To build the future, we have to dispel the lies used to create the past. One of them has to do with the way we look at race. Probably all over the world, but I’ve most closely studied the way this works out in America. The following is an essay relating to people’s reactions to my thoughts that most of race seems most easily understood by starting with the notion that there are three major groups, with everything else being a “blend”.
“Steven Barnes -Why three basic races? It seems arbitrary. The whole of human “races” is a continuum and the little boxes we put people in are designed entirely by cultural preferences. Does Deepak Chopra fit into the same Asian box as Donnie Yen, or is one of them a “blend”? What of Pacific Islanders? Australian Aborigines? Indigenous peoples of the Americas?” –Andy Amidon
“Steven, so let me ask you to have the unncessary discussion. How would you classify J Lo racially? Hispanic White? Latino? Mixed? Other? Genuinely curious. We tend in the U.S. to see racial groups as Black, Native, White and Asian. Of course this leaves many–Latinos, Middle Easterners, –in odd racial positions and classifications (I think Iranians, Turks, Arabs and even some North Africans may be officially classified as “White”) and doesn’t account for culture (I.e. the decendents of European immigrants to Latin America who are phenotypically White but may identify as the nationality they grew up in,) How do you see it?”–Eric Green
Gotcha. I’ll make this as clear as possible.
- I’m not saying “this is what is true.” I’m saying: “this is how I see it, and it makes more sense to me than any other means of classification.” Very different things.
- “Race” has no universally agreed upon meaning or set of classifications. Its not like gravity, or a quadratic equation. It has biological, social, anthropological, political, cultural, and personal dimensions. I see no reason I haven’t as much right as anyone to throw my hat in the ring.
- Primary assumption I need to get out of the way: I start with a belief in human equality of worth and capacity between racial groups, and see nothing more easily explained by this than, say, “The Bell Curve” and other racist theories. Racism being simply defined as “the belief in differential worth or capacity between groups defined by race or ethnicity.”
- The basic premise is that most of what people discuss as “race”, most of the social implications IN AMERICA are covered by suggesting that there are three basic racial groups: black, white, Asian. There are, however, thousands of “blends” just as there are infinite variations on the blend of blue, yellow, and red. But you can’t make a Japanese with any blend of European and African, can’t make a Zulu with any blend of European and Asian, can’t make a German with any blend of Asian and African. Damn near everything else can be “made” by blending the three main groups in various proportions, especially if you then bake them in the sun for a few generations.
- My initial thoughts on this stuff came from watching a simple phenomenon that I’d bet recurs all over the world: if you are a member of one of the major groups (X), you will tend to break “X” into countless sub-groups and call them “races”, while clumping Y and Z into single categories. This is VERY similar to white people knowing the names of dozens of European countries, but clumping “Africa” into a single block. (shit, I saw this as recently as “Age of Ultron” where a ship was “off the coast of Africa.” Never seen someone say that about Europe. It’s “off the coast of France” or “off the coast of Italy.” The first time I noticed this was in Disney’s “The Great Mouse Detective” where there was a rodent United Nations, with representatives from France, the United States, Germany, Japan…and “Africa.” Screw them.
- This disgusted me as a child–I knew something was wrong. I’ll give white people the respect of assuming everyone does this: Asians break Asia into Y1, Y2…Y1000. But tend to clump “Europe” into fewer blocks, and “Africa” into a monolith, (what the National Lampoon, in their infinite sensitivity to race, called “Nig-Nog nations nobody cares about.” Wonderful.) And that Africans know far more about different countries on their continent than they do, say, Central America or Asia. “We” are many. “You” are a single group. This is the “I know the names of all my kids, all their friends, and their pets. But the family down the block is `the Joneses.’ You see this with religions: Christians knowing the names of a hundred different sub-groups, while clumping Islam into a single mass. Politics does the same thing: Everyone tends to see the divisions in their own group, but say their political opponents are a solid mass. If this is a human tendency, I can safely ignore it, even though people get pissed at me if I do. I have literally been called a bigot because I refused to agree with Nazis that Jews aren’t white. I have to laugh, I really do. If there was one most important thing I got from practicing the martial arts, it was the ability to not give a shit what you think about me. My commitment is to speaking the truth as I see it, not whether you get red in the face when I do.
