The son of a doctor employed on a sugar plantation, nineteenth century Cuban writer Cirilo Villaverde had to present a “certificate of whiteness” to enroll in school. These certificates were ostensibly proofs of lineage and purity of blood. They could also be obtained, as José Piedra reminds us, through a demonstration of literacy in Latin and Spanish, and of cultural allegiance to the Western world.
Now Barack Obama, for whom people did not want to vote because he was Black, has won the election – and people are saying he is not Black. They are even saying he is white. It appears to me they are awarding him a certificate of whiteness.
In Brazil in my day I was repeatedly told it was rude to notice people were Black, especially if you liked them or approved of them as individuals. If they had clear African features but did not fit the negative stereotype of Black people you had to say they were “very mixed” or white.
What I noticed then, there, and notice here, now, is that people cannot face the idea of a Black president. Black people in positions of power, or Black people you like, must be mixed or white. White people accuse Black and Latin people of accusing each other of “acting white” if they are educated or successful in mainstream society. But it seems that these same white people go even further. They actually want to turn non white people white.
It seems to me that this is (a) an inability to handle difference and (b) a perpetuation of the color hierarchy (he can’t be Black because Black is bad, and he isn’t a gangsta, anyway). People say Obama is white, mixed, a Black Panther, a terrorist, a Muslim. I know what he is! I know what he is! they cry. They appear willing to consider all possibilities except what he might say himself. This is very white of them.
Since the 1920s at least, people have been saying that mixture will create a bridge between the races and ultimately eliminate racism. I think the underlying assumption here is that race is a biological category. People appear to believe difference must be abolished so that racist attitudes can be abolished. Thus racism is naturalized. People think it is caused by the fact that people look different from one another and not by ideological factors.
What people said about slavery and now say about race are excellent examples of procrastination. “Let’s abolish slavery gradually.” “Let’s wait for a few more generations of miscegenation.” “‘America’ is not yet ready.” People will say anything to hold onto those old tired attitudes. “He is mixed, he is mixed, he is mixed, no, no, no, we do not have a Black president, we do not.”
Let me make myself perfectly clear. All of this insistence on the importance of mixture, all of this deflection of attention to it, allows people to maintain Black and Indian as negative categories. The work which needs to be done is the elimination of that attitude – not the removal of people, one by one, blessed by mixture, into a less-bad category.