My Turn: Some thoughts on race and identity

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Published: 8/28/2022 8:35:30 PM
Modified: 8/28/2022 8:35:16 PM

In her bestselling book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” African-American author Isabel Wilkerson describes a conversation with a Nigerian-born playwright. “You know that there are no black people in Africa,” says the woman, much to Wilkerson’s surprise. “Africans are not black. They are Igbo, Yoruba, Ewe, Akan, Ndebele. They don’t become black until they go to America.” Exploring this revelation, Wilkerson notes that when European immigrants came to America, they saw themselves not as “white” people but as Italian, Irish, Jewish, or Polish. Only when they arrived on our shores were they, like their African-American peers, forced to choose a racial identity.

Wilkerson’s observation questions the nature of identity. Years ago, I did a selfie and my immediate reaction was that, with my dark, olive-green complexion, I could walk down the streets of Riyadh, Mexico City, Buenos Aires or Ramallah without attracting a look. Over my life, people have thought I was Lebanese, Pakistani and I was once called a derogatory term for Puerto Rican.

My two DNA tests affirm that I am 98.9% Ashkenazi Jew. That could mean that there is not one strand of European lineage in my ancestry, which is not surprising. My grandparents never referred to themselves as Russian or Czech. They were Jews forced into a murderous exile, ending in mass extermination. Plus, intermarriage for Jews was a major taboo. My DNA strand was in the Middle East for 60,000 years after leaving eastern Africa. Yet, Judaism as a religion is only 4,000 years old.

For African-Americans, Virginia’s notorious 1924 “Racial Integrity Act,” (nicknamed the “Just One Drop” law) decreed that anyone with just one Black ancestor was not considered a racially pure white person. The Plains Indians, however, routinely referred to African-Americans as the “Black White Men,” a shrewd observation that reflects culture as opposed to skin color. To them, Black Americans spoke the same language, wore the same clothing and came out of the East like their white counterparts. As Buffalo Soldiers, they fought Native Americans just as ruthlessly. As far as the Cheyenne and Lakota were concerned, African-Americans, although a darker hue, belonged to the same culture that was trying to rub them out.

Where I live in Northern New Mexico, there are many ways to categorize the Hispanic population, some of whom claim direct lineage from Old Castilian Spain. In various remote towns, residents speak a dialect that none of their American peers would recognize. They all originally came to the New World from Spain which over three millennia had been settled by Celts, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Germanic tribes, Jews, Roma, and North African Moors resulting in a diverse stew of DNA identities. Seeing that Spain is in Europe, the supposed home of white people, are Hispanics without indigenous bloodlines also white or are they “people of color?” According to a recent report, some Hispanics reject that term as well as “Latinx.”

I know this fellow from Taos Pueblo, perhaps a full-blooded member of that community who has a Spanish surname and likes to play golf and visit California wine country to sample the vintages. Is he less “Indian” than someone strutting around with a 1/32 DNA percentage of Native lineage and a phony “Indian” name? Suppose they want to sing Italian opera, write hip-hop poetry (as all my native teen students did,) act in Shakespeare’s plays and pass on their tribal powwows in order to watch NFL football?

Which begs the question: Is identity based solely on proclaiming one’s heritage and observing ancestral rituals? If so, I’m a failure as a Jew. I observe few Jewish rituals, never attend synagogue, observe Christian, Buddhist and Wiccan celebrations and have a non-Jewish wife and child. The Orthodox Rabbis in Israel who decide such things would consider me an apostate, not a true member of their faith. Hitler, of course, would have had a different opinion. Some might argue that it all comes down to who holds the power in which case, identity is defined by oppression.

It also comes down to the behavior of a given group. In explaining the appeal of Donald Trump, pundits noted that middle-class white Americans flocked to him because they felt forgotten, marginalized and disenfranchised. However, African-Americans who were not only “forgotten, marginalized and disenfranchised” but also enslaved, murdered, lynched, mutilated, burned alive and denied basic American rights; flocked instead to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The contrast between a corrupt, criminal egomaniac and an apostle of love, peace and non-violence cannot be more striking.

Daniel A. Brown lived in Franklin County for 44 years and is a frequent contributor to the Recorder. He lives in New Mexico with his wife, Lisa and dog, Cody.


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