Press "Enter" to skip to content

On identity in America

Catherine Parker’s blog a few weeks ago entitled “African-American: Meaning what exactly?” raised several interesting points and got me thinking.

The blog reminded me of something that happened in my freshman (first) year of college. I was working in the scheduling and events office of my university’s student union, processing requests for room space for the various student organizations on campus. When a request came in for the Filipino Student Society I looked up from my other work, recognized the applicant from one of my classes and decided to make small chat as I checked availability on the computer. I said, somewhat cheekily, “You know my great-grandmother was born in Manila, do you think I could qualify to be part of the Filipino Student Society?” The Filipino-American student paused, looked at me, paused a bit longer, but then, probably wanting to be as inclusive as possible said, “uh, sure, why not.”

I remember feeling like I should have apologised. It is true that my great-grandmother was born in the Philippines, where her family had lived for at least a century if not more. Her mother’s family was part of the elite Spanish colonial society who owned plantations across the islands and who lost these possessions during the Spanish-American War. At best, I would consider myself to be of Spanish descent, but I do not share the culture, history or traditions of Filipinos that this student society was celebrating.

My grandmother on my father’s side is also part Native American, but this does not mean that I will “check” the box for Native American on any form I fill out, be it for university applications or the census.

Like most Americans I am a mutt, a combination of multiple different ethnicities and races. I can apparently claim Spanish, Native American, German, Irish, and Welsh ancestry. After living abroad and realizing that this means nothing to the Spanish, German, Irish or Welsh that I have met, however, I now call myself American, plain and simple. For me, that is my ethnicity and my nationality.

But identity is subjective. I choose not to refer to myself any longer as a hyphenated American, that is, as German-American or Spanish-American. If someone asks me, sure, I will tell him or her where my family comes from. But that is a decision that is up to each individual to make.

I emailed a few family members and friends of mine to ask them how they self-identify, just to give you a sense of how fluid identity is in America. My cousin Adian, for example, responded, “I consider myself kind of like a mix of Hispanic, Spanish (like descendent of someone from Spain), Native American, and any other that I have in my blood, but when people ask, I normally joke around and say I’m a white skin or white Mexican. They normally get a kick out of that. For the most part I just consider myself an American because America is a mixed culture and so are most people when you look at their roots.” My brother-in-law, who was born in Mexico but raised in the United States identifies himself as Mexican, and my sister has commented on how they will have a mixed-heritage home, with their children similarly being able to choose whether they will call themselves Hispanic, Mexican-American, white, American, etc.

Most Americans will joke about their ancestry and make light of their background. As my girlfriend, who is half Lebanese and half Jewish, said, “I consider myself an American through and through, but I like Lebanese food and Jewish humour. I also tan well given my Semitic blood on both sides.” Overall, no matter who you meet, the majority of Americans will tell you that they are American first and foremost; if they choose to be called Jewish-American, African-American, black, Asian-American, Mexican-American, Hispanic etc., it is usually a symbol of their choice to identify as a member of a community within America, but the two are not mutually exclusive.

After I read Catherine Parker’s blog I was, to be honest, a little perturbed. I know that many South Africans and others around the world believe that Americans are “too” politically correct and sensitive about issues of race and ethnicity, and perhaps I am a perfect example of this. Yet, as much as identity is subjective, it is also important to be respectful of other individual’s and other communities’ identities.

Imagine this. It is Martin Luther King Jr. Day — a national day of commemoration in America. A day when school children across the country learn about the civil rights movement, about the sacrifices and the great achievements of African-Americans (i.e., blacks) who were marginalized in American society for centuries. The purpose of the day is also to highlight the history of the African-American community that had previously not appeared in textbooks, which tended to only feature America’s white, European history. Imagine now that you are entering your classroom, where you are the only black student, and taped to the door of the room is a poster featuring a white student with a big grin on his face, thumbs up, saying “Next Year Support Trevor Richards for Highest Achieving African American* Student Award” – *He’s from South Africa. This is the situation that transpired in which, as Catherine Parker stated, “The school freaked out, everyone got their knickers in a knot, and Trevor and two of his classmates were suspended.” Perhaps a two-day suspension was a bit extreme, but it cannot be denied that this stunt and its timing were insensitive and in poor taste.

Yes, it is true; everyone in the States knows that when you say African-American you mean black. But, as many respondents on Catherine Parker’s blog pointed out, the term African-American has a history of its own and came from within the community itself. It was not imposed by the Census Bureau to divide Americans into statistically convenient categories, nor does it mean that we do not also use the term black in America, or allow people to use multiple terms to describe themselves. The incident involving Trevor Richards is not symptomatic of the fragility of race relations in America, which are far from great, nor does it represent the fact that “everyone is at pains not to be seen as discriminatory for fear of punishment or retribution.” This was a question of respect, or Trevor’s lack thereof.

Again, wanting to get a broader sense of the issue, I emailed African-American friends of mine to ask them their opinion on what it means to be African-American. To Courtney Priester, who has lived in South Africa for many years now and has witnessed this debate before, it is “a term that is misused and misunderstood worldwide. The black race in America are of African descent (as is everyone in the world) but our culture and heritage was stripped, so now we have a mixture of old wives’ tales, hints of African cultures, from all over Africa and self produced Afro-centric ideologies that provide us with some sense of wholeness and culture. So yes, a true African American would be someone who was born in Africa and naturalised in the States no matter what colour they are. Yet the burning issue for me is would they actually claim the African American mantle or would they go for Dutch American, German American?”

Moreover, when we are asked in the United States to provide information regarding race, ethnicity, gender and other physical attributes such as disabilities, the purpose is to foster diversity, be it in schools or elsewhere. This is another reason why I will not list Native American or Hispanic on any form that I fill out. Sure, I have Spanish ancestors, I grew up in New Mexico, Mexican cuisine is my favourite type of food, and I know a bit of Spanish. But I am not Hispanic. Checking the Hispanic box on any official forms will not increase diversity at the schools I attend or the places I work, nor will it help provide opportunities for those who often face discrimination — discrimination that I have been fortunate enough never to encounter as a white, middle-class Christian male.

Can white South Africans like Catherine Parker and Trevor Richards claim to be African? Absolutely, white South Africans have been a part of this continent for centuries. Identity, like I said, is subjective. It is up to the individual to decide how he or she identifies him or herself and with which communities they identify. I would just ask that they be a bit more considerate of the historical significance of the term African-American as well as its meaning to a large community of citizens within the United States. As irritating as some may find political correctness, it is more often than not a matter of respect — respecting the history, culture, traditions and identities that others choose for themselves and their communities.