On the Merits of Racial Identity
Issue #33, September 1997
As a teaching assistant at UC Berkeley, I have had the rare opportunity to work with students who are at a crucial intellectual point in their lives. In their first or second year of college education, at a time when their identity is beginning to take concrete and passionate shape, they encounter me in the discussion section of some history class dealing with the intersection of race, culture, class, and politics. What they learn, I hope, is to think critically of the world around them and to strive for an intellectual position that questions the simplistic notions that dominate this world. Especially with issues concerning race, I tell them, it is all too easy for us to fall into the essentialist constructs of past generations of minority activists and further impede their well-intentioned goal: progress for all people of color.
What I learn, however, is something even more profound. They remind me that you can't overlook the obvious in your quest for intellectual growth, even if it turns out to be a little limited or even wrong. Sometimes, just sometimes, we acquire a strength that can be used for a greater good if we learn to understand race in ways that go beyond or even contradict the skills we develop as scholars. Ultimately, there still is a difference between the "real" world and the intellectual one. What makes sense in one doesn't always make sense in the other. No matter what intellectual constructs come from academia, however persuasive and sensible they may seem when applied to observations about the world outside the university, people living in that world continue to hold fast to their own belief systems.
In a race-conscious world, this is still true today. More and more intellectuals agree in their criticisms of essentialist identity politics. The notion that people of a certain ethnicity must conform to certain political ideals, maintain some specific cultural standard, and be "true to their race" is too simplistic when considered with a complex understanding of how "race" itself is a social construct. But the experiences of many of my students and myself suggest that sometimes it is good to be too simplistic. Often, these experiences suggest a need for holding onto some of the simplistic notions of the past for the purpose that they serve. I can make this easier to understand with the example of my own story.
I am a Chicano. The second of three children born to two second-generation Americans, I grew up in a typical Los Angeles suburb of tract housing and strip malls. Perhaps not so typically, people of my ethnicity all but dominated the landscape. Whether in our schools, supermarkets, malls, or playgrounds we always seemed to be surrounded by people of Mexican descent. Of course, people of other ethnicities shared the same spaces with us. Yet, undoubtedly, in the greater La Puente area of the 1980's I was part of a Mexican majority.
Then, in 1990, I began my undergraduate career at a small, liberal arts college in a place called Claremont, California. While it was only about fifteen miles further east from LA than the town in which I grew up, Claremont seemed like an entirely different planet. Tree-lined streets, classic well-maintained homes, and a small shopping square in the town center which closed every evening after sunset characterized this "little bit of New England out West." While Claremont was completely different from where I grew up, it only took me about five minutes to acculturate myself to a city whose careful development over two generations produced a neighborhood where Beaver Cleaver himself could have lived. I mean, you could walk barefoot on the streets without fear of stepping in, or on, anything that might seriously ruin your day or worse. Yet, the population of that town, or more specifically, my microcosm within it, was quite another thing to get used to. For you see, at Claremont McKenna College I was part of a small Mexican minority in a primarily wealthy, Anglo student population.
In actuality, that's when I became a "Chicano." That is to say, that's when my ethnicity began to take a more developed, precise, and political meaning for me personally. The name Chicano became the name that I, like the politicized generation of Mexican Americans before me, chose to reflect that change. Before that, I (like all of the people around me) was a "Mexican." At times we were "Mexican Americans," some of us were even "Hispanics," but the terms rarely served to describe more than our historical nationality and, at times, level of acculturation. Of course, even those qualities have a very real political aspect to them. The difference was that those names for our identity, at that time in my life, didn't have to be political. When people used one of them to describe themselves, they didn't necessarily mean to say something about their racial politics.
No matter what we called ourselves, we related to our ancestries in different ways and at different levels. My Mexicanness differed from that of my second generation friends as it did from others who were racially mixed or immigrants. We were not being cultural relativists. We lived in a world of cultural standards. In the eyes of many of the Mexican adolescents around me some of us were more Mexican than others. Sometimes being too Mexican or too American caused some social anxiety. Still, we all shared some ambiguous connection to each other, perhaps best expressed through our cultural practice, our speech habits, and the foods we all ate.
The bond between us became more clear when we joked around with our Filipino and Anglo friends. Because we lived in a mixing ground of cultures, race became the topic of running jokes among my group of friends. Any cultural stereotype was free game as we took the opportunity to break up into ethnic teams and make fun of each other. Of course, the Mexicans rarely lost. We were the majority. In some ways, our status produced a culture to which other students had to acculturate themselves. On some level then, acceptance was gained by assuming some level of a Mexican American culture. (And all of this still existed within a greater society which acculturated all of us to a confused "Americaness" too!) Yet, whatever we called ourselves, whatever that meant to us individually, my Mexican friends and myself always had our common and free-floating status as Mexicans all but secured.
