Brian D. Behnken: Vanquishing Race by Banishing Words?: Ethno-racial Designations and the Problem of Postracialism

We welcome a guest post today from Brian D. Behnken, author of the just-released Fighting Their Own Battles: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Texas. In his book, Behnken explores the cultural dissimilarities, geographical distance, class tensions, and organizational differences that all worked to separate blacks’ and Mexican Americans’ civil rights struggles in Texas. In this post, he challenges the argument that the United States has become a “postracial” society.—ellen

I recently attended a symposium where I was reminded of the ongoing academic debate and public discourse on postracialism in the United States.  During this conference, several faculty members from different university African American and Latino/a Studies departments railed against current and historical terms of ethno-racial identification.  Some even suggested banishing words such as “race,” “ethnicity,” “black,” “African American,” “Latino/a,” and “Mexican American,” among others.  One scholar concluded a talk that attempted to debunk terms of ethnic and racial identity by arguing that “we need to understand that we’re all human beings and a part of the human race.”

For historians, the idea of banning this terminology makes little sense.  How, I wondered, might I continue my work on the intersection of African American and Mexican American history if I erased those terms from my vocabulary?  (What sense would Fighting Their Own Battles: Human Beings, Human Beings, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Texas actually make?)  It is crucial that we confront these words, expose their limitations, and teach our audiences how to think critically about them, as opposed to deleting them.

In 1967, University of Texas professor George I. Sánchez commented on the varying ethnic terms that Mexican-origin people chose to use in the 1960s.  He wrote, “The people in Texas want to be Latin-Americans, the people in New Mexico want to be Spanish-Americans.  Except of course when they’re speaking Spanish—then you ask them and they answer, ‘Soy mexicano!’ (I am Mexican).” [For Sánchez’s remarks, see, “Semantics: Latin, Mexican, Spanish,” Texas Observer, January 20, 1967.] Sánchez made his observations more than 40 years ago at a time when ethnic and racial designations were undergoing significant revision.  At that moment, African Americans discarded “Negro” in favor of “black” and “Afro American.”  In the Southwest, numerous Mexican Americans adopted the more radical “Chicano/a,” a word that signified a brown racial identity, in opposition to Eurocentric terms like “Latin American.”

The process of revising this terminology occurred at a crucial moment in American history and for important reasons.  Minority communities across the United States modified these terms at the height of the ethnic rights movements, crafting new words that they preferred to be called as opposed to words that others called them.  These new terms expressed an activism and agency that we should appreciate, not delete from our vocabulary.

While I dislike the idea of eliminating words from our collective dictionaries, there are numerous ways in which we can seek to use ethnic and racial terms more critically.  Take the word “Latino/a,” which homogenizes a broad and diverse group of people into a single, monolithic entity.  It obscures national, cultural, class, and racial lines in favor of a general and uniform ethnographic reference.  Bound within the category of Latino/a are individuals from nations as different as Argentina, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, and Paraguay.  Most people from these countries would not see Argentina and Cuba as similar.

Latino/a also homogenizes racial groups.  Because of its derivation from “Latin American,” Latino/a can be seen as a term of white racial inclusion.  Expunged from that category are the millions of native, Asian-descended, African-descended, and mixed race people in the United States.  “Latino/a” does little justice, for instance, to a person of Chinese ancestry who was born in Mexico and migrated to the U.S.  Such a person, because of phenotypical appearance, would probably be labeled “Asian” or “Chinese” in the U.S. when in fact the person’s ancestry links them to the Latino/a community.  In this case someone who is racially Asian, ethnically Mexican, and has American citizenship—a Chinese Mexican American—can be called “Latino/a” even though that term does not do reflect their background.

Just about every ethno-racial category constructed in the last 100 years or more is fraught with problems, inconsistencies, and contradictions.    So if such terms are so problematic, why should we keep them?  First, there are few good alternatives.  Can we really replace all the ethnic and racial terminology in the dictionary in favor of “human being” or “human race?”  Second, there are times when it is necessary to homogenize certain groups and link them in ways that make sense for scholars, the government, and laypeople.  Third, individuals have for generations identified themselves along multiple axes and most people have little trouble doing so (I don’t mind being white, Anglo, German American, and/or European American).  Fourth, we can all strive, as I’ve argued above, to understand these terms’ limitations and to use them more critically.

The argument to eliminate references to race or ethnicity has gained increased influence since the election of President Barack Obama.  A number of the scholars at the symposium I attended made explicit comments on Obama and race, arguing in part that his election showed that we had entered a “postracial period.”  But many of the same people who argued for banishing a word like “black” remarked on Obama’s success in becoming the nation’s first “black president.”  In the process, of course, they ignored Obama’s white roots and biracial heritage.

This is the problem with postracialism: it doesn’t jibe with reality and, despite the best intentions of its advocates, it obscures and constricts the multifaceted nature of identity.  The takeaway point: we need to understand and explain the great complexity involved in using these words, not banish them from our vocabularies.

Brian D. Behnken is assistant professor in the department of history and the U.S. Latino/a studies program at Iowa State University and author of Fighting Their Own Battles: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Texas.