Friday, 8 June 2007

More musings on "race"

"From a genetic perspective, all humans are Africans,
either residing in Africa or in recent exile"

Svante Paabo, Anthropologist
What, you may ask, do these endless musings have to do with Capoeira? Everything, in my opinion, because "race" relations and perceptions have always tinged my interaction with that African-Brazilian martial art, as a melanin-challenged "white" woman (more like undercooked crisp-colour).

To start off this bout of musings, let me say that I consider myself bright, with occasional sparks of brilliance and more than occasional plunges into abysmal idiocy. I can back up my claim to being bright with IQ results (135, which is nowhere near genius but good enough for the likes of me) and a first-class degree in English literature, albeit from a US university, which makes it a "summa cum laude". Like most Mensa candidates, I'm socially awkward, if not inept, but working on it, and that process is aided by the maturity that comes with over half a century of life in this cruel, sometimes tender and always chaotic world.

In addition to being blessed and cursed with intelligence, I have also enjoyed the considerable privilege of growing up in the Caribbean, specifically in bilingual and multiracial Puerto Rico, aka Borinquen, my lovely island, the birthplace of my brothers and sister and homeland of my heart. It would have been paradise if it weren't for the colonisers, but that's another story. (El Gran Combo is singing "Que Viva Puerto Rico" as I write)

Thanks to that combination of nature and nurture, I grew up with what I could call my only "super-power": X-ray vision. Instead of being "colour-blind", I see right past colour to the inner human essence that makes all people members of the human race - the only "race" there is (a view borne out by human genome studies). Which is not to say that I'm incapable of seeing the surface - just that I am capable of finding it beautiful, no matter what colour it is (white, black, brown, yellow, red, but probably not green or purple).

I may be more evolved than most or just an anomaly, but unfortunately I haven't met many people who share my "ability". Instead, "black" people tend to think that I have a "thing" for them, particularly men (something like the viewpoint expressed in the title of Spike Lee's film Jungle Fever), and most "white" people think I am at best eccentric (a euphemism for "barking mad"), or at worst a criminal or "race traitor".

I have fewer problems in this regard in Brazil, where I have always embraced and taken part in Afro-Bahian culture - for many years I chose to live it instead of studying it, and it has been a very enriching and fulfilling experience. While in Los Angeles, I ran into many barriers set up by African-Americans who - mostly because they have been traumatised by the pathological and tragic version of race relations that has developed in the US over the centuries - don't like to see "white" people anywhere near them, and are particularly offended by a pale face in the crowd when they are celebrating their history, community and culture. (I once witnessed the heartbreaking exclusion of a black student's white mother from an African-American-only graduation ceremony at UCLA.)

I was almost barred at the gate (literally) when I went along with my Capoeira group to give a presentation in LA in the early 80s. It all started when we were invited to perform at a celebration of African-American cultural expressions. We all piled into a car or two - my memory is hazy but "we" probably meant Cedric, Odie, Cornell, Steve, and yours truly - and drove off to the event. I often chauffeured for Capoeira players - particularly on trips to San Francisco - but on this occasion I’m fairly sure I was a passenger. Which accounts for my desperation when we arrived at the front gate and someone said, "Not her. She can’t come in." There was no muttering about "white devils", as I’d heard on another occasion, but it was clear that my pale skin was not welcome there. But then someone saved the day by arguing, "Hey, we need her to play berimbau so we can play in the roda." It was true - I could still play the instrument much better than I performed the martial art, and since someone had to do it, I would free up the African-American Capoeiristas to perform. The objections faded in the face of this argument, and the organisers let me in.

I should also say - and this is very important - that the occasions on which I have been "barred at the gate" on account of my colour were, and still are, more than compensated by the wonderful friends I have made as a result of my "gift". When people of African descent are able to overcome the trauma triggered by the sight of my "white" skin, and accept me as a sincere friend and an ardent admirer of their culture, they become more than friends - they're family.

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