Monday, March 31, 2008

Beyond the racial pentagram

I just returned from a conference, where I spoke on a panel about racial identities. I used a phrase, "racial pentagram" that someone, over lunch, asked me about. I confess--this is not a term that I coined; rather, I've seen it in more than one source, but I like using it because it conveys the sense of race that I want to get across--that we often talk, mysteriously and mystically, about race as this five-pronged entity, as if we can neatly divide people in the U.S. into these five categories: white, black, Native American, Asian American, and Latino. But of course, there are two main myths involved: these categories are not "pure"--after all, "Latino" is an amalgamation, in and of itself, of various indigenous, European, and African people who collided and co-habitated post-Columbian contact in South/North/Latin America and the Caribbean. And then there are people who bridge more than one of these prongs: mixed-race Americans.

At the conference it was clear that the people in attendance at the panel, and at the conference overall, wanted to move away from the notion of racial purity and to talk in more complex ways about race. But you know, even among academics immersed in this work, it's hard to fully realize that race is both a fiction AND a fact of everyday life. And it's hard to admit that even for those of us who make a living studying and reading and researching and writing about race--we still have our blind spots when it comes to talking about all this stuff.

But I do think it's important to do this work--to talk about it. I know that there are people who think that we are talked-out about race. And I think that there has been a proliferation of a certain type of conversation about race in the last 20 years--one that emphasizes a multicultural rhetoric more appropriate for tee-shirt slogans than honest dialogue. "Love sees no color" or "One world, one race" or "Kiss me I'm human" are nice, utopian sentiments but don't push back on where we need to be pushed and don't get at the issues of anger and frustration, fear and anxiety, that most everyone experiences when talking about race.

Interestingly enough, post-Obama "race" speech, there have been a slew of news pieces (tv, radio, print) about how we can have this "conversation on race" and how we can do it in a new way. Although there are some, who rightly are suspicious that this is just lip service and will go the way of the national dialogue on race that Bill Clinton initiated ten years ago, there are others (yours truly among them) who doesn't want this moment to pass and to really PUSH to talk about it--because people already have been talking about it. We just haven't figured out how to talk together.

Anyway, a few links to articles if you want to read more about the difficulty of talking about race but the desire to do so:

AP wire piece, "Where should conversation on race start"

New York Times editorial, "Race and the social contract"

and another New York Times article, "Who are we? New dialogue on mixed race"

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