Saturday, July 17, 2010

Why the phrase "half-blood" needs serious interrogation

This morning I woke up and did my daily routine: I went for a walk (1-2 miles -- good for keeping me healthy esp. with the chemo treatments, and just as an f.y.i. aside, the treatments are taking their toll on me, in terms of my level of fatigue--which is high (sigh) and which is one reason I haven't been blogging as regularly as I like), I drank some water, and I open up my laptop to read The New York Times. And the first thing that caught my eye this morning was this blurb from the article, "At Camp, Make-Believe Worlds Spring Off the Page":

"Organized role-playing literary camps, like the weeklong Camp Half-Blood in Brooklyn, are sprouting up around the nation."
[the emphasis in bold is my doing]

The article describes a trend for summer camps based on literary themes, most notably those centered around fantasy children/young adult works of fiction, like the Harry Potter novels or the Percy Jackson and the Olympian series.

Apparently the premise of the Percy Jackson series (and this I've gleaned from the article and from the trailers to the movie of the same name that came out last summer) is that Percy is a young kid who finds out that his Mom slept with a god and so Percy is a demi-god in the making--a "half-blood" if you will. So this Brooklyn summer camp divides up these kids into different "half-blood" groups--like some are the half-human/half-divine offspring of Apollo or of Ares.

[Note: they probably didn't choose some of the more "problematic" gods, like what would the group look like and what would they DO if they were the offspring of Bacchus or Hades? And apparently all the kids in this particular camp are boys, but it still doesn't make sense why they don't seem to have an Artemis group or a Hera group, although Aphrodite may also be problematic in a different way...]

So I get it. The "half-blood" designation is supposed to refer to the fact that these kids are pretending (like their literary counterpart) to be half human and half god.

But is it just me or does anyone else see A LOT OF PROBLEMS with the use of the phrase "half-blood"?

First of all, these kids are pretending that their Mom shacked up with a god--and that it's perfectly normative for these male gods to have fathered multiple children with various women who have apparently all cuckolded their partners or the "human" fathers of these children. Now, I know: I'm being nit-picky here. And I don't think that any of these kids are really confused or that it's sending a bad message about their particular mothers. But I do think that the idea that you can be a male god and have sex with any number of women, human or divine, is part of what gives license to male privilege and the idea that it's OK for men to have multiple sex partners and to father multiple children without also PARENTING them. Because I mean look at poor Percy--he grows up not knowing who his real Dad is until he's 12. So where was his old man? Off doing the divine thing? And he gets cut slack because he's a god? Who was changing Percy's diaper and teaching him to walk and taking him to school and providing for his basic material and emotional needs? THE SINGLE MOM.

Seems like there's a ripe human contemporary counterpart in the making if we think about male celebrities. I mean, don't we hear stories all the time, esp. in the world of music, about rock stars or even someone like Ravi Shankar, who leave behind bits of their seed in the form of actual children who grow up and, in the case of Norah Jones, becomes a major recording artist following in the footsteps of the father who fathered but didn't parent her.

Anyway, the real reason I find the phrase "half-blood" problematic is that it's an offensive term that has typically been used as a racial slur against mixed-race people and very specifically against mixed American Indian people.

For example, if you google "half blood definition" you will find the following from both Answer.com and The Free Dictionary [which gets their source from the American Heritage Dictionary]:

half blood also half-blood (hfbld, häf-)
n.

1.
a. The relationship existing between persons having only one parent in common.
b. A person existing in such a relationship.

2. Offensive A person of mixed racial descent, especially a person of Native American and white parentage.
[emphasis in bold is mine]

3. A half-blooded domestic animal.

And according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "half-blood" has at its core the idea that there is both a quantifiable ("half") notion of blood AND a qualifiable (as in hierarchical) idea embedded in the phrase "half-blood":

"half-blooded a., born of different races; spec. of superior blood or race by one parent only."
[again, emphasis in bold is mine]

It just makes me cringe to think that these kids are going to these "half-blood" camps and will be referring to themselves as "half-bloods" without understanding the long and painful racial/racist history behind that term AND without understanding how problematic it is to split one's "blood" and the not-so-implicit connotations of blood (and really, wherever you see the word "blood" you should insert the word "race") as purity--of being able to determine which bloodline is better than the other.

