Saturday, September 24, 2011

An honest discussion - racial identity (Part I)

I read an article the other day from a writer who's half Puerto Rican and Half Irish, and recently there was an entire series in the NY Times regarding the increase of multi-racial people in this country.  Bi-racial would no longer fit the hodgepodge background that some people have. 

It made me think of my son William.  He'll be among the statistics.  What will he consider himself to be?  I think that's a good question to ask.  To disregard it as, "he's American that's all that matters" is a little naive and overly simplistic. 

I'm already a mix since to be Puerto Rican is to be not a race, but an ethnicity.  It means to have roots from Spain, Africa and the indigenous people of the islands, the Tainos.  Actually the correct term would be Borinque~no, since Taino means "friend".  The Spanish confused the native wordfor the tribes name. 

I can just imagine the first encounter:  Spanish Conquistador, "Quienes son?" (Who are you?).  Natives look at each other and figure they don't want to start on the wrong foot with these guys with metal armor and swords.  Better to let them know they're good guys and here to extend a helping hand.  "Taino" (friend), they said.  Little did the poor natives know.  Maybe it was lost in translation, maybe if the Spanish only knew that they were being called friends things would have turned out differently?  (yeah right)

I digress.

Growing up I never really fit in anywhere.  I really didn't fall under the "New Yoriquen" crowd since I didn't talk like the kids around me with the slang and I was many times told I wasn't dark enough.  Sometimes even told I "talked white".  Thanks for making proper English an exclusive thing of "white people".  I wasn't accepted by the black kids in my JHS for some of the same reasons and because black racism exists as well (yes I said it).  Oddly-- well maybe not so oddly -- the group that accepted me most readily were the white and Asian kids.

Over the years I've been asked if I'm pretty much every race or ethnicity in the book, except Asian or Caucasian.  I've been asked if I'm Greek, Italian, Jewish, Israeli, Arab, Turkish, Black (I can pass for light skinned when I'm really tanned), and of course Hispanic.  Notice the heavy Mediterranean confusion.  Wrong sea.

What will William's experience be like?  Well, he's medium skinned, has some of my olive tones, and will be ridiculously tall.  Physically, people would have a hard time pinning his ethnicity down like they did with me.  His dad is "white" but we'll be exposing him to both cultures - his dad is Czech.  Maybe it won't matter as much as he grows.  It seems that within his age group there will be many more mixed kids than there have ever been before.  We have quite a few friends that are in mixed marriages. 

I hope that "what are you?" won't matter as much as who you are. We always say that he can decide his own identity.  As parents its our job to expose him to different aspects of his background so he can decide who he is and how he wants to identify himself.

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