Here we go again: Race and ethnicity rear their (ugly, complicated) heads again. But as always, it’s better to openly and courageously talk about these issues than sweep them under the rug. Politics aside, what does this nomination of the superbly-qualified first Latina judge say about us as Americans? Note: I placed her qualifications before her ethnicity. In this instance, those qualifications matter more than anything else, but so do her ethnic and experiential backgrounds. We just need to assign appropriate weights to each factor and that’s where many of us can’t seem to get it right. Her qualifications are outstanding, so let’s use the rest of the factors to converse about race again.
I was particularly struck about the need for more conversation and education about race after reading a write up in SPINMETER by Sharon Theimer, which she rightly titles “Sotomayor’s Contradictory Images.” http://news.aol.com/article/spin-meter-sotomayors-contradictory/503265
I agreed with a lot of things she said, especially the point that Americans continue to find it difficult to talk about race. Many of us vilified U.S. Attorney General, Mr. Eric Holder, when he called us a “A Nation of Cowards.” Time is proving him right, but let’s grab another opportunity to be candid and educational with ourselves. Let’s converse.
The dominant account of race has been very dichotomous: White/Black; Oppressor/Oppressed; Victimizers/Victims; Rich/Poor. What we just don’t seem to get is that that’s the old conversation. The new language is not an “either/or”; it’s a multiplicity of realities. Indeed, it’s ridden with contradictions as Sharon Theimer posited, but for the right reasons — that’s the part she seems to be missing.
Judge Sotomayor has been faulted for claiming her heritage sometimes and not at other times. The judge was said to have proudly claimed her heritage of Puerto Rican parents but then took offense at a prospective employer’s reference to her heritage. It is in not recognizing the difference between the two situations that Sharon Theimer belies her own inability to understand racial signifiers. Uncovering racial attitudes and statements is a goal of critical race theory. Many times, the person who makes a racist remark is truly innocent and unaware that he/she has hurt another person’s feelings. It takes voicing and listening to bridge this gap. Obviously, Judge Sotomayor spoke up decently enough for the firm to offer her an apology later. That is to be commended, on both ends. In essence, when a person from the dominant culture refers in the same statement to one’s ethnic background and questions about low quality, easy admission, etc., that employer is undermining the skills of a highly qualified interviewee. Sharon, that was the problem in that conversation. We cannot then turn around and vilify minorities for speaking up against perceived undermining of their abilities even as they claim their full identities. The two are very compatible.
For brevity (and a sense of sarcasm for fun), here’s a list of some questions for reflection for each of us as we continue this dialogue:
1. Is it no longer okay to start off poor/middle class, like Judge Sotomayor did, and then “climb up” to the power structures or whatever? Isn’t that the American way?
2. Do people now have to apologize for being born into more difficult circumstances but then excel with scholarships and the like? Excuse her for being brilliant!
3.That she now makes more than $200,000 is a problem too? Excuse her for making it! No, I guess unless you’re born into wealth, you really should stay where you were born.
4. Do we bring our values, experiences, and beliefs to the table when we converse, deliberate, etc? (How else do you explain dissenting viewpoints even at the Supreme Court level?)
Our ways of knowing will differ based on our backgrounds, differences, identities, name it. That’s why we’re all unique and truly complex beings. This indeed is the power of diversity: the balance that comes from many and varying perspectives. Finally, I stress that the contradictions of our experiences only reflect realities. Some African-born women faculty I interviewed admitted to the fact that their Africanness could be both a detriment and a facilitator. Sometimes, it worked to their advantage and at other times, it was a hindrance. That is the reality for them (see African-born women faculty in the U.S.:Lives in Contradiction at this site).
As difficult as conversing about race is, that’s the only way to press forward. We listen, listen, and talk. All of us. As diverse, complex, and contradictory as our voices may initially sound, there’s room for understanding, moving forward, and getting beyond the old divides. Our patchwork of identities and heritage is a strength and should now drive our conversations on race.