Grace Lee Boggs, the 97-year-old feminist, activist, and philosopher, was born in the United Stated in 1915 to Chinese immigrant parents. Boggs earned her PhD in 1940; these credentials were no shield against discrimination based on her Chinese ancestry. When Boggs married African American activist James Boggs, over a decade before the Supreme Court of the United States invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage, she made the choice to add his name to her own. Their marriage would last until James Boggs’ death 40 years later.
In observing debates around the politics of naming, especially when it comes to gender, I often think of Boggs. Someone who knows little of her life and politics, or of intersectionality, might judge Boggs’ last name as an acceptance of a patriarchal naming tradition that privileges men. But is it?
The argument could also be made that by adding the last name of her black husband to her own Chinese name Boggs was putting into personal action the political solidarity between people of color traditionally pitted against one another by white supremacy. Perhaps her acceptance of the name was even a revolutionary act that flew in the face of the laws of a country that said race must determine whom you choose to love?
Or maybe, in 1953, a deeply political Chinese American woman marrying a black man simply had bigger fish to fry than worrying about her last name? Of course, these arguments are just as much speculation as the first. Still, I’d argue it is Boggs’ life-long record as a thought leader in the labor, civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental justice movements that actually defines her identity.
Boggs put into action hooks’ concept of ideas over identity long before the rest of us even started talking about it. That’s an example that could do us all some good.
My representation as a certain type of black man often transgresses the accepted boundaries of black masculinity. The ways I cut my hair, shape–or refuse to shape–my beard, style my clothes, walk, talk, and gesture tend to confound some folk and, on occasion, anger others because of my seeming transgressions. Sinning ain’t easy.
Indeed, some will stare at me as I make my way down any street rocking a beard, frames, “man bag,” and a little less than loose clothing because my gender presentation seems to be read as a sign of non-heterosexuality, deviance. In fact, most folk are okay with what they “see” until they notice that I am wearing something like hot pink (!) sneakers. According to some, a black man wearing hot pink sneakers, like a black woman wearing a suit, ain’t at all “cool.”
The notion of “Black cool,” in particular, seems to be limited, limiting, and quite “straight” (as in hetero and rigid). I am thinking, for example, of one of the inspirations that motivated Rebecca Walker’s investigation of “black cool.” She mentioned during an interview on NPR that an image of then-Senator Barack Obama exiting a black Lincoln Town Car during the 2008 campaign “was really, at that moment, the epitome of black cool.”
She went on to say that she was “drawn to that image because [she] wanted to decode it and to see where it fit into this Afro-Atlantic aesthetic.” And while that image is but one of Walker’s inspirations (and while her book, Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness, actually includes critical and beautiful essays that think through the gendering of “black cool”), that particular picture of Obama locates the quotidian “black cool” in a male-bodied, masculine, straight black man and leaves me to wonder: Does coolness exist anywhere beyond black masculinity, maleness, and heterosexuality? As some of the writers in Walker’s Black Cool argue, I think so.
I can recall, for example, growing up with an older female cousin who was a swagged-out straight young woman and mother. She often chilled with the dudes in my family. Her vernacular was cool. Her walk was cool, or, as others would say, “pimped out.” She was cool. But this one black straight woman’s coolness was contingent upon the masculinity that she performed expertly. And, no, she didn’t identify as lesbian. Which, again, forces me to consider: are masculine performances solely emblematic of “black cool”?
I like to say that I have a transnational, multicultural, multiethnic identity. I am hapa, haafu, I am both/and, Japanese AND American. But I know that many others still see the world in dichotomies, as either/or, Japanese OR American.
I know what I look like. I’ve seen my face in the mirror before. But I forget that others might see me differently than I see myself. And I know who I am. But I am aware that others usually do not know me.
I was reminded of this while riding in a taxi with my 108 year-old grandmother in Matsuyama, a city on the island of Shikoku. Incredibly, she still likes shopping and chatted excitedly as we drove downtown to Mitsukoshi, her favorite department store. The taxi driver eyed me for a while in the rear view mirror before asking the inevitable question, “Where are you from?” I tried to dampen his curiosity. “Tokyo,” I answered curtly. But he was not easily discouraged, “I mean which country?” “Country?” I repeated, as if it was a dumb question. “I think Tokyo is in Japan, isn’t it?”
