Recently, I attended a discussion on Pan-Africanism sponsored by the Black graduate student organization on my campus. Almost all of the students in the audience were of African descent, one way or another—e.g. by way of African/Caribbean citizenship, African/Caribbean immigrant parents (by far in the majority), or African slaves in the United States (by far in the minority). The event commenced with the viewing of a few clips from the documentary, Neo-African-Americans*, which was screened by the organization last year. An Africana Studies professor in attendance posed the following question to kick start the discussion (paraphrased): When people ask about your race or ethnicity, how do you identify yourself? As a woman of mixed Mexican-American (maternal) and Black-American (paternal) heritage, never having an issue with racial/ethnic identity (thanks to great parenting), and having been asked this question numerous times before, it was very easy for me to answer. I identify myself as a Black woman.
By identifying myself as a Black woman, I am in no way ashamed of or denying my Mexican heritage. In fact, I have a very close relationship with my mother’s family, who I grew up around (more so than my father’s family who lived in the other side of the country). But I did/do not know my family as a group of immigrants desperately holding on to the language and culture of their country. You see, both of my maternal grandparents were born in the U.S. and my mother (2nd generation American) grew up in an English-speaking household where assimilation (to White American culture) was encouraged. So since my mother isn’t a fluent Spanish-speaker, neither I am. And while this seems like a trivial (yet unfortunate) fact, not speaking Spanish made a world of difference for me growing up, especially living in an area heavily populated with Mexicans (namely immigrants). I didn’t fit in with other Mexican kids in school because they all spoke Spanish, or had direct ties to family/friends in Mexico, where I did not. All of my life, my connection to my Mexican heritage is mostly genetic, not environmental. And while I have a good deal of Mexican pride (¡Viva La Raza!) and appreciate the rich history of that heritage. I don’t identify with being Mexican**. I do, undoubtedly, identify with being Black.
Now, there isn’t enough cyberspace to delve into what “being Black” really means. But the fact remains that my sense of identity, as it relates to race and ethnicity, has revolved around my experiences as a Black woman. Though I grew up in a fairly mixed neighborhood, went to mixed schools, and interacted with mixed crowds (I was on the dance, band AND the swim teams—diversity!), I felt most comfortable around Black friends, seeking counsel from Black teachers, being immersed in Black culture (music, novels, television, films), learning about Black history, etc. And though I was occasionally pointed out as a “mixed girl with pretty hair,” my blackness (appearance and behavior) and my affinity for Black culture was something that was natural and seamless and it was never questioned***. So I never struggled with being a tragic mulatto or suffered from identity crises. Nor did I ever feel pressured or forced to choose one parent’s heritage over the other. I just so happened to have experienced life as a Black child with a Mexican mother, who was/is just as enveloped in Black culture and supportive of Black causes. Truth be told, Ma Dukes thinks she’s “more black” than Pops.
When people ask about my ethnic background, I happily and proudly acknowledge my Blaxicanness. But when discussing my personal experiences with racial identity, I speak from a Black perspective—the only perspective I know and deal with. Living in a dual heritage household just hasn’t been my reality. So I don’t understand what it feels like to be a mixed/multi-racial person who feels pressured by society to have to choose one ethnicity over another. Thankfully, I was never made to choose; my epigenetic milieu chose for me. And that’s fine with me.
Keeping esperanza alive,
~Gem the Black Pearl
*This was a really interesting documentary which opened up a charged and lengthy discussion on identity amongst people of the African diaspora. Definitely worth seeing.
**My own best friend introduces me to people as a Mexican who can’t speak Spanish. I’m also frequently told by one of my Black guy friends, “You ain’t no Mexican, you nothin but a n*gga.”
***Never mind the fact that nowadays people guess that I’m any and everything BUT Black—Puerto Rican? Ethiopian? Indian? Middle eastern? Malaysian? (o_O) They’re almost disappointed when I tell them.