Race and Ethnicity


Teena Marie: Beyond Race

Flickr: Live at J&R

Teena Marie in 2006.

I’m old enough to remember Teena Marie during her heyday; the singular singer-songwriter passed away on Sunday. Last night, while running errands, I overheard a conversation about the R+B musician that has been recurring since 1979:

CVS shopper #1: “Yo, did you know Teena Marie was white?”

CVS shopper #1: “What? I just thought she light-skinned! She sings like she’s Black!”

Race is a complicated minefield of a topic, and exploring it takes a gentle touch plus a Costco-sized vat of sensitivity. That’s why I enjoyed reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Indomitable Blackness of Teena Marie”:

Teena Marie died on Sunday, and on every Martin Luther there was a collective wail. That line—”I’m a black artist with white skin”—is the kind of comment that usually causes black people to suck their teeth and groan. But Teena Marie died with an eternal hood-pass. The term “blue-eyed soul” is presently being affixed to her, but it borders on disrespect. It”s like Negroes “liked” the Eurythmics, we “liked” Madonna and some of that Hall and Oates, but Teena Marie was beloved. She was not simply in that George Michael “Father Figure” category, she was of that Chaka Khan/Freddie Jackson/Jeffrey Osborne/Denise Williams stamp. You did not hear Teena Marie and say, “I thought she was black,” you said, “No, seriously, I’m sure she’s black.”

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The Tragedy of Tokenism

Flickr: Pixeloflight


Mike Riggs, one of my favorite reporters in D.C., wrote this amazing piece for the Daily Caller about Tokenism after reading a New York magazine profile of Marty Peretz, “editor of the New Republic and eater of his own foot”:

I have a soft spot for tokenism, which is what Peretz is invoking when he says he knows Muslims and black people. Not because I approve of it (I don’t), but because it took me a long time to figure out how tragic it is.

I was the first person in my family, which traces its southern lineage to the Civil War, to date someone who is not white. M had long, straight, jet-black hair, brown skin, curves, and she sometimes rolled her Rs. After she met my dad and stepmom, and nothing seemed amiss, I figured that my family cared more about culture than color.

In other words, It didn’t matter in the least that M was Peruvian because she acted like a South Florida WASP.

Then one day, while lying on my bed, M told me that she was Jewish.

I strongly encourage you to read the rest of the story; Mike describes what happened when M encountered his family and he met hers. Then, he signs off with this walloping paragraph:
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DMV Masala

Flickr: Josep Tomas

Black and brown.

I walked outside yesterday and felt abnormally grateful for the traffic clogging Irving Street at lunch time. I needed a cab and there were several, stranded in front of me.

The middle one had a female driver, so I chose her. Once I slammed the door, I was surprised; the interior smelled like auto parts, dust and WD-40– a combination which immediately transported me three decades in to the past, to my father’s garage, a place where I learned the difference between a flat and Phillips screwdriver before I figured out the alphabet. I checked my sexism immediately and felt bad for the dissonance I was experiencing at the shock of such a scent combined with a female driver. I knew better than that.

“Thanks for picking me.” She smiled wryly. She was middle-aged and African American, with thick, bouncy curls. Some of her facial expressions reminded me of Loretta Devine, which secretly delighted me. Devine was the best part of one of my favorite seasonal guilty pleasures: “This Christmas“. Stop judging me. I liked it before Chris Brown did that. Oh, you’re judging me because it’s a mediocre film which over-relies on holiday cliches to make its point…sure, I deserve that. Carry on!

“I’m not going to lie,” I began. “I thought it was cool that you were a female cab driver. I don’t usually get those.”

“Yeah, we’re rare.” She studied me in her rear view mirror.

“Are you Indian?”, she asked.

“My parents are–”

“And so are you!”, she declared, emphatically.

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D.C. by race, by block

The New York Times has a fascinating interactive feature up where you can browse local data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey by entering a zipcode or city. This allows you to see the racial breakdown of a place, census tract by census tract. Here’s what D.C. looks like– the green dots each represent 100 white people, the blue dots represent 100 Black:


A city divided by green and blue...

You can also choose to “View More Maps” and then select for “Foreign-born population”, “Asian Population”, and more. Were you surprised by the numbers for your block?

It’s easy to be a critic, when English is your first language.

Santa Fe Nachos, Dos Coyotes, Davis, California

One of the things I miss most about Northern California is the Southwestern restaurant, Dos Coyotes. Please note: I did not say “Mexican” food. I fully admit I want some sort of “inauthentic” dish which contains spicy salsa, black beans and an obscene amount of cheese. That’s a pretty basic want, but it’s difficult to fulfill here in D.C. When I worked near K Street, I’d go to Pedro and Vinnie’s burrito cart and 80% of the time, I’d be satisfied; unfortunately, it’s not open for dinner or on the weekends. So I often end up at…Chipotle. I know. It’s not real, ethnic food. I know.

But it’s spicy and across from my house, so I go. When I do, the staff switches to Spanish while asking for my order. Years ago, I was fluent in it, so my accent is decent and I can bust out these impressive sentences every so often…but I’m much more likely to be left staring at the ceiling, agonizing over a verb I can’t remember. The 14th Street crew doesn’t mind this, in fact they exhort me to keep practicing. I do, because it’s kind of them to help me, but also because it is a potent reminder of how privileged I am.

I speak English.