He looked at me strangely before laughing nervously. He was puzzled. He expected me to say America. Of course I could say America. My father was American and I lived there half my life. But I could also say Japan. I was born here, my mother, wife and children are Japanese and I have lived the other half of my life here. Then again, I could also say that I am multicultural, multilingual, multinational, transnational, international or a global citizen, not just a citizen of any one country.
My grandmother sitting beside me interrupted my musings by declaring to the taxi driver, “He’s an American, from the United States.”
I was about to protest, “Yes, but I am also Japanese,” but knew that it was futile; after all these years living in Japan, working for a national university, even legally becoming a Japanese citizen, she still thinks of me as her beloved American grandson.
Since 2009, Mr. Huang has built a career as an author and a television personality based on his brash cultural mashups and his take-no-prisoners critiques of everyone and everything.
He has berated fellow chefs like Marcus Samuelsson and David Chang as exploiters and sellouts. On his online recaps, he has attacked the HBO show “Girls” as elitist. He has excoriated Guy Fieri as a cruel joke, and he pontificates on divisive topics like interracial dating and shark fin soup.
He criticized Mr. Samuelsson for exploiting the African-American experience at the Red Rooster in an article he wrote for The New York Observer. He criticized Mr. Chang for debasing his food for the Western palate, and took on Western chefs for cooking ethnic food.
Mr. Huang went fishing with Tom Colicchio and banged around Brooklyn with Anthony Bourdain. He ignited Twitter wars with Food Network stars like Anne Burrell, calling her “fish filet.” He is giving a TED Talk this year on the shifting waltz between authenticity and ethnicity.
“I want to prove you don’t need to have academic syntax to be intelligent,” he said.
Mr. Huang’s appeal is not only in what he says, but how he says it — a profane concatenation of Mandarin and African-American vernacular English, spiced with allusions to Jonathan Swift, Charles Barkley and Cam’ron.
Joshua David Stein, “Chef Who Refuses To Be Defined By His Wok,” NYT.com 1/23/13
Hideous headline for otherwise interesting profile on chef Eddie Huang.
You know we at the R love us some Scot Nakagawa. His organization, ChangeLab, just published a study on Asian Americans and racial justice movements.
In order to better understand the racial position of Asian Americans, and how Asian American identity functions in the realm of racial politics, ChangeLab conducted in-depth, confidential interviews with 82 Asian American organizers, leaders, intellectuals, and artists working in the racial justice field throughout the United States. We also talked to five non-Asian American racial justice leaders doing promising work that cuts across all communities of color. Our informants represent some of the strongest, most influential racial justice efforts taking place across the country today, including some of the most prominent Asian American organizations. We asked a series of questions about Asian American racial identity, Asian American attitudes toward other people of color, approaches to racial justice work, and gaps and challenges in the field. Following is a summary of our initial findings.
This is a time of great racial confusion, with divergent views of what justice means.
There is a lack of clarity about what racial justice means in this political moment. The problems of structural racism are dense and vast, yet rather than pushing for transformative change, most efforts today seek to protect the gains of the Civil Rights Movement against rightwing attack. The prevailing framework of liberal multiculturalism limits the political terrain for fighting back to questions of representation. This leaves underlying structural problems unchallenged, or worse, reinforced. In this environment, Asian American organizations face pressure to elbow for political clout in a zero-sum game of racial inclusion. Some argue that advocating for the rights of Asian Americans constitutes a racial justice strategy, regardless of the impact on other communities. Others believe that there can be no justice for Asian Americans without justice for all people of color.
Many Asian Americans don’t think about race.
The dominant view among our participants is that Asian Americans do not think about race at all. Many attributed this to the racial position of Asian Americans, and to how the political right has manipulated ideas about Asian Americans. There is a belief that in particular, those Asian Americans with class privilege have internalized the model minority myth along with the notion of American individualism. Some noted how harmful this was to Asian Americans who have no resources to identify and address their own experiences of racial discrimination, and no understanding of the roots of anti-Asian hostility. Many participants said that low-wage Asian American workers have the highest level of race consciousness.