Better to be a divine than to be human--sure, that's easy to see. Who wouldn't want to be able to fly or have supernatural powers. But we don't live in a fantasy world--and I just think it's too easy to to take that thinking to the next level--how much better to be white (the normative, the majority, the race that is associated with beauty and power and prowess) than to be "other"--one of those hyphenated, brown-skinned, minority Americans.

And finally, (and forgive me because what follows next is my attempt to be ironic through a self-conscious use of racial slurs--which I KNOW are offensive and hurtful, but I am trying to slam home a point with a blunt tool) but I just can't see any camp or book publisher being OK with titles like: Harry Potter and the Chink Princess or Percy Jackson and His Nigger Friends or Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Lost Kikes.

But on second thought, maybe "half-blood" isn't as offensive a term as these other racial slurs...maybe it'd be more like the equivalent of Harry Potter and the Oriental Princess or Percy Jackson and His Negro Friends, in which case I wouldn't put it past any mainstream publishing house to go with these titles...esp. "Oriental."

Anyway, if your child comes home proclaiming to be a "half-blood," it may just be time to sit him/her down and have a talk about language. I mean, I know language changes, and there's a movement to reclaim phrases. But last time I checked, large groups of Indian American activists were NOT agitating to use the phrase "half-blood" as a term of empowerment in the way that gay and lesbian activists have tried to take back the term "queer."

16 comments:

david said...

I, personally, have no problem with this because it's role playing. They, the kids, should be old enough to understand the difference between fiction and reality. If they can't, then they should be told that it's just fiction(the role playing).

If a word or term is offensive then they should also be told not to use it.

Matt said...

I don't really disagree with a thing you say here (except the suggestion that Ares is not one of the more problematic gods), but it seems to me it would be stronger if you acknowledge that children often fantasize about a secret identity, suddenly revealed, that makes them special. Look at Superman as an immigrant identity.

Not that intention is everything -- it depends on the question it's used to answer, and I'm aware that people of Native descent might be interested in different questions than the people in these camps --but "half-blood" is being used very differently from its use as a slur. This is probably much closer to "Oriental," if that's being used in a supposedly positive way, than to "Negro," but even that doesn't seem to me to quite capture the usage. In "the Oriental Princess," the slur is used to create (or at least to mark) difference, but this resonates as a way of dealing with already present (and salient) negative feelings about being different, by turning difference into specialness. Perhaps that makes the whole thing closer to the issue of people with tenuous (or completely made up) links to Native ancestry claiming a Native identity than to the issue of reclaiming slurs.

That doesn't blunt all criticism. Perhaps it even creates new lines of criticism. And I still think your post is relevant and important. But I do think it ought to make some difference. Especially to the tactics one might choose in responding to children with particular emotional needs that are being met in this off way.

Or, if you disagree, I'd love to hear what you think, if you choose. But good luck with chemo, and I hope you are well.

Jennifer said...

David,
I think we're going to have to agree to disagree--because the phrase "half-blood" is offensive as well as being enormously problematic--which was the whole point of my post. I do get the sense that you disagree, so thanks for leaving your 2 cents on the matter.

Matt,
I think the god of war IS potentially problematic in terms of a society that is already reinforcing the militaristic and violent overtones that are part of our culture/society and that may not be the healthiest message to send to young boys. But that's just me as an aspiring pacifist (I struggle with the pacifist thing since I do believe we need a military and have friends/relatives in the military).

I see "Oriental" and "Negro" to have a similar outdated and potentially offensive connotation. I'm aware that most people don't see the two as similarly valenced in terms of a negative racial connotation, but for me they are the same.

And the thing with "half-blood" is that even if it is being used very different from the Native American slur, it doesn't take away from the fact that the word IS a slur for a group of people (and for others aware of its origins and history) and that the idea of reclaiming a word and getting rid of its negative connotations--which are so closely aligned to the formative idea behind it--that is a person whose ancestry is mixed--is what is most problematic in using this slur and then turning it into something seemingly positive without understading the racist undertones of the phrase.

