Only Skin Deep

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Andrew Sullivan has some fucked up views on immigration — and that he’s still a practicing Catholic must mean he has some pretty twisted views on Catholicism, too — but when it comes to the principles of liberal democracy, he’s all right.

In the second part of his weekly three-part post for New York Magazine last week, Sullivan called attention to the PC social-justice fiasco over at Williams College, one of those private liberal-arts schools the New England gentry is so proud of. Seems a group of black student activists there are demanding segregated housing, what they call “affinity housing,” which lumps identity groups under the same roof for the sake of “making the College a less harmful place for those of marginalized identities and to take steps toward becoming a more inclusive institution.”

“There is something deeply clarifying about recent events at Williams College,” writes Sullivan, “because they reveal the logical endpoint, to my mind, of critical race, gender, and queer theory.”

He then quotes the editors of The Williams Record, the school’s student newspaper:

We at the Record wholeheartedly support establishing affinity housing at the College. As a community, we must recognize that the College is a predominantly white institution in which students of color often feel tokenized, both in their residences and more broadly on campus. Establishing affinity housing will not singlehandedly solve this problem, but it will assist in making the College a more welcoming, supportive and safe community for minoritized students.

Some say affinity housing reinforces division, arguing that having minoritized students cluster in one space would be harmful to the broader campus community. We believe, however, that allowing for a space where students can express their identities without fear of tokenization or marginalization will encourage students to exist more freely in the broader campus community, rather than recede from it.

Sullivan brings up a study published in the Journal of Social Psychology and Personality Science, which suggested that multiculturalism might actually “deepen race essentialism” (“the idea that ‘racial group differences are valid, biologically based, and immutable’ “).

To quote the man:

[T]he more focus you put on race, the more conscious people are of it as a valid and meaningful distinction between people, and the more likely they are to reify it. At today’s diversity-driven campus or corporation, often your first instinct when seeing someone is to quickly assess their identity — black, white, gay, Latino, male, trans, etc. You are required to do this all the time because you constantly need to check your privilege. And so college students — and those who hire and fire in business — are trained to judge a person instantly by where they fit into a racial and gender hierarchy, before they even engage them. Of course they’re going to end up judging people instantly by the color of their skin. Social justice has a strict hierarchy of identity, with white straight males at the bottom. It is, in fact, a mirror image of the far right’s racial hierarchy, which puts white straight men at the top. …

In other words, teaching people to see other races as completely different from one’s own may encourage us to define others by stereotypes.

Identity is important, but it isn’t what a lot of Liberals say it is. Identity isn’t about being black or Latino, and I’d even argue that any black or Latino person who ranks their blackness or Latinoness near the top of their identity has barely scratched the surface of themselves. I’ll concede that I am Latino, historically, politically and socially speaking, but I’m way more Chicagoan than I am Latino, and even more working-class. I can shoot the shit easier with a white working-class woman than with any well-to-do black or Latino man, who would either bore the hell out of me or make me twitchy. I read the diaries of old dead white writers and feel they understand me more than most of the people in my own family (though I’ll readily admit that some of those old dead white men probably wouldn’t have believed they had anything in common with me — cough Hemingway! cough cough).

Our identity isn’t formed in a vacuum. I am who I am based on my understanding of who other people are. If I see myself as Latino, for instance, it’s because I see George Washington as white. If I were alone, and had never seen another person, it probably wouldn’t ever occur to me to place much importance in the color of my skin, or my Latinoness, which I would know nothing about since there would be nobody around to tell me I was something called Latino. You see this in little kids. They play with whomever, however they look, and only segregate themselves later on, once the grown-ups have filled their innocent little heads with bullshit.

