By Gary Younge | February 8, 2012 | This article appeared in the February 27, 2012 edition of The Nation.
In 1997 black America gained a new hero when Tiger Woods putted himself into history at the US Masters. Within a few weeks, it had lost him in an unlikely fashion—to a bespoke racial identity articulated on Oprah’s couch.
Does it bother you being termed “African-American”? Oprah asked him.
“It does,” said Woods, whose father was of African-American, Chinese and Native American descent and whose mother was of Thai, Chinese and Dutch descent. At school he would tick “African-American” and “Asian.” “Growing up, I came up with this name: I’m Cablinasian [CAucasian, BLack, INdian and ASIAN]. I’m just who I am…whoever you see in front of you.” According to an editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times, Woods could not have been more praiseworthy if he’d scored a hole in one wearing a blindfold. “He justly rejects attempts to pigeonhole him in the past,” claimed the editorial. “Tiger Woods is the embodiment of our melting pot and our cultural diversity ideals and deserves to be called what he in fact is—an American.”
It is a peculiar fact of modern Western rhetoric, as prevalent among liberals as conservatives, that nationality is understood as a liberating identity, whereas ethnicity, race and other markers are regarded as confining. There are far more black and Asian people in the world than there are Americans. Racial identity is no less diverse than national identity. But somehow to describe Woods as black or Asian traps him in a pigeonhole, while to define him by his nationality sets him free.
Such was the ostensible motivation of the Arizona officials who banned Mexican-American studies from the Tucson schools. Tom Horne, the state attorney general who surfed into office on a wave of anti-immigrant bigotry, wrote the legislation, which claims the curriculum “advocates ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” By the end of January officials were going into schools and boxing up Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, one of the books banned for “promoting ethnic resentment.”
It should go without saying that any education worthy of the name teaches children as individuals. It is equally axiomatic that being an individual does not prevent you from also being part of of one, indeed, many groups. At one and the same time we are always several things and just one, ourselves.
Horne’s goal was not only to erase the teaching of Mexican-American studies but to collapse Latino identity into white American mythology—to rewrite history so fast it smudges because the ink is not dry on the first draft. He wasn’t really referring to nurturing Latino students as individuals (indeed, he targeted them as a group) but raising them as “patriots” for a country that exists only in his imagination. “American” and “individual” are not synonymous—indeed, they are no more, or less, antagonistic a pairing than “Latino” and “individual” or “American” and “Latino.” And while being American may carry more privileges, it is no more, or less, worthy a category than being Latino.
These broadsides are not limited to Arizona; they replicate a European trend, escalating over the past decade, of attempting to combat the multicultural facts with a mononational fiction. In Britain, Muslims are ordered to embrace “British values”—as if anyone knows what that means, in a nation without a written Constitution but with a bloody colonial past and imperialist present. After young black Muslim youth rioted in France a few years ago, a nationalist deputy claimed the riots had been triggered by outside influences. “The problem is not economic,” he said. “The reality is not economic. The reality is that an anti-French ethno-cultural bias from a foreign society has taken root on French soil, and it is feeding on basic anti-French racism even if the rioters have French nationality.” As if France, a nation built on a riot, needed to import the art of mass uprising.
“I inherit from the past of my family, my city, my tribe, my nation a variety of debts, inheritances, rightful expectations and obligations,” writes Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory. “I am born with a past and to try to cut myself off from that past is to deform my present relationships. The possession of an historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide.”
Horne’s goal has been to make sure they never coincide: to interrupt any connection between the realities Latinos experience, the forces that made them possible and the patriotic fairy tale that refuses to acknowledge either. “We should be teaching these kids that this is the land of opportunity, and that if they work hard they can achieve their dreams,” he told Anderson Cooper. “Not teach them the downer that they’re oppressed and they can’t get anywhere [and] they should be angry against their government [and] they should be angry against the country.”
If teaching Latino youth about oppression is a “downer,” then imagine what it must feel like to be Latino youth in Arizona, where they are more than twice as likely to grow up in poverty as whites, almost twice as likely to be incarcerated and far less likely to graduate from high school. Horne would have Latino youth believe that, despite these odds, they have only themselves to blame if they are struggling. In this context, what is the more likely source of resentment: reading Freire or having it confiscated from you?
That the ban should come into effect at the start of Black History Month is poignant and ironic. While the rest of the country is opening up to the diverse interpretations of what it means to be an American, Arizona is shutting down. Those who frame their condition within the broader context of discrimination are not just being told they are wrong; they are being told that to tell others is against the law. In the words of South African activist Steve Biko: “Not only are whites kicking us. They are telling us how to react to being kicked.”