Matt said...

As I said, I agree with what you wrote. Just think there's also more going on, and that there's value in addressing that.

(As for pacifism, I'm kind of the opposite. Moving unsteadily away from it and towards just war theory.)

Arturo said...

Solid piece - would it be okay if we cross-posted it at Racialicious?

Jennifer said...

Arturo,
Feel free to cross-post! I'm enormously flattered!

Best,
Jennifer

Jasmin said...

Hi Jennifer,

I read this post at Racialicious and then came over here--I haven't been able to stop reading your work! :-)

I liked your post, though I don't know about the series in question (though I have read all of the Harry Potters). I agree with you that "half-blood" is a pretty obvious slur (I had no idea it originated as a term to disparage Native Americans though), and I vaguely remember being irritated that people were holding up J.K. Rowling as a "beacon for tolerance" when the HP books came out. As someone mentioned in the comments over at Racialicious, I believe, it's annoying to read fantasy books with "proxys" for racism, especially since so many people don't transmit their feel-good takeaway messages* ("We shouldn't see color/blood status! Kumbayah!") over to real life in the least.

*I think it goes without saying that the feel-good messages are problematic in and of themselves, but I want to clarify since this is my first time commenting.

**On another note, I wish you the very best (well, as best as can be expected in a really crappy situation) with your chemo. I'll make sure to send infinite good thoughts your way.

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Jennifer said...

Jasmin,
Thanks so much for your comment--I agree about the whole "proxy" for racism thing in fantasy books (and just in general)--I also think that the racial/race/racist issues in Britain are different in the U.S. and could be why the term "half-blood" doesn't register in the same way that I believe it does in many anti-racist circles. Thanks also for your well wishes on my chemo/recovery--it has been hard and I'm just counting down the days to when I may start to feel like myself again.

Joven
Thanks also for your comments and I'll definitely be checking out your blog.

Candi said...

I am white and Native American. The term "half-blood" is not used half as near as "half-breed" is in reference to those of us who are white and Native American. "Half-breed" is definitely meant as an insult and of course, "half-blood" is as well. I also don't really disagree with what you're saying, considering it affects me. There is a lot of ignorance towards the Native American culture, quite a lot of appropriation that we, as Natives, need to stand up and educate people about. We have AIM and such who are absolutely amazing, but we ALL should be doing what they're doing.

One problem: In my experience as someone who is mixed, "half-blood" and "half-breed" were most often used by my own people...so until they quit using it and assuming that every person who says they're mixed is from "a Cherokee great-grandmother princess" (common joke) so it's alright to insult any one who isn't full-blooded, then we're basically saying it's okay for anyone else to use it and that's sad to me (and hurtful).

Btw, I like your blog. I've been trying to find mixed race blogs, sites that don't just focus on black/white mixed people :)

Jennifer said...

Candi,
Thanks for your comment and for stopping by this blog! I appreciate your perspective and clarification of the terms "half-blood" and "half-breed"--and the fact that both are negative/racial slurs.

I am wondering, if you don't mind commenting again, whether you think that a mixed-race Native American using this phrase with other Native Americans is as problematic as non-Native Americans using the phrase, either in total ignorance of its racist overtones and/or knowing it has a racist past but not caring?

Because I guess I would feel like it's more of an in-group type of reappropriation for Native Americans to use the phrase in-group with one another in a safe space versus having others use it without a personal identification/knowledge of its history--I suppose there are corollaries to African Americans reappropriating the racist slur "nigger" (and softening it to "nigga") and some thinking this is a good thing to do and other African Americans feeling the word incapable of rehabilitation, even in-group re-appropriation.

Candi said...

Jennifer,
I believe some know the past of the statement (and the present of the statement) and do not care. I believe that some just don't know how hurtful it is, though. It's a mixture of both. See, sadly - one of the most common things in our culture, is that people will brag about being "full blood" and look down on those who are "mixed blood", which I have experienced as someone who is mixed blood. However, I have never had any experience of hearing another person of another race using "half-blood" or "half-breed" (with the exception of Cher's song/video, which is controversial for that reason and other reasons in her video - for example, wearing the headdress - the headdress is something sacred and not to be worn the way it is in media). Other than that, I have had no other experience seeing a reaction to anyone who is not Native using the terms "half-blood" or "half-breed". In our community, most people get angry at the term "squaw" (and rightfully so) moreover, something like "half-breed". At least, in my experience...