In Claremont, however, there were very few of "us." I suddenly found that my views in the classroom, particularly on issues concerning race, produced a different effect than they had previously. I, like my twenty or so other college mates, represented the "Mexican view." White students, many of whom had surprisingly never had much contact with Mexicans of any sort, listened to our views on these matters not as merely another opinion but as the "Mexican opinion." In some respects this new aspect of classroom learning inspired confidence in my own beliefs. Who I was and what I thought were more than the mere product of what I had learned in books or through my parents. They were products of my culture and other life experiences. By observing how others considered my views, I was able to grow in my understanding of what made me different from the students around me and what did not.
Even more striking were the few opportunities where "our" views were actually desired. Whereas before in my education teachers never avoided race in their lessons, probably because it was all around them, I now found that professors rarely included it in their discussions except as some sidenote or special case. How can one teach about the welfare system and not include some discussion of the way race seems to interplay with the realities of class? How can you discuss civil rights and not include Mexican Americans and their struggles of the sixties and seventies? Simply put, my professors didn't teach many of these things because it was not part of their experience. Because of that, few of my non-Mexican professors and classmates exhibited a strong inclination to learn these things on their own.
It was at Claremont that I first began to truly appreciate the way that societies can mask their acknowledgment of the racial "other" and, at the same time, portray a knowledge that is as singularly complete as any. I came to accept that most people approach the learning of what they don't know through the gaze of what they do. For people who never had to experience strong emotions because of their race or ethnicity, ignoring those aspects in other aspects of their life was a natural consequence. That didn't mean that their learning was flawed compared to mine, just different. So, what rang "true" to the majority of students in a class seemed increasingly flawed through my eyes because my past made me see things in a different light.
The journey these frustrations led me on is one I continue today. Feeling that my experiences and views were absent in many of my classes, I not only tried to assert them more vociferously in discussions, I also began to feel some sort of obligation to make sure that they were as right as they could be. Unexpectedly, I began to feel some sort of weight upon me when I realized that when I shared my views in class, I spoke for those whom I had never met yet were tied to me by blood and history. What once was only a loose association with other Mexicans whom I didn't know, now became a firmer and more political bond in an environment which took my views and the views of my other Mexican classmates as indicative of all "our people."
The way that my views indicated the views of all Mexicans to my classmates naturally contributed to my cultural nationalism. Not only because they were willing to invest in me the authority to speak for my community but because I, as one of the few who even tried, became perfectly willing to do so. By trying to understand how my views and experiences were different from others I was naturally learning more about who I was and where I came from. I was also increasingly becoming aware of how all of that fit into society as a whole as well as in the smaller world of university life. My ethnicity produced a clash with the world I encountered in Claremont. That world reduced it to a reflection of my "race." I quickly realized that politically, and personally, it was more advantageous to go with the flow rather than to fight it.
In short, I began to study Chicano history. If professors wouldn't include the information in their classes, I made a point to speak up with the information I had learned on my own. Every opportunity I had to write a term paper, I tried to focus it on some aspect of the Chicano experience. In discussions where race and culture naturally fit in, and at my school they rarely did, I made an effort to at least try to make others consider discussing them. A major preoccupation of my classroom demeanor became to insert Chicanos every place that I could both to satisfy my own standards for the "truth" and to complicate everyone else's.
As I moved onward in my studies, both my educational environment and my own self-education produced a person who was more critical and balanced than many of my fellow students. I began to feel advantaged not only because of the body of knowledge I accumulated on the Chicano experience but because I lived in a society that made me learn it in order to feel normal and content. I felt that the world that ignored my race was hardly race-blind. Instead, it was a white, upper-class social environment. In that respect I felt that I had the upper hand. By ignoring race altogether, the majority was failing to fully grasp the way that they themselves were racial beings.
These intellectual changes also made me closer to many of the other minority students at Claremeont. We all shared feelings, both of marginalization and of the burden of being representative of our larger communities, at least in the eyes of many of our classmates. We all also shared an experience of cultural withdrawal as we found ourselves missing what we had previously been used to on a daily basis. As these sentiments met with the frustrations of higher education, the meanings of our minority identity became more public and the way in which those meanings were conveyed became even more significant to our peace of mind and feelings of solidarity. In the process, ethnicity became political, as well as culturally essentialized.
