Racial Identity: Blessing or Curse?
Today, in the United States, cultural and ethnic and racial sensitivity are all approached from the perspective of inclusiveness and equality. In that sort of social climate, the notion of racial identity has more positive connotations than negative ones, as everyone is encouraged to celebrate his or her heritage and to respect and value those of others. In that respect, racial identity is a positive thing that allows all of us to maintain a psychological familial connection to our ancestors and to our heritage in a positive way that adds value to our lives. However, racial identity is only beneficial when it is something of our own choosing and when we live in a society that values all people equally in that respect. It is quite another thing entirely when our racial identity is something that is foisted upon us, as members of a racial or ethnic minority, by members of the racial or ethnic majority, and when the only context of our racial identity is in connection with our being oppressed, discriminated against, and defined by others as second-class citizens without equal rights.
Both Zora Neal Hurston and Richard Rodriguez provide views of racial identity in entirely different contexts in which racial identity (especially in the case of Hurston) is something that is associated with only negative connotations. In her 1928 essay How It Feels to Be Colored Me, Hurston provides a heart-rending account of what racial identity meant in the negative sense during the lives of the first few generations of African-Americans living in post-slavery America. Writing almost 80 years later in his Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood (2007), Richard Rodriguez recounts a different type of negative experience in relation to racial and ethnic identity that deals with more subtle, yet still negative and sensitive aspects of living within a society where one’s family is of a minority race and culture of origin.
More specifically, Hurston remembers what she referred to as “the very day that I became colored” at the age of 13, revealing that she had never previously really even thought about her racial identity or considered herself to be different from other little girls. She describes herself as having been just “a Zora” until she arrived in Jacksonville, Florida, where she discovered that Zora was “no more”; instead, Zora discovered that she was now “now a little colored girl,” based purely on the identity that other (i.e. white) people forced on her without any opportunity for her to establish what we might consider today to be a racial identity in the positive sense. She writes that she “found it out in certain ways. In my heart as well as in the mirror, I became a fast brown — warranted not to rub nor run.” This is an obvious reference to the realization by a young girl that she would now always be perceived and defined by others as a Negro and that nothing she could do or achieve of any merit or value could change the fundamental way she was defined by society.
Hurston writes disdainfully about the fact that other African-Americans of the time typically bought into the negative assumptions about their race by doing whatever they could to deny it as much as possible. Specifically, she writes that she is “the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief,” an obvious sarcastic reference to the fact that many African-Americans sought to escape from the weight of their racial identity by fabricating a mixed racial heritage. Eighty years after Hurston’s essay, contemporary African-American comedian Chris Rock has a joke in his comedy routine referencing the same exact idea, in connection with how Caucasian men introduce their African-American girlfriends to their friends, making up a more “exotic” and (presumably) more “acceptable” ethnic identity than admitting they are dating a black girl. The difference is that in Chris Rock’s era, the evolution of American society about racism takes enough of the bite out of the phenomenon to make it an appropriate anecdote for humor; in Hurston’s era, that was hardly the case. Later, Hurston admits that there are times when she wishes she could return to a time when she was just a little girl, Zora, and not the person whose identity is defined entirely by her skin color in the minds of others. She writes
“At certain times I have no race, I am me. When I set my hat at a certain angle
and saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library, for instance. So far as my feelings are concerned, Peggy Hopkins Joyce on the Boule Mich with her gorgeous raiment, stately carriage, knees knocking together in a most aristocratic manner, has nothing on me. The cosmic Zora emerges. I belong to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads.”
Writing in 2007, in his Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood, Richard Rodriguez presents a different element of racial identity, also in the negative sense. He describes the two different worlds he lived in as a child: one was the outside world where he spoke English; the other being the private “inside” world of his family home where he and his family spoke Spanish. However, much like Hurston, Rodriguez (and his family) never actually chose their private “at-home” identity, although it was not assigned to them or forced on them in the same way that Hurston’s was. Nevertheless, it was hardly a positive thing in his life, either.
Rodriguez writes about how is (initial) lack of English-language fluency as a young child was something about which he was ashamed and, especially, how the language barriers encountered by his parents deprived them of ever feeling that they were genuinely part of American society. He vividly recalls the way that the sound of English spoken at the front door of his childhood home was an instant source of anxiety and tension that ended only when the English-speaking person left his home. He describes his father as a man with an animated and confident personality and way of communicating with others in Spanish who became a shell of himself outside the home in any situation where English was being spoken instead of Spanish.
The author opposes the view that American public education should continue to be presented bilingually. Proponents of bilingual education typically suggest that it is justified by the importance of allowing immigrants to retain their ethnic and cultural identities. Rodriguez argues the opposite: namely, that promoting the maintenance of two separate cultural identities (i.e. In the home vs. outside such as in his childhood home) perpetuates the “otherness” of immigrant families and actually retards their full integration into American society.
Obviously, Hurston and Rodriquez wrote in very different eras of American society. Whereas Hurston’s racial identity was forced on her by those who desired to perpetuate prejudicial attitudes, the racial identity that Rodriquez describes in his family was a product of natural circumstances. In both cases, racial identity was a detriment rather than a beneficial aspect of life. While there is little question that racial identity can be a positive part of individuality in modern society, that only holds true when it reflects personal choice. It is not beneficial or positive when it is forced onto the individual in the manner described by Hurston, or when it develops out of a sense of inadequacy and shame, in the manner described by Rodriquez.
Hurston, Zora. (1928). “How It Feels To Be Colored Me.” Retrieved Online:
Rodriquez, Richard “Aria: A Memoir of A Bilingual Childhood.” Occasions for Writing: Evidence, Idea, Essay. Eds. Robert DiYanni & Pat C. Hoy II. Boston, MA: Thomson Heinle, 2007. 501-508. Print.
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