- So watching American media and culture as a child, I noticed that there were oddnesses in the way race was handled. Hispanics, I was told, were separate races. As were Middle-Easterners. But it was clear that SOME races were treated differently than others. Where was the most important dividing line? Sex. Occupations, educations, where you can live, and so forth…ALL of that stuff is secondary to who you can breed with. I’ve never met anyone who welcomed an X to marry their daughter or sister, but objected to them living next door. So…who was welcomed to mate across the dividing line? And how would I measure that? Frankly, you’ve seen this from me before: media images. Who did America embrace as worthy to screw white women? Well…Ricardo Mantleban, Fernando Lamas and so forth romanced white actresses on the big screen while segregation kept black people from even living across the street. Desi Arnaz was “controversial” for being married to Lucy, but they were also America’s sweethearts. The same with Omar Shariff. Danny Thomas. To me, that didn’t seem to register on the same scale. They didn’t register as “another race” they registered as “exotic white people.”
- I started re-thinking it. If I started with three basic groups, plus blends, then much of this made sense. While there is arguing “within” groups among the different religions, languages, nationalities, and ethnicities, the barriers were lower than they were BETWEEN the groups. Inter-racial and intra-racial? Maybe. “Race” and “ethnicity” seemed to be useful terms, even if I was using them a little differently. And what was clear is that an X will have less resistance to a “blend’ if the primary makeup of that blend is X, with a dash of Y or Z. The larger the proportion of Y or Z, the greater the “uncanny valley” (borrowing another term) of “wow! This is an Other! Better kill/control it!” A dash is exotic, and sexy. Too much and it is The Other Tribe. That blend of Exogamy and Xenophobia that is such a fascinating dance to watch.
- By the way: it is ALWAYS more accepted for the males of a given tribe to mate with/impregnate the females of another tribe than vice versa. Always. Again, in America, one of the primary fears was that black men would treat white women as white men had treated black women. In the most racist parts of the Deep South, white men would “creep” to Dark Town, where their cultural capital allowed them to access women they never could have “afforded” to have sex with without the “power” of being white. They were bargains. Ugh. This, by the way, I concluded was one of the most pernicious (and undiscussed) aspects of tribalism and racism: it allows X males to have more attractive Y or Z females than they could have on a level playing field. So “kill your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of the women” if you know what I mean.
- There was black, mulatto, quadroon, and Octaroon (probably my Mom, there). Down to Octaroon, they could sell your ass. Do you get the venom here? The “contagion” theory of race? The “a little tiny turd spoils a great big punch bowl” aspect of this categorization? There weren’t “dark skinned white people”. In this context (black-white relations) there were only “light skinned black people.” This is no compliment, for all the desperate retconning of my mother’s generation that “black blood is the strongest in the world. One drop makes you whole.” That poor woman. Living her whole live fearing that her life would have been better if she’d passed for white. All she would have to have done is deny everyone she knew, including her mother and half-brother. And be afraid every day that her secret would be discovered. The “tragic mulatto” indeed. Ugh.
- Viewed that way, I can answer every question above. What is J.Lo? A blend. European, African, a dash of Asian. Easy, and easily explained by the migratory patterns of those three major groups, as well as what happened when African slaves blended with South and Central American Indians. Native Americans? Phenotypically, some look European, some Asian, adding some sun-baking. Deepok Chopra? We know about Aryans flowing down into India in about 1500 bc. Add voluntary and forced migration of Africans (the “Siddhi” peoples) and you can create any people you see in India. Blends, not primary racial groups.
- Australian Aboriginals are a really great challenge to the notion. Frankly, some of them look like almost nothing else on the planet. Others look much like some Africans. Makes me think that they are of that some proto African blood, but with touches of the same differentiation you see in some Pacific Islanders. They really are fascinating.