So I don’t know how you go about expressing your identity — expressing your blackness, or your Latinoness, say — in a group of people who all identify the same as you. That seems to me to be the opposite of expressing your identity; it seems more like conformity. You can only truly express your identity where no one identifies the way you do. I feel more black and Latino when I’m with people who aren’t black or Latino. Sure, being around blacks and Latinos reminds me of what it means to be black and Latino, but so does being around white people. A rich man knows he’s rich, but he doesn’t really understand how rich he is, or what being rich really means, until he’s around poor people. Comparison is Identity 101. Who or what are you on a desert island? If you don’t think to much about it, the answer is clear as day.

Plus I never quite understood how celebrating our differences, even to the point of chauvinism, was ever going to bring us all together. I always thought Ali’s early views about race, for instance — how white people were naturally more savage, and black people more beautiful — did a disservice to his legacy, his race, his country, and his species; if it isn’t right for white people to say such things about brown people, then how is it okay for brown people to say the same about white people? And how does any of that get rid of misunderstanding, fear, and hatred for the Other?

I will never understand how us brown people can go around actually celebrating the categories imposed on us by white people. I mean, we know race is made up, right? — that black and Latino are invented labels — and yet some blacks and Latinos act as if those labels were their most important, their most essential traits. I get that black and Latino are historical, political and social realities, but they’re not reality realities; because in reality, I’m a person, same as any other. That’s how I see myself, and that is how I want to be seen and treated by others, at least as far as rights and respect go. All of my differences make me unique, sure, but same goes for anyone else. Essentially I’m a human being, and it’s only the made-up labels stuck to me by society that keep me from being seen and treated as such.

I get why black people talk about Black Pride and why brown people talk about Brown Pride, but if White Pride is stupid and dangerous (which it is), then so is any other kind of racial pride. Again, you’re placing pride in something made up; how can that be any kind of real pride? Why should I be proud of my brown skin, when I had nothing to do with it? (I would’ve picked green, my favorite color.) If anything, the sun should be proud: it did all the work. Plus my skin color changes pretty drastically throughout the year, getting darker in the summer and paler in the winter. So in which month should I feel the most pride?

Schopenhauer said that nationalism is “the cheapest sort of pride,” and if so, then race pride has to be the strangest, and Latino pride the most convoluted. Am I to be proud of my Latino genes? (What the fuck are Latino genes anyway? And what is Latino?) How can I feel any personal pride in the fact that my dad, who happens to be Puerto Rican, knocked up my mom, who happens to be Honduran? And why are Hondurans lumped together with Puerto Ricans under the label Latino? Because those countries were once colonies of Spain and now speak mostly Spanish? Or because Puerto Rico and Honduras used to be the homelands of two separate pre-Columbian civilizations? Is that essentially what I am: the product of slaves and Indians and Spanish conquerers? Does that pretty much sum up me, or you, or anyone?

We don’t choose where we’re born, who our ancestors were, or what’s in our genes. So the very most I can feel about being black and Latino is appreciation, which I can deepen through learning about my ancestors and studying the history of blackness and Latinoness. But pride? Pride is up to me to earn for myself, through what I do, the decisions I make, and the life I lead.

No, I’m not proud to be brown or Latino, and I’m not looking to bunk with someone just because their brown or Latino or whatever. I’m going to keep figuring out whom I get along with the old-fashioned way: by talking to them and finding out who they are. And I could care less how they identify. They could be one of those Furries for all I care, licking themselves and shitting in a litter box; cuz if they’re from Chicago, and grew up in the kind of neighborhood I did, then we probably have a lot in common — despite their furry skin.

 

Featured image: DryHundredFear/Flickr

Hector is the editor and publisher of Enclave. A Chicago writer now floating on the edge of Las Vegas, he is also the former deputy editor for Latino Rebels, as well as the former managing editor for Gozamos, a Latino art-activism site based in his home town. He has contributed to RedEye, a Chicago daily geared toward millennials, and La Respuesta, a New York-based site for the Puerto Rican Diaspora, plus a number of publications, including The Huffington Post. He studied history (for some reason) at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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