“Asian American” serves less as a political identity than as a demographic category.
On the question of Asian American identity, participants expressed concern that the Asian American construct represented an awkward coalition of ethnic subgroups, and not a racial group with shared experiences and political interests. People said that deep disparities in power and access within the Asian American or API coalition created too much fragmentation to allow for meaningful political unity. Particularly since 9/11, certain South Asian and Muslim communities have faced a level of targeting and alienation that has driven them to organize outside of the Asian American or API construct. In addition, many progressive Asian Americans hesitate to identify as Asian American, because of political disagreements with the most dominant expressions of Asian American identity.
Various factors contribute to whether people identify as Asian American.
Those who do identify as Asian American tend to be younger, later generation, or living in geographic areas where there is no single, dominate Asian ethnic subgroup. Some described how the media and technology served as a way for isolated Asian Americans to find a sense of identification with one another.
Check out the report, available as a downloadable PDF.
You see, I think the current voting rights fight isn’t just about politics. Instead, I think of it as just one more battle within a larger war over who gets to be an American, and who among Americans gets to control the meaning of America. That war is not just about political rights, it’s about who controls our culture, and that’s something to be very concerned about.
Why? Because culture is at the heart of identity. Our identities, how we are defined, whether or not we are recognized as who we believe ourselves to be and found worthy, drives our politics. When our identities are threatened, we will do almost anything to protect ourselves.
Food, especially food that “swings American,” is a great gauge of American culture and identity. For instance, we think of hamburgers as an all-American food. But hamburger is named after Hamburg, Germany. The hotdog also has German roots. But these are, truly, American foods. Just as American as choy suey, General Tso’s chicken, and fortune cookies, all also invented in America but that we, nonetheless, think of as Chinese.
I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, back when that La Choy commercial was considered about as offensive as selling water softener as an “ancient Chinese secret.” That was a much more naive time for whites. That naivete was rooted in the unquestioned dominance of whiteness. In fact, so dominant were whites that American was synonymous with Caucasian.
But the racial equity movements of my childhood would soon shatter that naivete, pulling whites into a struggle to maintain their cultural dominance that made the contours and vulnerabilities of whiteness visible to whites, perhaps for the first time. Until then, being the assumed racial and cultural norm of America was fundamental to white identity and to the ethos of American exceptionalism.
But when white cultural advantage was challenged, white folk mobilized. KKK membership grew, White Citizens Councils formed, and the Republican Party stepped in to provide a political vehicle for white backlash that is still in effect today.
And now, as the racial demographics of the U.S. and the world turn to the increasing numerical advantage of non-whites, the backlash movement that peaked in the 1990s is resurgent. Membership in racist Patriot groups and vigilante border patrols is on the rise, and Tea Parties and groups like True the Vote are wreaking havoc on our political process. And they’re not nearly done yet. The global scale of white conservative ambitions can be measured by the body count in what increasingly appears to be a permanent war against the so-called Muslim world, the popular support for which is founded in Islamophobia.
It is in this context that the current voter suppression efforts we are seeing around the country should be understood. Overcoming these efforts in this election cycle is only one among many battles. Unless we see that battle as connected to the battles for immigration rights, religious freedom, racial equity and gender equity, reproductive and sexual freedom, and the battle to curtail the ambitions driving the expansion of American empire, we are missing the dynamics of the larger war and may soon find much more than voting rights among its casualties.
I remember our group was intent on producing a well-rounded month. We included celebratory events (e.g. Latin Jazz cafés, food festivals), social awareness events (e.g. discussions panels on immigration), and institutional planning (e.g. curriculum, admissions). We discussed ways to improve the numbers of Latinas/os on campus. We started generating interest around courses such as “Spanish for Native Speakers” and Latina/o literature courses. We brought to campus Latina/o alumni who were vital to Brandeis’ history. It was a very challenging–yet exciting–time.
But throughout that planning, we also ran into thought-provoking and politically stirring difficulties. We had our posters torn down or burnt; we were often asked by peers what was the necessity for such a month and asked if we were promoting segregation; we were threatened with no budget for the following year by some members of Student Government.
