Nobody looks like anything (or the day I come out of the clóset)

Puerto Ricans on the island, by contrast, didn’t have full consciousness of being a minority because they’d never had to live as one.” (P.159, My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor)

You can say that some people have a “something something”, like in the context of “claiming someone”. But more than often, you see the opposite, where some try to distance themselves from their afro-roots.

Reading Junot Díaz novels, watching Black Dynamite, and my book The Afro-Latin@ Reader have made me think more carefully about what it means to be dark skinned and Latino in the US. This is nothing new to me, as I always fluctuate my conversations around topics of race, gender, etc… Which has made people associate my presence as the “race person”- and I don’t mean like good friends, asking another friend about a particular hairy/racist situation and trying to get some insight- in a microagressive matter, in which they turn to me if they want to learn something “multicultural”. Sometimes this is ok…sometimes it’s not, mainly because it’s not my purpose in life is to educate them; there’s resources out there, so learn them.

I do been thinking about how this actually affects my daily life, and I’ve come to realize that I actually walk a line between several identities… One of which, it seems I was in a weird denial phase, which sounds awfully familiar to one of my other identities – queer. I’ve become racialized in the US, and as such I’ve come to experience certain things different than my home in Puerto Rico. As much as I can empathize with my fellow Latin Americans, I have privileged that they’ve not because of my colonial heritage (i.e. citizenship by the 1898 invasion). I can relate to other Hispano parlantes, because I grew up in an idealized pan-Latin@ identity. Immortalized in songs by Rubén Blades, Juan Luis Guerra, Violeta Parra; marked by spilled blood by Bolívar, Ché Guevara, and Ramón Emeterio Betances; declamado in poetry by José Martí, Julia de Burgos; and so on…

And we learned about the Taínos, and the Spaniards that came over… And yet, our African foreparents were dedicated a page in our history books (see Godreau and Llórens, 2010 for more info). And lately, I have paid more attention to that. My dark skin has made more aware of what I am, and what I am not. But mostly, what I have found, and haven’t found in my ancestry (thanks for nothing Ancestry.com).

Yet, while we heard so much about amazing people like Celia Cruz, Rafael Hernández, among others that have been recognized as Latinos some people seem to gloss over the fact that they were afro-descendants; that they were dark skinned… the ever elusive black word.

So, while as a Puerto Rican I have in fact a lot of ‘races’ in my ancestry, I always dragged my feet regarding my afro heritage. It was always there and never hidden. Yet, in Puerto Rico racism is more subtle, so I never thought of actually having to come out regarding my blackness; even though society (my friends, neighbors, ex boyfriend, etc…) never let me forgot that I was indeed black because of my skin color, my wide bridge-less nose that wasn’t made for “regular people” glasses, and my butt… *le sigh*.

So here it is, I’m afro descendant everybody. I’m an Afro-Latino. I am the byproduct of colonialism. I am dealing with it. I am proud of where I come from.

Confronting race in anthropology

Anthropology has a rich history with regards to colonialism and race. The discipline has reflected extensively on how culture and biology interact, in order to arrive at the current knowledge of what race means today. The story of race, and how anthropology has addressed it, still needs work. With this short essay, I want to elucidate a potential alternative in addressing race holistically by tending to the concept of privilege.

“Check yo self before you wreck yo self.” – (Check yo self, Ice Cube 1993)

The social sciences are rich in theoretical approaches that look into privilege and intersectionality. While anthropology has borrowed these terms from its kin disciplines, it has not taken these theories and their respective examinations of privilege into its core, nor have anthropologists incorporated them into everyday academic lives. The same discipline that examines foreign elements, and places ethnocentrism as a core topic within its pedagogy, methodologies, and theories, does not engage race in more complex ways outside of this framework; to engage beyond ethnocentrism is to reflect on how participants are treated, as well as the treatment of our fellow anthropologists.

