I haven’t written for a while. This may happen at some time or another, because life tends to get in the way of our best intentions and my blog has been low on my priority list for some time. However, one of the advantages of our righteous indignation is that it might prompt us to action
The dogmatic use of labels in american culture to define and classify people always seemed to me a funny quirk that only added to the amused acceptance of the tough negotiation between different ethnicities the USA were forced to make. Today, they seem to me just dangerous.
I’ve been reading about a story of a New Jersey Med School student who got into trouble and was suspended because he defined himself as a white african american. Paulo Serôdio is a 45 year-old student, born and raised in Mozambique, now a naturalized USA citizen. For all intents and purposes, and forgetting the color of his skin, he is an african who acquired american citizenship. And he happens to be white (or at least more white than black).
In a cultural exercise in class, when asked to define himself, he said he was a white african american. Some of his black colleagues took offense in this and the case found its way to the dean’s office and eventually to his suspension from school. In an attempt to explain his position, Serôdio wrote an article in the school’s newspaper. The comments I have seen label this article as racist and stereotyped. And I don’t get it.
I read the article and the positions Serôdio defends seem everything but racist. No matter how wide the range of skin color among the so called “latinos” in the US, the fact is that most of time, I would be classified as one, even before I opened my mouth and spoke. By the way, my native language is latin based, just like the spanish most central and southern americans speak. For most portuguese native speakers, the accent is much the same as a “latino”, when they speak english. Just ask Joaquim de Almeida who doesn’t seem to get any other roles than those of a “latino”.
I live in Portugal. From a very early age, I remember listening to racist comments from random people around me and not getting it. I was fortunate enough to be born to an extremely tolerant set of parents and the rest of my environment was also conducive to that tolerance. So when I heard a racist comment made around me, it felt alien and wrong. Furthermore, as I studied Portugal’s history, it dawned on me that the portuguese were extremely good at two things: sailing from one place to another and making babies with whomever.
Today I know that between the people who came and settled in Portugal (Celts, Phoenician, Goths, Greeks, Romans and Moors) and the places the portuguese sailed to and settled in (Ceuta, Cape Verde, Guinea, St. Thomas and Prince, Angola, Mozambique, Brazil, India, Malasia, Timor, Macao, etc.), defining ourselves as white, black, brown or yellow, is a visual artifice. It is known today that northern africa is in our blood, in our words and in our music. In at least 10% of us there are sub-saharian DNA markers. Without excusing the abuses that did took place during the portuguese colonization process, not forgetting that the portuguese were the first to capture and sell african slaves, the fact is that I am descended from both opressors and opressed. Although I would be classified as caucasian, mainly because of my immediate family, the fact is that my skin is darker than that. There is a hint of India and Northern Africa in my facial features and tone of skin. I have two sisters, one of which is even darker than me, while the other might almost be considered milk skinned. And I love it that it is so.
I love the fact that the mix of cultures that permeated my own is fully expressed not only in my language (there are a lot of arabic words in portuguese, and some celtic and gothic based too) and in the traditional music of my country (fado being the best known but not the only example), but also in the miriad variations of skin color and facial features around me. Labels don’t make much sense to me. Dogmatic separation of people by groups, be either by race, language, ethnicity, or any other criteria seems to me stupid and senseless. It is an artificial crutch for our fears, a prop to inflate our own ego or exarcebated sense of self. It is not real and tends to crumble in face of true and genuine human relations.
I hope that the New Jersey courts have enough sense to understand this. I hope that racism and self-righteous indignation don’t prevail ever, no matter where they come from.
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. ” (Martin Luther King)