It’s not my first language, but I speak it as if it were and I don’t take that for granted. When some dolt on the street compliments me by telling me something like, “You’re Indian? You speak good English for an immigrant!”,  I smile a wan smile and reply that I was born to immigrant parents in California, where English is often spoken.
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A Better Post about African Americans and Voting

So, I’ve been a bit sad that no one ever comments on DCentric, even though I know better than to take it personally– I’ve been blogging for eight years, and in the beginning, no one. ever. comments. But, after yesterday’s post about African Americans and voting, several of you spoke up– and one of your comments was better than my post, itself.

Making up 10% of the voting electorate can’t meant that only 10% of registered African Americans voted. ~ 90 odd million people voted, so 10% of that is approximately 9 million voting African Americans. Voter participation in this midterm election was supposed to be 42%, so if 90 million = 42%, the total registered voter pool was 214 million, and 13% of that means there are probably 27 – 28 million registered African Americans. 9 million out of 27 million is much closer to 32- 33% participation rate, not a measly 4.7%. That’s pretty comparable to the general rate of 42%, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the discrepancy is due to being disproportionately burdened by the factors that depress voting for the less than wealthy. It’s a working day, not a holiday, there’s no childcare, and polls are often hard to get to–all things we should fix. ( I got my statistics on the voting numbers from this AP article by Matthew Daly.). According to Wikipedia In 2000 there were 36 million African Americans in the united states, so assuming growth was steady, there are about 40 million *now*. Many of those people are under the age of 18, so they can’t vote, so that means over all participation was AT LEAST 25%. That strikes me as pretty respectable–especially when you consider wide spread evidence that African Americans have been disproportionately and unfairly disenfranchised b/c of the discrepancy in felony status laws regarding the use of crack vs. the use of cocaine, not to mention other less clearcut kinds of unfairness in the criminal justice system.

Moral of the story: we need more numeracy in all of our communities. Support the Algebra Project.

Uh, I’ll take quality like that over quantity, any time. Thanks for breaking it down so beautifully, Saheli.

Why was “African Americans” a trending topic on Twitter?


A riff on Slate's infamous "Brown Twitter Bird", inspired by their “How Black People Use Twitter”-piece.

At any point throughout the day, Twitter lists the ten most popular “topics” being discussed on its micro-blogging service. As soon as they rolled out this feature, I opted to see a more specific list of what was popular in Washington, D.C. vs. a world-wide compilation of hot topics.

This afternoon, I noticed that “African Americans” was trending. Initially, all the tweets I read regarding that topic had to do with yesterday’s election, specifically a rumor that only 4.7% of African Americans voted. There was no source for the statistic and it was on fire, showing up in hundreds of tweets, every minute. There was also some consternation being expressed at the lack of African Americans in the Senate. I chose to focus on the former issue, and collected some tweets:
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Commodifying Culture, for Halloween Costumes.


I wonder if the Dutch are thrilled about this?

When I first moved to Washington, D.C. in the late 90s, I was a homesick student who rushed back to Northern California at every opportunity. However, there were two holidays I refused to travel on: Halloween and Independence Day. The latter is perhaps obvious; is there a better place to celebrate America? But Halloween…well, that’s changed, in many ways. While people may still get dressed up and go to M Street, in Georgetown, the night is no longer as epically naughty as it once was, now that it is confined to sidewalks. Sorry, that’s not accurate– there is one aspect of Halloween which is still crazy…the costumes. For women, specifically. A decade ago, the most risque outfits you’d see were “Naughty Nurses” or “French Maids”; now, you can get a provocative take on everything, from Marie Antoinette (I wouldn’t click that, if you’re at work) to a “Yummy Yellow Jacket” (not as risque as Marie, but you may get stung).

It’s all a bit bizarre, and if we are transforming insects like ladybugs and bumble bees in to sex objects, it seems like the point is to use Halloween as an excuse to wear as little as possible without having to worry about being judged for parading around in less material than some swimsuits. Hey, whatever floats your fake powdered wig. I save the side-eye for those special outfits which turn cultures in to costumes; while some people think it’s “fun” to be “Ghetto Fab“, “Seductive Squaw” or “Asian Doll“, I have to restrain myself from reminding these insensitive boors that some of us can’t take off our skin. My point is, ethnicity isn’t something to be ordered online for $52.95 and then worn to a succession of bars, where other revelers spill drinks on your micro-kimono or faux-feathers. Some of us are born with a certain phenotype and this affects how we are viewed and treated, every moment of every day. We don’t have the luxury of selecting our culture from a catalog and then discarding it, conveniently, after a holiday.

“How can you be both Black AND American?”


Children in Cameroon (not Faison's students).

Howard Alum Heather Faison is currently living in Buea, Cameroon, where she is teaching at a grammar school. She chronicled some of her experiences in a blog post titled, “For African Girls Who Considered White When Black is Enuf“. As someone of South Asian descent, her post resonated with me. Issues like colorism, identity and the yearning to look like everyone else are universal:

Black is not beautiful here. Women open umbrellas when the sun comes out for fear their skin will become darker. They use skin whiteners with chemicals so strong I often see light patches on their face and hands.

I came to Africa with this idealistic expectation of Black pride, natural hair and cultural unity….Then, one of the kids I teach asked the question that I have yet to shake:

How can you be both Black AND American?

I went to Howard University. That bears mentioning because at Howard, Pan-African themes are deeply woven in the fabric of the university. All students are required to study African-American history dating back to the transatlantic slave trade, and are quickly indoctrinated with Back to Africa theories drilled by professors in loud Kente fabrics.

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