It's difficult to explain but that's how I became a Chicano. The title that I now ascribed to my ethnicity suggested much more than culture to me and, I hoped, to those who knew of it. It meant that I was conscious of the history of my community. It expressed a strong pride in who I was and a commitment to making sure that those aspects of myself would not be ignored or devalued. Furthermore, it meant that I shared the views of those political activists who first began to use the title widely during the Chicano Civil Rights Movement of the late sixties and early seventies. By calling myself Chicano, I was telling the world not only who I was culturally but what that meant to me politically and professionally.
The meaning of this identity has continued to evolve for me during my studies at UC Berkeley in the department of history. As before, the classroom has helped to transform me. Except this time it has not been as the student but as the instructor. What I have learned is a product of the conflict between what I have increasingly come to accept on an intellectual level and what I have come to hold increasingly dear on an emotional one.
In graduate school we are taught to be critical thinkers who can challenge the simplistic notions of the past. In areas of culture and cultural history, this has produced a revolution in thinking. The more I learned in this new environment, the more intellectually sophisticated I felt. My own experiences already suggested some of these new currents. Since I had become more conscious of the political aspects of my race, I had also become more conscious of the ways that my varied environments helped to build them. I knew that there wasn't anything essential about being Mexican. The more that I learned about Chicano history the better positioned I was to see the variety of experience and culture within my own community. In fact, my life in a "white" college had done more to narrow down the meaning of my Mexicanness than anything else, as it helped me to understand the way that whites, who are typically assumed to belong to a non-race, are also racial.
Once these loose beliefs took concrete shape in classes, I wanted others to appreciate the complexity of these common assumptions we make about race in our society. When I stood before my students, I sought to lead them down the same path that I now walked. By complicating what it meant to be "Chicano," by trying to make them understand that we shouldn't have to conform to society's ideas about who we are or the ones imposed upon us by our own communities, and by emphasizing that our goal should be to form a multiracial, inclusive movement rather than a narrow, nationalistic one, I hope that I have been at least partially successful. But recently, I have realized that it is important not to lead them down this path too rapidly.
It is me that has changed. It finally hit me this past semester that my students are going through what I did at Claremont. Instead of providing them with an environment where they were free to develop and express some form of nationalism so that they could draw their own conclusions, I was trying to make them bypass where I had been so that we could all begin from the same place. I wanted to spare them what I went through, but I couldn't. Every person of color in this society will have to confront many of these emotions at sometime in their life. Society sees and acts through race. Eventually, we all have to make sense of our ethnicity and its place in our lives.
For many, making sense of it means becoming somewhat culturally nationalistic. Now I don't think that all of the assumptions underlying cultural nationalism as a political stance are true. I'm not sure that in the long-run cultural nationalism will be the best tack to take for achieving a better society. But it is necessary on two levels: as part of the process of becoming culturally (and politically) aware and as a means of survival. On some level, because the world works from simplistic beliefs about race and culture it is vital that we make sense of our place in that world from within those beliefs before we deconstruct them into oblivion.
In the so-called "real world" members of my family call themselves everything from Mexican to Hispanics. Happily, more and more of them use the term Chicano or Chicana and in so doing accept many of the political beliefs that I have. But no matter what my cousins or aunts or uncles call themselves, they, like all Mexicans in the United States, will come to some realization of how their race affects their experiences in this nation. The conclusions they draw and the strategies they choose for survival may not be all the same, but they will not be void of political significance.
And they should not be. To separate the two is to place oneself at a disadvantage. In my classes, I now encourage strategic simplicity along with a critical appraisal of race. I do it for my students, so that they can gain confidence in knowing who they are and where they came from. It is important for those of us who are Chicano and Chicana and are in graduate programs to acknowledge our race to show our students that they are not alone and that they too can do what we have done. I do it for class dialogue, so that none of our discussions will ever be limited to the intellectual at the expense of the experiential. But I don't do it just for my Chicano and Chicana students. Everyone I teach can better learn about themselves when all of our pasts are told and appreciated.
And, when all is said and done, I do it for myself. I've learned that I can't separate my politics from my race or from my profession. The personal is truly political. But so is my profession as a scholar and teacher. The most important thing that I've learned, though, is that the political development of my students is as worthwhile to them as their critical understanding of race. To fully understand race we must understand it in all of its manifestations and, on some level, we must learn to accept why people situate themselves where they do. It is their right to make that decision. And it is my responsibility as an educator to come to terms with it.
Tomás Sandoval is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the history department at UC Berkeley. He loves movies, the Dodgers, and mole enchiladas, but he would have gladly given all of them up for a chance to play guitar for Elvis in 1972. He'd love to hear your comments on this article: firstname.lastname@example.org.