Despite these challenges, coordinating Hispanic Heritage Month taught us the value of collective responsibility that inspire me to write about this topic today. One challenge involved planning a movie night. When one of our advisors suggested we watch Mi Vida Loca, we looked at her like she was crazy. Turning to me, the students gave me the look: “No way!” they screamed with their eyes. As president of the Latino organization, AHORA, and coordinator of the month, I respectfully asked and stated “Why? I think we all want to show what is positive about our community, not a movie about what is wrong with our people. Students at Brandeis already hold negative views about who we are. Why give them more information that perpetuates more negative stereotypes?” And our advisor, very seriously, looked at me and said “Blanca, if you don’t embrace our community, if we don’t embrace our people, the good and the bad, then who will? How do you expect to move our community forward?”
This was also the professor who taught me to keep up the fight.
Those words carry me today. Those words bring me to today as I watch my own students grapple with their Latino identities at colleges that discuss Latinidad from just a cultural celebratory perspective.
I wonder: Is it possible to celebrate and cerebrate Latino/Hispanic Heritage Month? What are the issues affecting the Latino community today?
Lamont Lilly: Dr. Cuevas, as only the second individual I know to describe themselves as Afro-Mexican can you share some insight on the cultural connections that exist within such a powerful ethic mix? And why have figures such as Gaspar Yanga and Emiliano Zapata been omitted from history’s reference of heralded freedom fighters?
Marco Polo Hernández-Cuevas: Well, the reason you haven’t heard many refer to themselves as Afro-Mexican is because this is a relatively new term that was first coined by Eurocentric scholars like Melville Herskovits. It was Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán who coined it in 1945 in Mexico City, during the foundational meeting of the Institute for African American Studies. However, that doesn’t mean that a color consciousness didn’t exist in Mexico. Prior to that, we had a host of names such as “Casta,” “Chilango,” “Jarocho,” and “Boshito,” all terms that refer to the lack of blood cleanliness of non-white persons. That would explain why many people in Mexico do not identify themselves as Afro-Mexican. They refer to themselves as Casta, or any of the other names previously mentioned. Recently however, there’s been a movement in the South Pacific side of Mexico whereby Afro-Mexicans do not want to be called Afro-Mexican. They just want to be called Nĕgro — Black. It erases the science and intellectuality of such embedded complexities.
In the case of Gaspar Yanga, his omission from history obviously has to do with the revolt he led in the late 16th and early 17th centuries against the Spaniards. Mexico did not actually exist at that time, and the Spanish rulers were not eager to historicize such pursuits of freedom. Yanga and others went against their rule. Only after Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán did Mexicans become aware in the early 1970s that the town of San Lorenzo de Los Negros would be called Yanga (in honor of this Afro warrior). So we know there was an African presence in the region.
As for Emiliano Zapata, he has actually not been omitted from history. Though not as celebrated here, Emiliano Zapata is a very prominent and well-known revolutionary. He’s one of the people who fought in the area of Morelos, a southern part of Mexico, during the Mexican Revolution. What is omitted from history is Zapata’s African descent. He was an Afro-Mexican. This can be proven even beyond appearances by the fact that his motto was that the land belongs to the people who work it. This is a millenary Bantu way of thinking, that may be as old as a couple million years.
Soundbite Culture: You’ve said An African Election began because of questions you had about your own identity. What were they?
Jarreth Merz: One of them was “Why do I see myself as a cliché?” As an actor, I’d ask why am I cast as a terrorist or something exotic? Why am I not cast as something regular and normal? Is it because I am abnormal? What is it?
There’s a lot of doubt within who I am. We all go through that process. They say when you hit 40 you reach a mid life crisis, but for me I think it was more like an identity crisis. I just realised that I was in denial of my African heritage because of all the bad examples we hear about Africa. Or the clichés; everything is so colourful, you dance so well, you’re very chocolaty.
So this was something that motivated me to go back to where I grew up, which was Ghana. To have a closer look and see where I came from and where I grew up. Why was I happy then and oblivious to all this crap going on about colour or identity, and why had I become so wounded? I had to confront my demons and take a look at that. So I went back to Ghana and I was looking for a new reality.