Again, there IS no strict, scientific definition of race. But clearly, race is a factor in world affairs, and especially in America. There are bizarre variations like African immigrants being given rights and privileges in the South (staying at white-only hotels, for instance) not allowed to the descendants of slaves. The implication: SOME racism was not purely race-based. It was fear of losing control of the slaves and their grandchildren. Fear of loss of power, as well as that of uprising and retaliatory violence. Loss of financial, political and reproductive freedoms.
So many different things were obvious and clear once I dove into this model. The reason “light skinned blacks” were treated better. The “Latin Lover” or “Shiek of Araby” romantic notions, :”tall, dark, and handsome”…but not too dark. The images of white men with Asian or Black women outnumbering the reverse, even though real-world statistics were the opposite. William friggin’ Shatner or the Three Stooges being considered “non-white”, and on and on. But it is beyond controversial, because much of this is based upon that basic human bullshit of “we are many, you are One.” Goes so deep that people can’t see it, even when you point it out to them.
What am I? Obviously a blend. A mutt. Black, white, a smidge of Asian through Native American (pretty solid evidence for that on my father’s side. It is amusing how persistent the mythology of an “Indian Grandmother” is, however. Is it my imagination, or is the story of an “Indian Grandmother” more common among white people than an “Indian Grandfather”? See #7 above for a possible answer.) But more interesting is the question: considering how often genetic testing says that people really don’t have this, why the persistence of the lie? What if it was to cover up the amount of blending between black and white? With “white” people, you are covering up that Octaroon in the woodpile. With black people, the shame of Grandma having been raped or sexually harassed.
Mine was. Even seen a photo of the sonofabitch who did it. No, I’m not interested in researching and finding out more about that side of the family. He had half-breed bastards all over Augusta Georgia, and I see nothing positive I’d gain by learning more.
Why do I generally use the term “black” to refer to myself? Because language is for other people. It is how I communicate, not necessarily what I think in my heart. Because I am perfectly aware of how America sees me, and it would be foolish to forget that. Too much about the life I’ve lived socially, legally, career-wise and more is impacted. My entire life has been pogo-sticking through a mine field in this sense. The most venomous thing has been racists whispering “come to the pale side. You’re not one of them, you’re one of US.”
Just as bad was black people saying I’m not “black enough.” That my personae is constructed solely to curry favor from white people. I don’t need psychoanalysis to think that my credentials from the Black Karate Federation, and familial connections to Steve Muhammad who was raised in Mississippi by his grandparents who had been SLAVES, was not in part a search for bona fides. Trust me: if Steve loves me, I would have a difficult time caring less about what strangers think.
You know what’s almost as bad? White People saying “I don’t think of you as black.” Really? And what if you did? How would your feelings about me change? How exactly DO you think about black people, such that I’m supposed to feel complimented that you don’t drop me in that category?
Screw you, too.
I also know what happened in South Africa, where “coloreds” were encouraged to think themselves superior to “kaffirs.” Individual sticks can be broken–the point was to keep the “non-whites” from forming a solid bundle.
And in America? The descendants of slaves knew damned well they needed to create the biggest bundle of sticks they could. So while there was resentment between dark and “light skinned” children of the Diaspora (the “paper bag” test was a real thing, and I have ZERO doubt that I was treated better because of the color of my skin. Zero) the door was open. All welcome. We wanted the largest block we could find. (This of course makes the story of Rachel Dolezal rather sticky, since probably EVERY human being has some African blood, and there are no strict lines and definitions…oh well, that’s another subject.)
Anyway, I trust this makes my thoughts a little clearer. Who am I? My NAME is Steve. I can talk about the labels others use, or the labels I use to communicate. The position I choose to stand in life. I know who and what I am, but that knowledge can’t quite be put into words, so “black” will fit the bill for casual conversation and government work. I don’t put people into boxes. I note that certain ways of categorization explain more of what we see in the world, and America, than others. That we live with vast and pernicious lies about the human condition that have been entrenched for generations, and that it is TOTALLY common for X’s to complain that they are NOT like other X’s, while clumping Y’s and Z’s together in their very next sentence. And are oblivious that they do it. Will deny that they do it.
But they do it, oh yes. And the chances are that you do it, too.