Again, there's a sense of superiority amongst some (that is not to say all people, a LOT of people welcome people such as myself as well) people who are full-blood, but I cannot help that my family is partly white and partly Native and I refuse to be ashamed of it or not talk about it. :)

june said...

I agree that the term is problematic, and I wouldn't be wild about a real-life camp using that name. In the context of the books, I didn't explain to my son that it was a potentially negative term, but I probably should have. In the books the characters usually self-identify as "demigods" or "heroes", and those were the terms that my son picked up on, and the ones he uses when he talks about the stories or asks questions about them. We're starting another volume shortly though, so this time I will take the initiative and discuss the term the first time it comes up.

In terms of the gender roles though - I thought these books were better than most. There are lots of strong female characters, and the boys and girls are equally likely to fail or succeed. Male and female gods were both responsible for all these offspring - the secondary character in the books, who is female, is the daughter of Athena. (Even Artemis has a cabin at the camp, although it is, of course, empty.) And the gods do not get off scot-free as far as their children are concerned - there is lots of discussion about their lack of responsibility, and judgment of their behaviour. So I didn't feel that aspect of the books was problematic, and I say that as a single mom. :)

Celia said...

I've had this kicking around in my head since it was posted on racialicious (about a thousand years ago.) I just finished reading Rick Riordan's new book in the same world, "The Lost Hero," which caused me to seek out this post again.

In it, a Native American girl named Piper (I believe she's Cherokee) voices the problems with using the term "Half-Blood" pretty early on in the book. I wonder if Rick Riordan had heard the criticism (from you and others) and decided to write it into the book?

Also: I've actually read the books, and yes, even the more problematic gods have had children. (Yes, including Hades.) Also: while all the kids have a single human parent, that parent is not always female. The female gods are also procreating with humans. The main female character in the first series is a daughter of Athena. In the new series, Piper is a daughter of Aphrodite.

christelle said...

I'm a "half blood" and I agree with what you said.

I am not allowed to participate in Pow Wows or other such functions....I must live in a "white" world while my heart is tied to people who do not acknowledge me as one of them. Back in the early 1900s it was hard to be Native American, my great-grandmother changed her name to Jane Brown and left behind her Choctaw heritage...because of her actions there is not enough documentation for me to be acknowledged by even the US government let alone my nation.

Being a "half blood" is a lot like being a refugee. It is not something to be desired.

And in response to .....

"I am wondering, if you don't mind commenting again, whether you think that a mixed-race Native American using this phrase with other Native Americans is as problematic as non-Native Americans using the phrase, either in total ignorance of its racist overtones and/or knowing it has a racist past but not caring? "

I would not mind so much if other races called me a half blood or half breed, the feeling of isolation is direclty linked to the fact that Native Americans use this term so freely. There has been a lot of press and "education" on accepting people of mixed race as far as black/white.....but when you are red/white.....you lose half of yourself, the white world welcomes you (or so it has been in my experience) while the people you yearn for reject you.

Jennifer said...

Candi, June, Celia--thanks for your very thoughtful comments. I'm sorry I wasn't so timely in acknowledging them--at the time you wrote in, I think I was dealing with some personal and professional issues that kept me from regular blogging. I do appreciate all of your perspectives, and I find it interesting that the author of the Percy Jackson series tackled the phrase "half-blood" through the perspective of an American Indian character--that is a clever way of dealing with this issue, and I applaud him on doing this as a way to bring awareness.

Christelle, I'm sorry that you haven't found more inclusion in the native community. Racial slurs are hurtful no matter who is using them--and excluding people because of blood quantum seems, in this day and age, to be very retro and archaic, although I know these issues are fraught in the Native American community. Where I live (NC) the local Native American community, Lumbees, are a very mixed group, and so issues of blood purity seem to be less prevalent and to the best of my knowledge, all who claim Lumbee heritage are welcome.