Privileged practices are the result of othering, and individuals do not need to acknowledge privilege’s systematic advantages to benefit from them. Privilege takes many forms. Yet, given the context and history of anthropology, I will focus on white privilege, as a way to elucidate this confrontation of race with the discipline.

Not much time is spent in classrooms discussing white privilege. We must ask, how do our white anthropology professors engage their own instances of privilege? Black Anthropologist Lynn Bolles’ recently published article dwells on the issues of reflexivity and white privilege in academia, and how black female anthropologists, and their contributions, are rendered invisible (2013). Her article suggests that white privilege (while taught in few instances) is not internalized by those who teach it; the privileged power relations are as pervasive in the home department as they might be in the fieldwork setting. Yet, non-anthropologists seem to ‘school’ us on the matter: Carperter-Song and Whitley (2013), while not anthropologists, used anthropological approaches to reflect on how power and privilege affect their research methods. Their collaboration with an HBCU, and an African-American research population, made them think about how their collaboration could address historically exclusive practices and groups. Theirs is just one example of the potential of our own methods to reflect on white privilege, and to account for the unequal biases in the research methods themselves.

The goal is to understand how privileged anthropology really is

Confronting race means that we need to strive towards an understanding of race as an objective, not as a discrete goal. There is not one discrete goal that achieves an understanding of race and how to address it. Institutions of higher learning struggle to balance and understand race by having discrete goals of diversity within their own ranks.

But anthropology is not engaging enough with the topics regarding race; not much is done beyond addressing the issues raised by those of us who are people of color (POC) and minorities. Confronting race must entail more than merely letting minorities and POC take care of ‘their’ issues of race, while white anthropologists see race as beyond their scope and expertise. White privilege, in this case, is seeing race outside of one’s topic of study, and implying whiteness as the default.

Race needs to be at the core of learning theoretical frameworks and methodology. As of now, race is a special topic to those who study non-whites; that’s when race is suddenly relevant. When the participants (or the researchers) are white, the issue of race is minimal or non-existent.

Confronting anthropology means white anthropologists should examine and be upfront about their privilege; minorities and people of color in anthropology have been vocal about these issues, and yet they must also acknowledge their academic privilege – which already happens in other theoretical frameworks within anthropology (Alcalde 2007; Narayan 1997; Zavella 1997). The work of anthropologists of color (including their participants as minorities) often confront race in more natural ways in the methodology and theory, since they do not take for granted their role in the process. Unfortunately, white privilege suggests and encourages anthropologists of color to be the sole voices representing their own race, as well as others minorities (Bolles 2013). Intersectionality needs to be more prevalent in our discipline, and we need to be more cognizant of it as as more of us do fieldwork ‘home’.

The classical definition of fieldwork has forced anthropologists to think in dichotomies that, by definition, exclude those that study their own ‘culture’; it puts unequal praise on those that study ‘others’ in ‘other’ places. Those who choose to examine their privilege and race, in addition to conducting research within their in-group, stand out too much; they attract too much attention to themselves, disturb the most senior members of the discipline, and create chaos and disorder (Weston 1997). The disturbances of intersectionality and the confrontation of racial issues have to be distanced from arguments that deem them as ‘being political’, since they greatly enrich theory and methods.

Conclusion

Accounting for privilege and race in one’s research must always be a component of the research process. In the same manner that anthropologists of color (and those who study their in-group) are considered part of the research process in such ‘disturbing’ ways that their presence must be accounted for in order to justify their findings, the same must be expected of white anthropologists to account for reflexivity.

“U.S. culture and society, (and) the efforts of decolonizing feminist anthropology, entails doing homework in every field of endeavor, particularly at home, in the office, and at the university” (Bolles 2013:69). Race as a social construct is pervasive enough in US society. Anthropology needs to check its privilege, because its present colorblindness does not foster growth in underrepresented minorities.

