Race, The Final Frontier

In my last post, I said I was white. Because race is a complex issue that twists and bends, I thought I'd clarify.

Race is a construct, that we should be able to agree on. Yes, the skin of a very dark African and that of a very light Scandinavian are markedly different. And skin color is a powerful determinant -- Margaret Mead in a conversation with James Baldwin once claimed that it was fear of the dark that accounted for white racism. But the boundaries between races, as those between nations, are determined by history, and like history, they shift and are uncertain.

In my case, whiteness and blackness are determined by the same history as that of this, my adopted country: the conquest and colonization of the Americas by Europeans, the importation of Africans as slave labor. In my native Cuba, the Indians were Indian and the African slaves were African. The Europeans were Spaniards. In that scheme, a descendant of Spaniards, like myself, was white -- nothing to brag about, many white Cubans are descended from peasants, while there are black Cubans descended from nobility.

The Spaniard in the works, to quote John Lennon, is Latin American immigration to the US. The English were never too sure about the whiteness of their historic enemies, the Spaniards -- so close to Africa, and many of them, well, swarthy. Add Latin American mestizaje and you have the basis for the American notion of Latino non-white otherness. The big Cuban immigration as a result of the Revolution was historically white. In Cuban terms. White Americans saw something else. Along comes the movement of Latino identity politics and, presto!, white Cubans find themselves grouped in something called "of color", ironically, the Spanish translation of the now rejected "colored." I did say this issue twists and bends.

Personally, I could give a flying fuck. If I say I am, or was, white, it's because of the difference that makes in my personal history and in history itself. I am not offended if someone doesn't think I'm white, though only racists have ever expressed such a concept and racism does offend me. I hope political correctness doesn't eradicate the word mulato from the Cuban vocabulary because it's a common appellation among my peers, regardless of skin color. In fact, what I like about it is that it moves the discourse to the ambiguous field of mestizaje, where there are no racial certainties. No matter, to our dying day my boys and I will call each other mulato.

Still, race is a powerful force, usually wielded brutally. But not always. For every asshole who hates Barack Obama because he's black -- and I am one of those convinced that is the cause of the vitriol aimed at this gentlemanly President -- there are many people, around the globe, who like him precisely because he is black. One of the curiosities of the racial scheme is that otherness can be as attractive as it is repellent. Undoubtedly, I am one of those favorably disposed toward blackness. And if that doesn't make me white, I don't know what does.