A long,long time ago, so long that I can't remember exactly when, I posted a picture of this man:
(who's quite pleasant to look at) and noted, that, like him, I'm
half one ethnicity and half another. He's half Kenyan and half
white Kansan. I'm half Puerto Rican and half Eastern European
Jewish. But on the way to delving into the psychodrama of
halfsie-ness, I took a detour and started talking about gingerbread
houses instead. That was no accident. The older I get, the
more I prefer to let sleeping dogs lie. If something is painful to
think about -- which ethnicity is for a halfsie of my generation -- why
not just ignore it and build a gingerbread house?
I would've happily continued to bury my head in the sand on the
halfsie question, but this damned election keeps bringing it up.
How can I decide whether to vote my race or vote my gender, how can I
sympathize when others vote theirs, how can I know if it's possible for
us all to come together and put the B.S. behind us, when I'm not
entirely sure which tribe I belong to and what it all means?
See, back when I was a kid, intermarriage wasn't common, bi-racial
children weren't common, and none of it was cool the way it is
now. (Interesting, because I'm pretty much the same age as Barack
Obama.) Ethnic identity was both embarrassing and
all-important. You didn't acknowledge the barriers, but you
didn't cross them either. There was no concept yet of the
beautiful mosaic. The ideal was the melting pot. You jumped
into it and magically combined with everybody else, emerging cleansed
of your nasty foreign languages and weird customs. Emerging American. If your parents or grandparents still spoke Spanish or Yiddish, the best thing to do about that was not tell anybody.
In the age of Lou Dobbs, that may be becoming true all over again. But God I hope not.
Growing up, the only person I knew besides myself and my brother who was half Latino and half Jewish was Juan Epstein from Welcome Back Kotter.
And Juan Epstein was a walking joke. His very name was a
joke -- meant to show how ridiculous New York was compared to other,
saner places where no ethnic people lived. (No wonder I love New
York so much.) At a time when everybody was still expected to Anglicize
their names, here was a guy whose name shouted two ethnic
identities. As if that wasn't bad enough, I knew his ugly
secret. Juan was a halfsie. He didn't fit in either
(Click here for the halfsie anthem!)
As a kid, I envied my full-blooded friends because, even though they
weren't WASPs, at least they knew where they belonged. In public
school in New Haven, the other kids in the gifted classes came from
working class Irish, Polish or Italian backgrounds. (It was years
before I figured out that in a heavily black city, this meant that the
gifted classes were racially segregated.) They all went to
catechism class at their own special churches. They all knew what
they'd be eating for Sunday dinner. They all had that deep
consolation that the food and music and accent of your heritage
confer. Me -- I couldn't relax with it because I was too worried
that I didn't speak enough Spanish, or that I didn't know any Hebrew
Even in college and law school -- and by then we'd entered an era
that celebrated ethnicity --I didn't feel pure enough to join the
student identity groups. That hesitancy might've been my own
insecurity talking, but honestly, I don't think so. The identity
groups were cries of resistance, and it mattered to be truly, deeply
ethnic. To be really Latino, or really Jewish. Or really
black. You had to choose one.
I think Barack Obama had to choose. He couldn't just be who he
was, which was half-black and half-white. He was forced to pick a
side. And I think that's still happening to him. Without
getting into a big debate over whether that's the media's fault, or the
Clintons', you know -- I think we're all buying into it. How can
he be expected to heal racial divides when we insist on pigeon-holing
him as one thing or the other? He's both.
A lot of healing has happened over the years. Times have
changed. Our wonderful former babysitter Johanna is half-Korean,
and when she was in college, she was able to join something called the Half-Asian
Students' Association. Imagine that. For myself, I've
realized how lucky I am to feel deeply connected to two such beautiful
cultures. I listen to Mana and eat arroz con pollo
and remember my father. I think of Sabbath dinners with my Bubby
and Zady, the candles and the prayers and the food. I finally
accept that I'm both things, and it makes me realize -- the divisions
don't matter so much. Wouldn't it be better if we could put them
behind us and move on?