Race needs to be part of anthropology from the beginning of the training process, and throughout our careers, much in the same manner that ethnocentrism shapes our knowledge and methodology as an underlying concept in the discipline. Reconfiguring our approach from the beginning of our training, at the undergraduate level and throughout graduate school, has the potential to transform the intersection of race in anthropology. The topic of race, in its broad definition, needs to be re-appropriated so that it is not exclusively identified with politics and political correctness, but as a part of the examination of privilege of the (mostly) white discipline of anthropology in the US. Similarly to those institutional review board statements where we explain why our research is excluding minorities, women, and other understudied groups, we need to start asking anthropologists why their research is thought to be outside the scope of race.

References

Alcalde, M. Cristina.  2007. Going Home: A Feminist Anthropologist’s Reflections on Dilemmas of Power and Positionality in the Field. Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 7(2):143-162.

Bolles, Lynn.  2013. Telling the Story Straight: Black Feminist Intellectual Thought in Anthropology. Transforming Anthropology 21(1):57-71.

Carpenter-Song, Elizabeth, and Whitley, Rob.  2013. Behind the Scenes of a Research and Training Collaboration: Power, Privilege, and the Hidden Transcript of Race. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry:1-19.

Narayan, Kirin.  1997. How Native Is a “Native” Anthropologist? In Situated Lives: Gender and Culture in Everyday Life. Lamphere, Louise, Ragoné, Helena, and Zavella, Patricia, eds. Pp. 23-41. New York: Routledge.

Zavella, Patricia.  1997 Feminist Insider Dilemmas. In Situated Lives: Gender and Culture in Everyday Life. Lamphere, Louise, Ragoné, Helena, and Zavella, Patricia, eds. Pp. 42-61. New York: Routledge

What does Latin@ mean?

I got my reviews back from my grant proposal to the NSF, and this is what I think about a specific piece of feedback that I received. Overall, the feedback was good, yet I felt uneasy about something. I don’t think I’ll be able to flesh this out in the most coherent way possible, but here it goes anyway.

Two of my NSF reviewers criticized my ‘monolithic’ use of the word Latino in regards to my study population. They mentioned that defining it in such narrow terms was appropriate for a grant to the NIH, but not for NSF. Finally, they mentioned that by defining it the way I did, I erased and minimized individual differences from people that come from different backgrounds, countries, and ethnicities from Latin America and the Caribbean. They actually were not that eloquent when saying all of that, but I translated it as such from my own reading of their feedback.

As an anthropologist, I understand this concern; as a Latin American queer person of color, I LIVE THIS! One of the things that we often do in anthropology is unpack and deconstruct terms such as Latin@. Yet, lately I’ve been thinking about what does that mean for the participants and others who identify as such. I agree that not everyone means (and internalizes) the same thing when they say Latin@, but such a social construct exists. We might not agree with it, but as anthropologists we can’t will it out of existence just because it seems to simple for our messy and complex theories.

How do we expect to engage the public, and the people that we collaborate with in our studies, if we believe ourselves to be so above their colloquial use of a term. I am aware of the political implications of the word Latin@, yet, what do we make of the people in my research community that actually use that word to describe themselves as a dyasporic community in the US? What do we make of the use of media like Univisión and Telemundo, trying to craft pan-Latin American identities in their shows and telenovelas? Is that not part of the world that we study?

So thanks, but no thanks NSF reviewers and your high horse definition of Latin@. I prefer to engage with the community; my community. I prefer to do research that actually helps. it would’ve been nice to get a bit of money, but I learned a lesson here.

Howl’s moving castle and a bit about race

SPOILER ALERT

 

 

I loved this book.  

 

It is a beautiful story that borders on happy-go-lucky, without being too cheesy. But I found a detail in the end a bit disturbing; that is when Calcifer decides to come back to castle after everything happened. 

