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Identity liberation

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Esther Cepeda
September 30, 2011
— I’m sure that as the one-named author Toure worked on his just-released “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now,” he thought he was exploring only what it means to be black today. But he’s actually given voice to a multitude of experiences that typify what it means to be nonwhite in America.

In the book, Toure and a who’s who of African-American entertainers, scholars, politicians and artists dispel common myths about what kinds of things blacks “don’t do” and what the rules of “blackness” are, and they identify the tactics of self-appointed “identity” cops who judge who is and isn’t “black enough.” The overarching theme is essentially that there is no singular, appropriate or preferred way to be black.


“If there are 40 million black Americans then there are 40 million ways to be black,” Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of Harvard’s DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, says in the book. “There are 10 billion cultural artifacts of blackness and if you add them up and put ’em in a pot and stew it, that’s what black culture is. Not one of those things is more authentic than the other.”


This is a vital lesson for Latinos and others. Our country is 72 percent white and, due to constantly emerging Census Bureau statistics on the demise of the white majority, most people are already tired of talking about increased diversity. To further engage in ever-more complex conversations about diversity within minority groups is about as palatable to “mainstream America” as it is to so-called minority leaders who promise to deliver specific racial or ethnic voting blocs come election time.


But being aware of differences within groups of people is a path to better accepting them. Even more important, it benefits each group to be understood as a collection of unique individuals who share an ethnicity or religion—and to fully accept those individuals as valued contributors to the collective.


Not a week goes by when I don’t see a blog post, tweet, mass email or Latino-themed website article dedicated to the supposedly burning question of what makes someone “Hispanic enough.”


Even beyond the tedium of label-based arguments (Latino or Hispanic, indigenous or Native American, illegal immigrant or “undocumented”) are such soul-searchers as: Are you really Latino if you do/do not speak Spanish, or are from Spain? And there’s no shortage of identity warring: Are you down with “La Raza”—the ethos, not necessarily the official organization—or are you a “coconut”: brown on the outside, white on the inside?


What these identity discussions lack in reason they make up for in universality among diverse groups. Indeed, “coconuts” can be Hispanic, black or of Southeast Asian origin. “Bananas” and “Twinkies” are terms used by Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. And you don’t have to look too far to find Internet forums in which you can discuss whether you are “Muslim enough.”


Though nearly all minority communities are diverse—in terms of native country, time in the U.S., geography, education and income levels—that rarely gets any traction with “mainstream” and even some minority audiences. And there aren’t too many people like Toure, pushing the idea that you can be an individual while still fully being part of a minority community.


“These are sort of bedrock principles, and I think it’s natural for human beings to reject ideas that challenge them and search for information to affirm their long-held views,” Toure told me. “This is a ‘big idea’ book. I’m proposing something large—identity liberation for all, a right for individuals to define identity for themselves—and that’s like moving the furniture of your mind.”


Toure was rightfully hesitant to draw direct parallels between the black community and other groups. But his view that to “experience the full possibilities of blackness, you must break free of the strictures sometimes placed on blackness from outside the African-American culture and also from within it” is applicable and highly relevant to Hispanics, Asians and Muslims who are struggling to define the diversity of their ranks within the context of the general landscape while trying to gain a foothold on political power.


The pleasant side effect of widely accepting this mind shift is that zeroing in on the many differences between and within ethnic groups provides the perfect opportunity to tune into what so strongly binds us all: our shared American identity.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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