Thursday, November 19, 2009

Re: Race and Mixed Identity

A week ago, I witnessed something unusual and wonderful: a symposium on race hosted by Lewis and Clark College, with an emphasis on the discussion of "hybrid identities."

So one night I saw a mixed race gay professor from San Francisco State give a talk about Obama and the cultural ramfications of having elected a mixed race president. Besides making the obvious (but significant) point that Obama is nearly as much Irish American as he is African American, Jolivette discussed the importance of people reaching across their own individual identity groups (not being content to identify as just black, or just gay). He also urged whites to recover, and reinvigorate, their own often discarded ethnic heritages.

I also saw Kim Williams, a professor of public policy at Harvard, discuss her 2006 book, "Mark One or More," which chronicled the fight to allow people to check more than one box on the US census. (They won; in 2000, American citizens were allowed to mark one or more for the first time.) She talked about some of the political problems facing the "mixed race movement." For example, groups who traditionally advocate for one minority in particular (e.g. the NAACP) can feel threatened, fearing that a move towards multiracial identity will undermine their own political/cultural relevance. What was really fascinating about Williams' talk, though, was understanding how little of race is empirical--rooted in genealogy--and how much of it (all of it, really) is how you choose to identify yourself. She related how, on the 2000 census, for example, 97.6% of Americans marked only one race, 2.3% marked two, and .1% marked three to six. The reality is obviously much different than that. Nearly everybody in America is a profound mixture of ethnicity, culture, history, and heritage. Very few of us are just one thing, and most aren't just two.

Finally, I saw group of Lewis and Clark students perform a series of monologues describing their own individual experiences with race. The group was wonderfully diverse, both in terms of ethnic heritage and their perspective on their ethnic heritage. So there was an Eritrean immigrant who had grown up in a primarily African American community; a Mexican American from San Francisco who had only recently realized that some of his relatives were black; a Filipino immigrant who felt guiltily close to mainstream ("white") American culture; a girl from Jamaica with one dark-skinned parent and one light-skinned; and so on. There were probably ten or twelve speakers in all, and each provided a unique perspective on his or her feeling of in betweeness. The most powerful story, for me, was told by a mixed race girl--really mixed; more Tiger Woods than Barack Obama--who, walking with her parents one day through an Oregon mall, was stared down by an elderly white man. The man made her feel, she said, like "an obscenity."

Her story reminded me of the Louisiana judge who recently denied marriage to a black and white couple, citing concerns over "racial impurity." He'd marry a black couple, he said, and a white couple, but not a "mixed race" one. The irony is that almost every marriage in America is mixed in one way or the other.

As the years pass, America is going to look more and more like that stage at Lewis and Clark. Of this there is little doubt. What remains to be seen, however, is how, as individuals begin to identify in more complex (and more accurate) ways, their individual communities, as well as the society at large, will respond.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

McGinn is Mayor

I only read enough about Seattle's mayoral election to glean that Mallahan was a cell phone executive, heavily steeped in business and political insiders, and that McGinn was an environmentalist backed by absolutely nobody. Needless to say, I was happy with the results.

A few weeks before the election, I actually ran into him in the University District. He looked kind of dorky, clad in greenish suit, parked on his bike in front of a red light, helmet strapped firmly on. Crossing the street in front of him, I noticed a pin on his lapel that said he was running for mayor. I stopped, looked him in the eye, and shook his hand. He seemed, strangely, nervous. Since I tend to view displays of vulnerability positively, especially when it comes to politicians, I was encouraged.

There is a very funny tongue-and-cheek article in the Stranger this week about the election. Have a look.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Our Best Hope for Emotional Maturity

A nugget I came across recently by the social critic Christopher Lasch, via John Freeman's book, "The Tyranny of E-Mail":

"The best hope for emotional maturity, then, appears to lie in recognition of our need for and dependence on people who nevertheless remain separate from ourselves and refuse to submit to our whims. It lies in recognition of others not as projects of our own desires but as independent beings with desires of their own. More broadly, it lies in acceptance of our limits. The world does not exist merely to satisfy our desires; it is a world in which we can find pleasure and meaning, once we understand that others too have a right to these goods."

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Profligacy of Poetry

In the new Poets & Writers, Dean Young (who is one of my favorite contemporary poets) begins an essay called "Beyond Intention: Poetry and the Art of Recklessness," this way:

Let us suppose that everyone in the world wakes up tomorrow and tries to write a poem. It is impossible to know what will happen next, but certainly we may be assured that the world will not be made worse. I believe in the divinity of profligacy. The creation of art--okay, just the attempt at the creation of art, as well as the appreciation of it--is both an enlarging of the world and an expanding of consciousness. To write a poem is to explore the unknown capacities of the mind and the heart; it is an emotive, empathetic exercise and, like being struck by lightning, it will probably leave you stunned and singed, but also a bit brighter--and your odds of being struck again then become that much higher.

I agree with Young on all counts, and was honestly moved by his description of the poetic enterprise.

Which is why it is somewhat sad that the following video--both cringe-inducing and riotously funny--is about the closest pop culture comes to poetry these days.