Ethnic Identification

I was in a conversation with an anthropologist at a party the other night during which the topic of African Americans claiming other “ethnic identities” came up. Actually, the person I was talking with brought it up because her topic of study is people claiming Native American identity. She said something about how African Americans seeking to claim their Cherokee roots are frowned upon by other African Americans and how this is messed up. She didn’t say, “and this is messed up,” she said, something like, “There’s this thing that in order to be black you have to be black and you can’t embrace other parts of yourself … black people can only be black because other black people get pissed off when blacks try to claim other identities.”

I chimed in to confirm her point by saying something about how the people she was talking about (the African American/Cherokees) were probably just wanting to embrace wholly who they are.

I actually believe what I said, at least intellectually I do. Deep down, however, I know I’m troubled by the whole topic of claiming ethnic identity. I’m troubled by an apparently white person (later I learned that she identifies, at least in some cases, as Cherokee) assessing “the black reaction” to it. I’m troubled by my willingness to enter a conversation on the topic without voicing my deep ambivalence.

I wrote an essay once about a bi-racial (Swedish and African American) woman I knew who identified with her Swedish identity more than her African American one. Her situation was so incredibly complex – not just bi-racial, but bi-national and cultural too. I’m guessing her identification choices had to do with her relationship with her parents – her mother was Swedish and her father was African American and I had the impression by the way she talked that she was somewhat estranged from her father. Having had an estranged relationship with my own father, I know the reasons for the estrangement were probably multiple and complex, although it was hard not to wonder if his ethnicity and what it represented for this woman didn’t somehow play into her choices. Outside of the father, I’m guessing there was a good dose of self hate in her choices.

From my perspective, however, was what was more interesting about this woman and her ethnic identification was my reaction to it. Rejection, shame, and anger. I never let on to her or anyone else that’s what was going on for me, but when I wrote the essay it’s what came up. Basically I wondered where she got off choosing one over the other when the rest of us can’t. Was there something wrong with being black? Was there something wrong with me? And on and on.

It’s complicated.   Like I said, I want people like this bi-racial woman to be whole and to claim themselves. I have bi-racial children – I want them to claim their whole selves and I want to be reassured that they’re doing it for the right reasons. Reasons that don’t threaten me. That’s totally ridiculous, I know, but I’m being honest. And I’m putting it out there as an example of how complex it is for this black person when bi-racial (African American and other) people claim their whole selves. The true solution is for me to be more secure in who I am, and I take that responsibility seriously. And then there’s the reality, in a culture based on white supremacy, of what mitigates against my ability to do that. It’s not impossible, but it sure as hell is an uphill battle.

Anyway, I’ve written a whole essay on this topic and it’s not really the topic here. The topic here is how it feels as a black person smack dab in the middle of trying to reckon with the issues around bi-racial identity and identification and simultaneously raise bi-racial kids to love their whole selves with as little of my crap intervening as possible to have a white person tell me how black people are about this topic.

First I feel like, “You’re right!” and add to rush my affirmation of her point because I don’t want to be one of those closed minded black people. And I don’t want you, white person, to see me as one of them. And then there’s the, “What the hell? Why are you telling me what black people think and do?” And then (probably most useful) there’s the, “Why don’t you concentrate on what WHITE people have done and continuing doing to contribute to the dynamic of race protection, anger, jealousy, and what have you?” Remember those mitigating forces I mentioned earlier? Et viola.

We black people are not just sitting here in a vacuum by ourselves self loathing, feeling insecure, and being angry that others are claiming other ethnic identities. That all has been nurtured in a fertile hothouse of pervasive white supremacy in this country for decades on end. Shouldn’t an anthropologist be looking at the issue of ethnic identity in this full context? I would want and expect a white anthropologist to be doing some analysis of the role that white supremacy has played, continues to play, and is dependent on shaping African American identity and how we all feel about it.

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~ by evansmousike on May 18, 2008.

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