I was wondering the other day about being “white,” or “black,” or “Asian,” or whatever. Clearly race is more than melanin content; the history of this country has stamped race-consciousness on every one of us. The tendency born of this perception, to divide us, one from the other (and, further, to label this as “natural”) is a destructive farce. Certainly differences of treatment based on perceptions of race are far from illusory, but is “race” itself an illusion? Maybe if we allowed the idea of race to disappear, the inequities that attend it would do likewise. Would we be better off?
Even though on one side my “ethnicity” – Pennsylvania Dutch – has a specific designation, I’m also still just plain white, right? Does that inherently divide me from other people? What about folks like my fiancee who have a pretty vowel at the end of their name? Is there something in me that makes me different from them? Is there something that makes me the same? If so, I doubt “race” is the thing in either case.
It’s beautiful to be cognizant, and proud, of one’s heritage. However, the step from this awareness to taking sides based on this awareness is not inevitable, but is thrust on all of us by the society in which we live and were raised. It’s an unnecessary step. Is it just utopian daydreaming to think that we can embrace and celebrate our past, without drawing lines based on those dusty old paradigms?
I move through my days, studying Chinese and German, writing rock ‘n’ roll music (the grandchild of Africa), cooking Native American and Mexican food and I’ve begun to come to the root idea, I think. It’s wonderful to have a feeling of culture, of connection to one’s ancestors, but to draw otherwise nonexistent boundaries between one another because of these connections is tragic, and silly. If we can’t see that we are stronger and more united in our differences than divided by them, maybe we’d be better off tossing all that “heritage” and “race” stuff down the memory hole. It would take a hell of a lot of moxie from each of us- we’d each have to give a lot of folks a pass, and be given one in return, I bet. But then, imagine what we could accomplish, together!
I was sitting at a little restaurant in Multnomah Village a few weeks ago, eating a yummy Mexican breakfast, and I started to laugh. Lord knows we’ve got our faults, many of them, collectively and individually, but when you travel across the great open spaces of this country, and really stop to talk to the people you meet, you begin to get the quixotic idea that most people from the U.S. are pretty good people. Maybe that’s an unpopular idea in places like Portland these days, but, really, what other country offers the diversity we offer, and so openly? No matter how hard the United Daughters of the Confederacy try, salsa is overtaking ketchup, Spanish is our second language, jazz is now classical – we are a country of diversity, of immense breadth. Our history is the history of the whole world because we are African, Asian, black, yellow, red, indigenous, immigrant, brutal, benevolent, fierce and cowardly. We are a microcosm of humanity as a whole, and as such we embody all of its ills but also all of its glory. And while we are sickened by the inhuman lust our government shows for profits at all costs, we are also inspired by the immense faith, courage, and righteousness of a John Brown or a Malcolm X.
As a country, we claim not just the history of the South or North, or of the black and white folk, but that of the Shawnee, the Chinese, and everything in between. Our heroes are, equally, Abe Lincoln (whose birthday and home state I share), Paul Robeson, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Harriet Tubman – and thousands of nameless faces that carved this place – sometimes brutally, sometimes exquisitely – out of the murk of history and the primeval jungles (both inaccuracies, both true). We’re the product of two thousand years of Chinese history, three thousand of Semitic history, twenty thousand of indigenous history! We have the Tao Te Jing, the Qur’an, the Bhagavad-Gita, Dharma, the medicine wheel, athame, the Bible and the poetry of Mallarme! We have the electric guitar!
Come on now, friends. Why not get it together? There’s more than enough to go around.