Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Face of America

If I asked you to imagine an American, what would the person look like? Do you see President Obama as the face of America? Oprah Winfrey? Tiger Woods?  Jennifer Lopez? Marc Anthony? For many people, the face they’d envision would be a white face, probably a man, someone of European descent. Yet the 2010 Census shows ethnic minorities are growing. The Hispanic population grew 43 percent since the 2000 Census. Hispanics constitute 16 percent of the US population. The Asian population also grew by 43 percent, and they represent 5 percent of the US population. African-Americans represent 13 percent of the US population. Nine million people, or about 3 percent of the population reported being more than one race, or mixed race.
Texas, California, the District of Columbia, Hawaii and New Mexico are states in which there is a majority-minority population, where more than 50 percent of the population reported being from a minority group.
Yet most people still picture Americans as white. White is more of a mindset, a social construct related to power and privilege, than a race or ethnicity. Many white Americans don’t feel culturally connected to their countries of origin.  Mainstream culture, though often influenced by the cultures of ethnic minorities, is often assigned “whiteness.” Yet many things uniquely American were originated within ethnic minority cultures in America – jazz and tap dance are the most well-known examples.
Some people are calling for a colorblind society, and I hope for it as well, for an acceptance of everything and everybody that we are in America. It is a different way of viewing the concept of the melting pot. Initially it was thought immigrants would assimilate into mainstream culture. But the new, progressive view of the melting pot could be the sharing, acceptance and acknowledgement of all the cultures that contribute to making mainstream American culture unique.
We are not there, though there have been attempts – the multicultural movement in the 1980s and 1990s, for example. Unfortunately, terms such as multicultural and diversity were often used incorrectly, only in reference to ethnic minorities. It was misunderstood that we are all ethnic and that is what makes us diverse, each one of us. Even for individuals who came from family that has multiple generations in America, their family origins were passed down to them through the food they eat, the legacy of migration or immigration, the stories they pass on to the next generation, the traditions they keep, and the way they celebrate holidays and rites of passage.
Until we recognize and acknowledge that each American has an ethnic origin, that the concept of white or black or brown skin is a social construct and has little to do with race, culture and ethnicity, we cannot live in a colorblind society. At this time in our history, colorblindness will mask the very real racism that is woven into the fabric of who we are. It is a part of our history, our institutions, and our collective sense of identity. Are you in touch with your ethnicity? Who do you picture as the face of America?
(Excerpt from Chapter 5, Why You Gotta Be Jerkin’? Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
Dad looked gray, and he sat quietly in his chair. He laid the newspaper on the floor in front of him, and held his chest as he leaned over and read, just as he had when he had his first heart attack. This time he did not wait the entire weekend to go to the doctor.
Frank drove us to see Dad in the intensive care unit. I sat in a chair by the window, the sun falling on my hair, lighting it up like a red flame. Ma always told me she thought I would be the one to have red hair; she hoped for it, for a child that looked more Irish than Italian. But I was not that child.
I did not know what to say to Dad as he lay in the bed with tubes and wires connected to him. I could not think of anything to make him feel better. The hospital smells and the beeping of the heart monitor made me anxious.
“Your hair is red,” Dad said, “You dyed it, didn’t you?”
“No, it’s just the sun,” I said.
“Yes, you did. I can tell,” he said, laughing a little, but I knew he was upset.
“It’s the sun, Dad. If I move, you’ll see. I haven’t touched my hair.”
I stood up and moved to the end of the bed, away from the sun, so he could be sure.
I called Ronald the next day from work on the Watts line.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“No,” I said. I wanted to run back to Syracuse.
Ma started in on me minutes after Steve dropped me at home that evening.
“You were my princess,” she said.
“I had every hope for you,” she said.
“Ma, I don’t want to talk about this.”
“You caused your father’s heart attack. You might have killed him.”
I stopped breathing. The room swirled around me.
“Ma, don’t say that!”
“You’ve thrown your life away!”
“Stop, Ma, just stop!”
“You’ve broken my heart! I want to die!”
“Ma, why do I have to choose? I’m happy. I love him!”
“Your children will be hated. You’ll be ostracized. My princess,” Ma said. She moaned. She began to sob, and I joined her. “Aunt Josephine cut you out of her will,” she continued.
“So what?” I said, “What’s that supposed to do? How would that change my mind?”
“You’ve cut yourself off.”
“Ma, what if I choose you?” I said, the words thick in my throat, “You won’t be here forever. You’ll leave me alone.”
I cried. Ma bawled. I pleaded. Ma accused.
The next morning, with no sleep, I showered, dressed, ate some breakfast, and left the house at 11:15. My eyes were swollen and dry – I had no tears left. I walked down Locust Park toward Central Avenue to the bus stop.
Steve pulled up beside me in his brown Pinto.
“Hey,” he called out the window.
“I feel like shit,” I said, “Ma and I fought all night.”
“Over Ron again?”
“Yes, I don’t have time to tell you about it. I’ll tell you later.”
“Want a ride?”
“No, I need to walk,” I said. He waved and drove off.

Steve drove me back to school that fall. We stopped at Peggy and Dawson’s house to visit her before Steve headed back to Albany. After her daughter Liza was born, we had found our way back to each other. I often babysat Liza at the dorm, letting all the girls on the floor dote over her as she played peek-a-boo with me in the mirror, her large, azure blue eyes with the dark ring around the irises surprising her reflection, her blond hair falling in sweet baby curls. I felt about Liza the way I imagined Peggy felt about me when I was little.
I told Peggy about my many arguments with Ma, about how difficult it was to see Dad in the hospital again, and how hard the whole summer had been.  I had been berated and chafed every day to make a choice.
“So maybe you should just stop talking to her,” she said, “then she’ll have to choose if she wants to lose you or be in your life with Ron as part of it.”
“How could I do that?” I asked.
“You just have to,” she said, “When they come up, I’ll have you and Ron over, so she can get to know him. That might make a difference.”
“It won’t,” I said, “She won’t change her mind.”
“She might. But either way, you have to be strong and live your life,” she said, hugging me, and I remembered how she took care of me when Ma couldn’t or didn’t.
I stopped talking to Ma. 


  1. I agree with you on a lot cuz. But my issue is people get one mindset and stick with it. The vision of "America" is white. Yes. But the vision of "interracial" is black man, white woman. And that's not completely accurate either. People get 1 thing and stick with it. When you get a black woman and white man, for example, it's considered "reverse interracial" which is an oxy-moron term but still widely accepted. The world is full of ignorance and, sadly, I doubt that will ever change completely.

  2. Vaun, you bring up a very good point, and I agree with you. It is something about the way the human brain categorizes images, people and experiences. It is prejudice, in the original sense of the word, and was one way in which humankind survived in early times. So people tend to think in terms of absolutes, and the media validates those singular images. In fact we are more diverse than we acknowledge.

    I talk mainly about black/white relationships because that is my personal experience, and I write memoir. All combinations of racially mixed couples exist today (and have always existed). Historically, in America, black male/white female relationships were the most feared and considered abhorrent. It was fear of black/white racial mixing that enabled Jim Crow, anti-miscegenation laws and the one-drop rule to exist in 20th century America. We still live with the legacy of that fear.

    Do I think we can change the way we view race, as a divisive social construct? No, I don’t think it will change in my lifetime, and I think in some ways we have regressed. But I believe we have to keep trying.

    Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.