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Series on PBS goes in depth on notions about race
September 24, 2003
By E.R. Shipp

Unless one is drumming up support for a cause - a political candidate, a nonprofit organization, etc. - race does not come trippingly off the tongue in this country. But in "Matters of Race," a documentary series on PBS this week, people give a lot of thought to race and have a lot to say about it as we live today.

Christopher Bordeaux, a Lakota Sioux who was the third generation of his family to attend a boarding school for American Indians, says you have to become inculcated in whiteness before you can even think about being American Indian, or American, period. "They tried to turn us into white guys," he says. "The boarding school on the reservation was to get rid of the Indian in us, to educate us so we would be good, productive members of society. Kill the Indian and save the man."

Black folks tell of similarly realizing that white defined right - and all else.

Jane Lazarre, an author who is Jewish and who married a black man in the '60s, was oblivious to the reality of race in America until her son, Adam, one day asked her, "What color am I, Mommy?" She went to great pains to describe his hue, until he stopped her and asked, "Am I black like Daddy?" By age 10, you see, he was already familiar with the possibility of being called the N-word. His mother abruptly realized that her kids could feel black and could feel Jewish, "But whiteness is not an identity for them."

Nor for me, no matter how much I tell folks on St. Patrick's Day about my Irish roots.

Writer Eric Liu says in the documentary that the Chinese see various castes in their society as being members of different races. Likewise, the Japanese, Asian Indians and Filipinos see themselves as different races no matter how much the rest of us lump them together as Asians.

Initially to the Anglos in this country, the Irish were a different race. "To the Germans who killed Jews and the French who watched, Jews were a separate race," Liu says. "To the blacks in America, the Anglos, the Germans, the Irish, the French and the Jews have always ended up being part of the same and separate race.

"To those who believe in 'race,' the spaces in between are plugged tight with impurities," he says, "quadroons, octoroons, mulattos, morenos, mongrels, half-castes, half-breeds. To those who don't believe, there is only this faith: The mixed shall inherit the Earth." As we have, but with all the baggage of race.

The series shows us Siler City, N.C., where people already having a hard time with the gulf between black and white are dealing with new concepts. Words like "invasion" and "aliens" come out of their mouths when they discuss the mostly Mexican immigrants to their area, people recruited to work in chicken-processing plants. "The infusion of new immigrants is completely blowing wide open our notions of race, identity and class," says author Ruben Martinez.

At a hospital in Los Angeles whose raison d'etre was giving black folks the quality health care and dignity denied them elsewhere, black folks are having to come to grips with their own imprisonment in the racist paradigm because many of the hospital's staffers and patients are now Latino.

"Everyone can be a racist," says John Hill, a former member of the staff. "Racism is about power. So if your group is in power holding back another group, and you're holding them back because of their race, that's racism." A whole lot of black folks should plead guilty. But won't.

"What appalls me is the premature wishful thinking that posits the notion of colorblindness, or that we've somehow overcome our early history of race," says author John Edgar Wideman. "It's not only a lie, it's 'a willed ignorance,' as James Baldwin said."

"We're not going back to anything," says Angela Oh, another participant in the documentary. "We're moving forward. So, as much as we must pay attention to our history, we can't live in it. We have to live with it."

* E.R. Shipp is a columnist for the New York Daily News. She won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1996. Readers may write to her at the New York Daily News, 450 West 33rd Street, New York, NY 10001; e-mail: ershipp2003hotmail.com.