Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Negotiating A Bi-Racial Identity In A White World

This is a guest post from one of my readers Mercedes Martinez.  It originated as an e-mail but I was so moved by what she had to say that I asked her permission to post it on the blog.

I am a twenty-eight-year-old Chicana. I am the mother of 7-year-old twins, partnered to a white man. My White mother grew up in a small, racist, East Texas town where she reigned as Autumn Empress. She became a college professor teaching developmental classes. My Mexican father was raised in Austin, Texas where he survived violence due to his accent when the high schools were finally integrated. He became a lawyer, prosecuting domestic violence. I am light-skinned, dark-haired and dark-eyed, commonly mistaken for either Jewish or Italian, mostly by people from the North. I was raised with economic and educational privilege, things that sadly go hand in hand.

I think that my father feared that due to my light skin I would not have a Chicana identity, that my color privilege would allow me to ignore the racist structures of the world. When I was a young child he would take me to department stores, in his suit and tie, and the department store clerks would jump to make suggestions about his clothing needs. However, when we went to the same stores on the weekend, my father dressed in a guayabera and jeans, the department store clerks wouldn't even look at us. He would then kneel down, looking at me intently, and say: "This is racism, this is classism." Through these experiences, my racial identity began to develop. (side note: have you noticed that classism isn't a word according to Microsoft? Who would have thought?)

To be bi-racial is to have all people at all times policing your identity and how you should construct it, just ask President-Elect Obama. To this day, it is hard for me to talk about my racial identity openly and honestly, I am very clear with people that I am Chicana, but then the questions and ignorant statements come, as if random individuals have any right to question my identity. In everyday conversation there just seem to be too many assumptions. I "talk like a White person," read: educated. Or, I "look White" when the person speaking has no understanding of the diversity of skin color in those whose ancestry is one involving colonization. When I speak about racism and the way that I survive in a system of oppression there is much pearl clutching and surprise: why would I be treated in such a way when this person understands my body as being White? This is the "gift" of White privilege, something I am intimately familiar with. I "might as well be White" or an individual will tell me, as if they are bestowing some ridiculous blessing upon my head that they "think of me as White." I am not White, I will never be White, and I don't want to be White. Yes, I could choose to pass, I could take my husbands name, go by my middle name, Shannon, and forget everything that my father, grandparents, aunts and cousins every taught me or wished for me. But what kind of option is that? To lose a beautiful family and culture in exchange for a life of fear and shame. I choose to be proud of who I am, and reject the "gift" of White privilege. However, I want to be clear that this creates a very careful balance between the rejection of the lie of White privilege, it is not something that can be bestowed upon another, and at the same time I must acknowledge the ways in which I do have light-skinned privilege and how that works in the world.

To those who would try to "gift" me with a White identity, I try to explain what it is to be bi-racial. To suffer repeated violence at the hands of those who think I am "trying to be White" or just purely to assert their White superiority through giving the Mexican a concussion. These are not things that happened to my father 30 years ago, but power structures that were enacted upon my body. Thus, while these ignorant White people might think that I am White, they do not speak for their race as a whole.

Similar statements about the ways in which the world chooses to construct my identity for me can be made about the Chican@ movement. I find myself frustrated at times with the movement. In many ways this is a movement founded on the concept that we are a colonized people, and a mesitzo race, and that we choose to be construct ourselves as Chican@ to show solidarity with the indigenous people of Mexico and to privilege out indigenous heritage. However, the movement as whole is distrustful of those of us of more recently mixed-race. To some degree, this is for good reason. If a bi-racial individual is light-skinned, which is of course not always true, we do have the ability to quietly melt into Whiteness. We can claim this privilege at any time, as we cannot visibly be constructed as POC, it only through our names, or accents, or family histories that we can be "outed." We must prove our dedication to our racial identity, families, heritage and solidarity with other POC. I understand and empathize with this cautiousness. It is a fact that many light-skinned families have chosen to change their names, or the pronunciation of their names to claim White privilege, mostly to the derision of both Mexicans and Whites. Clearly, there is no inherent solidarity among people of color; however, when individuals of color choose to construct bi-racial people's identities for them, describing them as not brown enough, or what have you, they are participating in, and continuing to create, a culture in which identity is assigned to a body. This is a game that is whole-heartedly divisive.

I would love to tell you that this lack of "official" identity is a place of empowerment and an opportunity to create myself outside of the existing racial system. However, that is not the case, power will not let go of a body so easily. Simply, to be bi-racial is to be culturally without a home. In my case, it is a bind created by a lack of clear racial identity and gender. I am not White enough and I am not Mexican enough. I am expected to be conform to both White and Mexican ideas of womanhood, an especially ridiculous and impossible endeavor. White men tell me that they love Latinas, and that I must "treat my man right" because I am Mexican. Mexican men tell me that I am "too independent," or that they are glad that I married a White man because "no Mexican man would have put up with your shit." When I chose to partner a white man, to many POC, I became a race traitor. They perceived this as my choice to further obscure my Mexican identity. Now, I am raising twin daughters who are light-skinned, blonde-haired and blue-eyed and yet look exactly like my father and me. I find myself sharing my father's fears. I fear that they will not understand what it is to Mexican, that they will not know their own privilege. But, also like my father, that is my job, to raise them to understand the way that their privilege works in the world.


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