As much as we would like to think that we live in a post-racial world as apparently evidenced by the election and re-election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, the sad reality is that in most settings the overt racism of the past has been subtly replaced by a neo-racism which replaces the rhetoric of skin color with a rhetoric of national origin as a marker of difference. In this paradigm Mexican becomes an analogue for illegal immigrant and Arab becomes the equivalent to Muslim. Coming from the University of Michigan, it took my temporary residence at one of Europe’s most elite educational institutions for me to come face to face with neo-racism myself. We were sitting at dinner when the topic of names and their meanings came up. It was an easy conversation, part of the process of familiarization that groups of inquisitive, engaged individuals use to break the ice. Going around the table, it was very interesting to understand naming conventions, the root of names and the like. With obvious pride, the person to my immediate left told the story of his name, that in four words told the story of global migrations and the creolizing of cultures – then it was my turn to speak my name. While I am proud of my name and the identity that it gives me, I am most proud of the value it has brought to my life. My name is who I am. It’s that simple. It is at the root of my identity, it is who I see when I look introspectively; it is as much the product of my place as my physical body is.
So to my surprise, when I spoke of my name and some of the history behind it, the only other man of color at the table, the one whose name captured the creole experience better than mine ever could, looked at me and asked: “So that’s your slave name then?”
There was an uncomfortable silence at the table after the question and I quickly changed the topic and moved on, the anger simmering. Twenty four hours later in a different, less formal setting I pulled him aside: “So here’s the thing, consider it a pro tip – don’t ever ask a black man that is not your close friend if his name is a slave name,” prompting the lazy, defensive trope “I didn’t know that I offended you, I’m not racist – I have black friends.” At this point, I lost it, laying into him without mercy – much to my shame.
Identity, at some level infers belonging – to family groups, communities, ethnicities or nations. In the United States of the last 20 years, but particularly in the Obama era; the crisis of identity fed by neo-racist rhetoric surrounding immigration and national origin has arguably subverted the hyphen as a descriptor of pride in origin (African-American, Irish-American etc.) in being into a device of exclusion. This reflection is rooted in the politics and constructions of identity. Cultural Studies scholar Stuart Hall’s prescient observation that “Since identity shifts according to how the subject is addressed or represented, identification is not automatic, but can be won or lost. It has become politicized. This is sometimes described as a shift from a politics of (class) identity to a politics of difference” (Hall 1996. p.601) is particularly apt in this construct.
It is difficult to fathom the consistent framing by the media of difference as measured against what have become labelled “American values” – religion, skin color, national origin – as weapon or problem until one understands the social dynamic at play. This portrayal serves to keep people of color on the outside of society looking in and by so doing, maintains a status quo to which everyone, on either side of the hyphen, subscribes. This is where looking becomes watching and where fear resides – this is what I am afraid of; this is what we should all seek to rectify.