Friday, September 5, 2008

8 Days...

As the one-year blogiversay of What Tami Said approaches, I've been re-posting some old essays from back when the only person reading the blog was, well, me. This original version of this post [I made some tweaks] appeared on Feb. 24 of this year.

"Y'know we got Indian in the family"

I read this post about James Brown on Angry Asian Man (hat tip to Racialicious). On page 54 of his memoir, Soul Brother Number One said:

"I also have some Chinese in me, at least as much as I have black (and maybe a little Egyptian King Tut thrown in for good measure). All you have to do is look at my face--it's all there."
Now, I'm not coming for the Godfather, because I have no idea in what context he made these statements or how true they are. But AAM's post made me think about how often black people claim mixed heritage as a badge of honor--proof of being better and special. And why is that?

I am not talking about bi-racial people who rightly claim both family cultures. I'm not talking about descendants of Cherokee freedman and other groups with blended cultures. I'm talking about folks who reach back 100 years in the family tree to tout a mythical Cherokee princess or a great-great-great-great-grandfather in Louisiana who may or may not have been Creole.

I would venture that most black Americans that dig into their family history--and not that far back either--can find more than a few ancestors not of African descent. Most of us are of mixed race. It is only the one-drop rule that says otherwise. But there is something not exactly self-affirming about many of the ways we communicate this:

"She's got them pretty, light eyes and she's a nice color. You know her mama's people were Creole."

"Yeah, you know me and my sisters have that good grade of hair because we have Indian in the family."

It is very often "Indian in the family," isn't it? While many black Americans do have Native ancestry, I bet a higher proportion have white ancestry, given the history of slavery. How come you never hear: "My great-great-grandfather was a white plantation owner?" Not exotic enough?

We also love to be Creole, and we use the term so sloppily that when I first visited Louisiana and learned about the region's history, I was surprised that Creole didn't simply refer to a mix of African and white French heritage.

There is nothing wrong with embracing every part of your heritage. I'm a family researcher. I get wanting to understand all the parts that make you--you. But mixed ancestry is what we too often use to explain physical traits and cultural markers that are deemed good--the opposite of the "dark continent" practices, tightly coiled hair and dark skin that are bad. Mixed ancestry is often what we bring up to prove that we are different from other "just black" folks.

I find it interesting that many of the people who tout non-African ancestry rarely embrace that ancestry. They wouldn't know Cherokee culture from Nez Perce culture. Chinese is the adjective they affix to every Asian person. Creole and Cajun are interchangeable. And great-great-grandmother Siobhan was actually Irish not Scottish.

So, too often it's not about embracing all parts of our culture. In fact, it involves some exoticizing of other cultures--distilling them down to a source of pretty hair and acceptable features. It is about elevating ourselves in the hierarchy of race--from "just black" to something special.

What do you think?


Balanced Melting Pot said...

Unfortunately, this is a "symptom" with most people of color; regardless of nationality. In the Haitian culture, you often hear those positive adjectives used to describe skin that is lighter, hair that is straigter, and features that are more caucasion. Growing up, this can subtly impose a self loathing if you happen to have darker skin and coarse hair. I have to make a conscious decision to not use those same words with my daughter - it's so hard to break the habit when it's all you've known. I think the more we make those conscious decisions, the fewer people of color will be inclined to latch on to the faint possibility that they are "mixed" with something else.

Anonymous said...

"On the other hand, I’m reading a commenter here who, while clear-eyed about how gender bias causes people to negate the accomplishments of women, is unable to see how race-bias does the same. It is saddening."

If you're referring to me Tami, I am not white, and in fact, my post #49 was in response to race bias all over the web--from blacks toward natives.

I don't think Obama is qualified to be a candidate for president.
And I have no respect for him. When he opened his mouth and called a professional woman "sweetie" over his shoulder, walking away from her in dismissal and contempt, he set it for me, with what I'd been reading and hearing and watching, toward Clinton (whom I also don't have mush use for). I don't believe for a minute Obama has not paid people to blog misogyny about Clinton, and now Palin, then make the press release disclaimers that get him credit. It's the way the game is played by these people, right and left scum all. But Obama, who I felt very exicted about until he made it clear that he was a rank and that guy that likes music that calls women ho's.

I realize this will mean nothing. Sexism never does.

And black Americans, by and large, have no care or idea how racist they are.

You've used a very racist slur toward natives in your tome about racism. Ho hum. Well you weren't talking about blacks so what does it matter?


Tami said...


In my post on Heart's blog, I never said you were white. I know nothing about you. The reality of America (well, the world, really.)is that EVERYONE is exposed to race bias. There are plenty of black people who judge Obama through a white supremacist lens, just as there are women who judge Sarah Palin through a patriarchal lens.

If you are objecting to my use of the word "Indian." I am sorry that it offends you. that was not my objective. In my experience, there are many Native Americans that don't find the word offensive. My understanding is that, like black vs. African American, there are preferences on both sides. Despite your awfully broad and race-biased statement about black Americans, you can be sure that I am sensitive to race-bias against people who are not black and spend a lot of time writing about identity and racism as a whole.

Whatever experience you have had that has made you so obviously angry and dismissive of black Americans, I am certainly sorry you have to carry that around. Hate is awfully darned tiring.

Anonymous said...

Oh and by the way, I have not actually been able to call myself a writer and journalist for sometime, but I have not a few creds there:

Why do the people whom you mocked sound illiterate, compared to you? I know, you were using speech patterns not writing patterns, but educated people like you that you could have mocked?

Gawd. It's everywhere, this racism (classism).

(Yes. Now I'm mocking you).

Tami said...


I don't think Black English speech patterns that are outside of what is considered Standard American English are illiterate. And, frankly, I use Black English myself sometimes. Many of us learn to code switch and change usage patterns depending on the situation. Among other black people, it would not be uncommon to hear a literate person use the speech patterns you deem illiterate.

Tami said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tami said...

And is clear that you deem me both racist and classist and are not interested in what I have to say. The back and forth is not productive to either of us or anyone else visiting the blog. Let's end it here.

ginnysthoughts said...

Greetings, Tami, your post above is why I give you *smile*, the "I Love Your Blog" award lol. Have a wonderful day!

Tami said...

Awww. Thanks. Ginny!

Anonymous said...

Just so anyone reading will know "comment deleted" (whatever it was) was not from me.


GoldenAh said...

The "specialness" of mixed heritage seems distinctly American. I've encountered whites claiming 1/32 or 1/64 Native American blood. They're just as boring as the ones who go on, unprompted, about their Italian or Irish ancestry.

Folks want to be special and exotic. NYTimes even had an article on this a year or so ago.


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