cop out of the excuses made by most who remain pawns

I cop the resources necessary to build revolution within myself

So I can create revolution within the world
Your labels won’t stop me from being me

I have no desire for egotistical rewards or remembrance

I don’t do what I do to have my name appear in a book, article, or news report

I’m fully aware that my reputation and my past will always be used against me by those who know nothing about me

This is bigger than me and I’m willing to live for this

I’m willing to die for this
This is revolution and we all will play our part. 

Plant trees

I am beginning to appreciate my mixed heritage more and more in how privileged it makes me. Am I white man privileged? Surely not. But it’s a lot easier to leave people confused about your racial or ethnic make up than having no ability to escape your anatomy. That burden is real as fuck and tragic that it is fully people’s everyday life. That their anatomy can literally be the death of them as Lupe said. I just seek to use my places of privilege to ensure a more level playing field that unfortunately I don’t see myself living long enough to see. But there is a proverb I believe that says “a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” That’s the realest shit I never wrote. 

Game of Inches

They will take it all from you

They will start with the most superficial of things

Your money

Your possessions

Your sense of success or achievement

Your reputation

Till they see that you can overcome those loses

Then they will take deeper

Your loved ones

Your voice

Your body

Your mind

Maybe Tyler was right

In order to gain anything

You must lose everything

So lose it all

Except for that one inch

In that inch you are everything

In that inch you are FREE