I am white. I have white skin and light eyes. My hair is dark, but frizzes like any Spanish girl’s hair does when conditions (and hair products) are not optimum. My DD 214 says I am Hispanic and that was my choice. I grew up in an amazingly diverse household and community. We ate Spanish food, we celebrated the bulk of our Christmas’ on Christmas Eve, and usually had Mexican food for our holiday meal. We lived in Jamaica, among the people, when I was a child. I went to a predominantly black parochial school there. I have traveled extensively in Mexico and not as a tourist. We lived with the people, ate the food, spoke the language. We have lived in WASP suburbs and in the predominantly black inner city. As an adult, I have purposely chosen to live in demographically diverse communities. I graduated from a wonderfully diverse high school, wealthy but diverse. The same was true for my College and my Masters level cohort was made up predominantly of African American women.
My birth heritage is a montage that tells the story of immigration and religious and economic persecution. One side of my mother’s family I can trace to Plymouth Rock, and the foundations of this country. Then another branch seems to have been born out of the influx of Irish immigrants as a result of British occupation in Ireland. Still another is Welsh, coming to us through the Wesleyan movement in Christianity. My mother’s maiden name is Cofield, which is an Anglicization of the Irish name Caulfield. This name derives from Northern Ireland and a village there named Castlecaulfield. The ruins, preserved and protected, of the original Castle Caulfield are still standing there today. It fascinates me that there may have been a time an ancestor of mine walked the walls of this stone castle and led his people in protecting his land from the invading British. (Maybe another novel?)
I had a member of my family run in the Oklahoma land rush, one who married a Chrysler (yes, THE Chryslers), and one who traveled the west in a covered wagon as a circuit riding Wesleyan minister. I can also assure you, that at least one member of my family has fought in every American War since the Revolution, whether they wanted to or not. It’s just a fact.
These stories and this knowledge was long in coming. Much research, conversations with my grandparents when I still had them, looking through the old photos with my mother, researching old family documents and some casual research on-line, has painted a dim and foggy picture of my historical past. The reason this picture is foggy is because each of my ancestors ran to this young and crazy nation to get away from something. No-one wanted to talk about where they had been or where they had come from. The other problem associated with finding these bits of foggy information is that so often my family, either by choice or by force, had their names changed.
This current tirade isn’t as much about my heritage as it is about this idea of choosing. We choose our racial and cultural identity, or do we? Census season is always a hard time for our family. What do we check when we get to those series of boxes that ask about our race and cultural identity? The 2000 census was particularly problematic for us. There seemed to be so many of those types questions, all designed to ascertain what color we were. I remember going through my spouses census packet (yes, it was a packet) with him and getting to those questions. He asked, “Didn’t I already answer this question?” My response, “Richard, they want to know what color you are.” He yelled at me from across the room, “Write across the damn thing in crayon these words: ‘I’m caramel!'” Sadly, he was serious.
In writing my novel I have taken little snapshots of history throughout it, in the belief that Confucius was right when he said, “Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.” Naturally, this entails touching upon the appearance of the people from those places and those times. Yesterday, I ran across this statement while doing some research on-line, “Why is it that unless it is specifically stated, the characters in books are always assumed to be white.”
This forced me to go through my book and specifically look to see if I had described ALL my characters in such a way that it was clear what color they were. What I found was that I had a plethora of characters who were neither “white” or “black.” They are a blending of wars, history, crossing and expanding of borders. The genetics of pure race mixing clearly written on their faces and in their skin. I realized my life-bias was played out in the pages and that is at one time we all pretty much looked the same, and that one day we will again. (See illustration from Time Magazine.)
In fact, I was looking at my ex-husband while he, his new wife, and I were sitting on their patio a couple of days ago. I studied the features of this face and suddenly blurted out, “You know, you could be anything, blend in anywhere.” It came as a revelation. Richard could be a dark skinned French man, an Israeli or Palestinian. He could, with a little more sun on his skin, walk the streets of any middle eastern city and have the locals immediately assume he was one of them. He looks like the sarcophagi of the Egyptian Pharaohs. He could be Indian or Nepalese. He is lucky he was born Hispanic because they come in all colors and all bone structures. No other people are as ethnically and culturally diverse as Hispanics, unless it’s Jewish.
These thoughts have driven my research the last couple of days as I am working on a chapter about 1800’s Louisiana, right after Thomas Jefferson’s fateful purchase. What I have learned is that the mentality in our nation today still mirrors “The One Drop Rule.” Which is as follows, according to Wikipedia:
The one-drop rule is a historical colloquial term in the United States for the social classification as Negro of individuals with any African ancestry; meaning any person with “one drop of Negro blood” was considered black. The principle of “invisible blackness” was an example of hypo-descent, the automatic assignment of children of a mixed union between different socioeconomic or ethnic groups to the group with the lower status. The one-drop rule was not adopted as law until the 20th century: first in Tennessee in 1910 and in Virginia under the Racial Integrity Act of 1924.
Racial Intergrity? Really? And, we were different than Hitler’s Germany how?
Also, ironically, this mentality seems to most be found within the black community. They have embraced the idea to identify with that side of their heritage that was oppressed instead of identifying with their oppressors. It is cultural and political statement for them. I’m not saying there aren’t white people out there who believe this as well, but believe me when I say, most of us think of those people as the lunatic fringe. They rank right up there with neo-Nazi’s and the KKK. I see people as who they are in their totality, not merely by the color of their skin. My former spouse has a brother who looks like Will Smith, while he also has a cousin who could be my sister.
Now you tell me what “color” is the woman in the picture? Which block on the census should she check? As the mother of children who are Swedish, Norwegian, German, English, Irish, Welsh, Cuban and Puerto Rican – which in turn would make them Native American, African American, and European – this is a valid question. Which Block do they check? Honestly, which block would any of us check and why do we need a classification that clarify’s the color of our skin anyway? It’s kind of like the “English” in Northern Ireland – after 600 years at what point do you just become Irish? At what point, friends of all shades and religions and cultural backgrounds, at what point do we just become American?
In doing my research on Louisiana I ran across web pages by black supremacist organizations as well as white supremacist ones, both equally upsetting to me. I also ran across some really interesting articles written by our young millennials coming up behind us. They seem to be way more eager to embrace the totality of their ethnicity and use terms like bi-racial or multi-cultural when describing themselves. I see this trend acting itself out in my children. They are as excited by the castle in Ireland as they are by the fact that all the Berrios’ of Puerto Rican descent can link themselves back to two brothers who came from Spain. When asked, they usually say, “We’re Hispanic, but my mom is white.” I can only laugh.
Oh, regarding the 2000 census with the extended demographic section? The final question was, “How do you define your household?” I checked the following blocks: Caucasian, Native American, African American, Hispanic of European Descent, Caucasian of European Descent, and Hispanic of Caribbean Descent. I sealed up the envelope and mailed it in thinking, “Have fun with that!” At the time we lived in a predominately African American neighborhood. I’m hoping we skewed the demographic data for the next ten years.