impossible man

I attended a joint symposium a week ago Friday. Sharmila Sen read from her recent book Not Quite Not White: Losing and Finding Race in America, while Nico Slate read from his brand-new book, Lord Cornwallis Is Dead: The Struggle for Democracy in the United States and India, which Sen had edited. Both texts confronted issues of race and identity politics, and both authors were thoughtful during the Q&A. The idea to celebrate their books together was brilliant.

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However, the event led me to reflect uneasily on my own experiences with race. In particular, I was disturbed by some of the questions. One person related, with what seemed to me an element of envy, that when she lived in Chicago she had a friend who could pass for many different races, and all the other parents at the school were friendly to her. The implication was that being of uncertain race is a great advantage.

I lived in Chicago twenty years ago and it remains the place where I have been most keenly aware of how others perceived me in terms of race. Chicago is the most racist city I know. The problem is that Chicagoans perceive race starkly in black and white, with a vague awareness there also some brown-skinned Latino people. If you do not fit into those preconceived categories, you are not merely invisible, you are existentially impossible.

Earlier that same day, I had discussed combinatorics with one of my advisees. During the Q&A for this symposium, I realized the concept of race claims to partition a human population into sets, with every individual belonging to exactly one set. The error in Chicago, from my experiences living there towards the end of the 20th century, is the partition {White, Black} is faulty; it is an incomplete description. Nevertheless, when I lived in Chicago, I was confronted with all the negative prejudices of being brown.

The problem of being neither this nor that — of being perceived as belonging to a community when that community itself wouldn’t accept me — extends beyond the Upper Midwest. Growing up in small-town Ohio, other children asked whether I was Chinese or Japanese, because in their minds there were only two possible types of Asian people. My own daughter and son, growing up here at the head of the Ohio River, have also been subject to the erroneous {Chinese, Japanesepartition. When I was my daughter’s age, one of my classmates apparently had partitioned the world into {White, Black}, taunting me under his breath with the N word.

When I moved from Chicago to New Mexico, I began inhabiting the racial partition {Anglo, Indian, Hispanic}. When people heard me speak, they classified me as Anglo, even though in other places I had been taken for Native American or Central American. I was greatly confused by this because anywhere else “Anglo” would have closely mapped to “White” or other phenotypical characteristics. However, race classification in the American Southwest is more concerned with geographic origin, cultural background, and linguistic practice.

At the symposium, Sen pointed out Asians themselves don’t consider themselves as a single race. When she moved as a child from India to the United States, she was puzzled that she was classified with other people from the same continent but with whom she shared practically nothing in terms of food, clothing, history, language, religion, or appearance. This is an obvious truth to anyone of Asian heritage, yet the US Census lumps everyone into “Asian”.

In summary, we human beings perceive race because it is advantageous to notice patterns. The trouble with racial classifications is how they blur the distinctions among not only individuals but entire populations, bundling people who have real differences, sometimes even centuries of conflict. Being of uncertain race is not an advantage, because that person is lumped into grossly inaccurate categories, simply for the mental convenience of the classifier. The Chicago mother who could pass for many different races was welcomed by others at the school only because it was psychologically comfortable in that particular setting for those who met her.

Racial categories render entire populations as invisible or impossible. The Voyager Golden Record, while a monumental achievement and hastily assembled, excluded all of the native languages of the Philippines, one of the most populous countries in the world.

When visible, I am seen as a Filipino-American. Legally I can claim both nations, yet I do not know what that term means. I understand but do not speak Tagalog; for years I ate native foods but have not cooked any besides rice and lumpia; I was raised Catholic but no longer embrace that faith; I have visited but never lived in the Philippines. On the other hand, on many occasions and in many places around the United States, my outward appearance leads my fellow citizens to prejudge me as not-American. I am liminal between Filipino and American — or rather, I am subliminal to both, not quite there. In the chemical sense, to the much of the rest of the world I am not of solid substance: I have been sublimated; I am sublimed.

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