This reminded me a bit too much of Stockholm Syndrome, and I think without the proper context it might send the wrong message to some (by making it seem so trivial). But I don’t think authors are necessarily in charge of the own social message they carry (at least I’m fiction)-if they want to make a commentary, they are more than welcome- so that some responsibility is carried over to the reader.I realized later, that the book does try to give a proper context to the relationship of Calcifer and Howl in light of the nature in which i interpreted it. Even more so, the following books explain this matter much  better and deeper; problem is, I don’t know what to make of their relationship. Is it co-slavery or co-mastership? Does this even matter? Regardless, there is the perception of a unequal power relationship and that caught my attention and was always in the back burner while I was reading the book. The author made this even more exciting by weaving the plot in ambiguous clues into the relationship of Calcifer and Howl (Howlifer as the tabloids would call it…no?)

 

 

On an unseeingly unrelated point, this made me think about conversations that I have had with friends and co-workers about race and Latin America. The main point in these discussions being that race in Latin America is so much more complex than in the US; and as such, trying to compare the black/white dichotomy of the Anglo colonial/republic discourse falls short when trying to talk about Latin America. The problem further complicates itself when all these studies (and scholars) that reside here in the north (see allusions to USA) accuse the Central and South Americas (including of course the Caribbean) of rampant racism and of using colonization as an excuse to ignore our blackness. Racism exists, but the situation is so much more complex than that, and more than often these accusations reek of ethnocentrism; and I’m more than willing to bring my lemon pledge.

 

 

One has to think of the colonization processes and histories of each country and their respective metropolises in Europe. While rampantly racist, Spanish colonization characterized itself with mestizaje (intermixing). The late enlightenment in Ibero-America brought to Spanish Speaking American countries a criollo (creole, local, native) pride in their respective national identities, so that the 19th century became a focal point of ethnic differentiation from Europe and independence movements that highlighted their mixed ethnicity as Mexicans, Venezuelans, Colombians, etc (of course this needs deeper discussion, but of course this intermixing was of course mostly ‘white’ with a bit of color-not too much, cause…apparently that was not cool back then…being brown and all). This happened in some Latin Americans countries where these conditions surfaced; except in the countries where indigenous people were still alive (they were mostly ignored by the new elite); except also in those countries where indigenous people were driven to extinction, (e.g. most of the Caribbean) and where these indigenous identities, now long gone, were romanticized; except in those places where blacks were the majority… maybe it wasn’t that homogenous after all.

My point exactly…

There is too much diversity from place to place to talk about race in one sentence and try to express national identity, ethnic origins and racial politics. Sadly, the constant in many of these places was the reproduction of how we look at our African ancestry. In Puerto Rico, the extinct Taíno society became an emblem of the original settlers to drive out the Spanish colonizers; all the while reconstructing this past in lieu of our African culture.

 

 

Everyone (most) knows and acknowledges the influences of our African Ancestors as heritage and genetics; thankfully this heritage is not limited to people who phenotypically look ‘black’ (whatever that is). Also, nobody in Puerto Rico says they’re Spanish, or Taíno (except a few people, and I have a strong opinion about this, but alas another time), or African. The shared knowledge of being Puerto Rican permits a fluid identity that has been discoursally fed through the state and cultural apparatuses; the same apparatuses that feed racism to all of us.

Nonetheless, the discourse and collective consciousness of being a mestizo society does not mean that our ideology is an excuse, but more so a different reality than the one in the US. Therefore, being Puerto Rican (in the island I must add, for pseudo methodological and theoretical reasons) allows you to not think about race in the same way that they do here in the US. To be honest, we are made ‘aware’ of these nuances and dichotomies of the racial headache of the US when we come to the mainland. The fluidity is amazing… and complex.

Why did Howl made me think of this? Maybe it was the connotations of negotiated meanings

in the relationship between Calcifer and Howl. Their co-dependency was filled with borderline hate, love and the life debt they owed one another. Who was really the slave and who was the master? Who was negotiating the meaning of the existence of the other? Why oh why did Calcifer come back?

 

 

Paradoxes, complications and a dash of racism? of course, but again, not just black and white. It’s more grey, and we all fall in the middle.