Race and the Gathering of Our Political Tribes

Watching the Republican and Democratic conventions, with the stark visual contrast in the kinds of people on those different floors, always gets me thinking about how we vote, in part, by tribe. Those people just don’t look like my people, I can’t help thinking, and I’m sure those people think the same thing about my people. Large swaths of the country trust and identify with the convention of those who are overwhelmingly white, blond, neatly suited, perfectly coiffed, and highly shaved. Others find those faces terrifying, and trust the multicolored, untucked, multi-patterned hordes, many of whom appear never to have met a razor or a hairbrush, who will gather next week.  

You may have read some of the psychological research into of which kinds of people head toward which political points of view, such as the most recent writings by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt emphasizes how we defend what we consider sacred. I think of it like sports teams: We want our team to win—the righteous team—not that other, evil team.

Of course, being an American means belonging to a lot of overlapping tribes. Am I first a nerd, a woman, a writer, a lesbian, a stepmother, or a Jewish Midwesterner (and New York exile) who has been grateful to find a refuge among East Coast cosmopolitans? Given those various affiliations, my political affiliation is, as the academics would say, overdetermined. I do feel for the white, church-going Midwestern Protestant gay man who has to reconcile those conflicting allegiances; his personal/political Venn diagram isn’t as easy as mine.

All of this is a particularly meandering introduction to a new racial identity art project that I discovered, via ColorLines. When I became the white stepmother of an African-American boy, I started to study up on the development of racial identity. (Did I mention, above, that I’m a nerd?) Years ago, when I first met my black aunt and biracial cousins, I read a passel of memoirs by black and biracial folks raised by white parents, either after adoption or abandonment by the black parent, some of which I reviewed for The American Prospect.  (I repeat: nerd. I can’t help myself. I was born that way.) I took to heart many of the lessons therein, and added another study guide, I’m Chocolate, You’re Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World, by research psychologist Marguerite White. White clarifies that up through about age five, children can identify their color, but aren’t quite clear on color-fixedness (could you wake up a different color—or sex—tomorrow?). Not until ages 7 through 11 do they fully start to develop a racial identity, which goes beyond the relatively superficial question of skin tint to the more complex question of which group you belong to.

All that made sense to me. When I was about five, my father and his brother were accidentally visiting their father, my grandfather, at the same time, with their kids. As I’ve written before, the Graff brothers were estranged, mostly for painful family reasons but partly—and most irreconcilably—because of my father’s racist comment when my uncle married a black woman. I don’t remember much about that early accidental encounter with my cousins, the first and only one until I sought them out in my thirties. What I do remember, very clearly, was my mother asking me, when I got back, whether my cousins were “different colors.” I was utterly puzzled by the question: How could a person be different colors? Had they been polka-dotted and I failed to notice? (I honestly thought that, about the polka dots. It stuck with me for years.)

With our boy, we’ve mostly talked about “having brown skin” or “having light skin.” He’s clearly learned, by now, that he’s not just brown but black while we’re white, which are racial identities, not precise colors. As you’d guess, we talk about what that does and doesn’t mean, and make sure he has a wide range of models around him, in school and on our street, so he knows that there are many different ways—more than thirteen!—to be a black man.  

And so I fell in love when ColorLines pointed me to the website of the Humanae art project, which deconstructs us back out of our racial identities and brings us back to the kindergarten sense of actual color. It does so incredibly literally: by matching pictures of people of various hues with a background of the same Pantone shade. Pantone is a color-classification system beloved by graphic designers and art editors everywhere. I am now dying to know my Pantone number--and those of our political figures. Where in the world would Obama and Romney get classified? Of course this project fails to take into account other aspects of race: the shape of our noses  and eyes, the ways we learned to speak and think, all those things where deviation can get you classified as an Oreo, a banana, a self-hating race traitor. Still, it does let you see us differently, if only for a moment. 

Or is my pleasure in this art project exactly the kind of dreamy ideological escapism that someone in my political tribe would have? Ah, identity: wherever you go, there you are.

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