Speaking of Race: Spoken Word and Racial Identity

Gillian Sherif is a senior at UC Berkeley, studying English with a focus on contemporary literature, poetry, and mixed race studies. She is currently writing an honors thesis that analyzes the performance of marginalized racial identities in spoken word and their influence on individual and societal constructs of race. Hit the jump to read her understanding of race as well as see the very poems she is referencing in her thesis.

By Gillian Sherif

It wasn’t until I sat down with a professor to talk about poetry for my honors thesis at UC Berkeley, that I realized I had been completely wrong about race. I always thought that when a poet stepped on stage and silently approached the mic, before breath was drawn and first words spoken, the audience would begin piecing together skin color, hair type, and facial features to determine that poet’s race, gender, class and a myriad of other characteristics. In support of my position, I told my professor about a poet I mistook for Caucasian, because of her blue eyes and blonde hair, when really she is Mexican. Which is when my professor interrupted me, “Well, what does it mean, racially, to be Mexican?”

I rattled off the ancestries that make Mexico their home; Spaniards, Anglo Europeans, Africans, and Indigenous peoples, all have contributed to the modern makeup of the Mexican race. My professor asked, “So first, why did you assume the poet had only one Ethnic ancestry? And second, why are you using the term “Mexican” like it’s only one race?”

I was embarrassed. Here I was, writing a thesis about the perception of race in performance poetry, completely oblivious to my own preconceived notions of race. I knew Mexico was, and is, an ethnically diverse country; I knew Mexico was colonized by Europeans; I had met European looking Mexicans before; most embarrassingly, I had personally experienced the misidentification of my own ethnic ancestry. Yet, I unconsciously assumed that race existed in easily identifiable and delineable categories.

The thing is, my inflexible understanding of race is not an isolated phenomenon. There are parts of the world where the conception of race is fluid, but the United States is not one of those places. We have inherited the ideology that races are distinct and separate, the vestige of our historical relationship to race and racism. Like the one-drop rule[1] exemplified how Americans considered race a binary, today, Native American blood quanta[2] and the strict racial classifications in the census,[3] are institutional manifestations of the assumption that race exists in hierarchical categories.

With a Black man in The White House, and an exponential increase in multiracial children[4], it’s easy to throw around the idea of a post-racial America. And a post-racial America is what I wanted to explore in my thesis. Could the performance of non-stereotypical racial identities in spoken word represent larger America’s transcendence of antiquated racist norms? Did Omar Holman, a young tattooed black man claiming “I am that nerd that never scored a winning touchdown for the team but was an English class MVP/ report cards looking like Duracell batteries – triple A’s,” affect or represent a change in what Americans think about young Black men? Could Beau Sia, an Asian-American man dressed in an effeminate pink turtleneck, convince Americans that the egg roll should be “recognized as an American food”?

I’m still not sure what these different representations of race mean for America, but I am skeptical of the utopian potential some performance theorists see in spoken word. Because even poets that represent alternatives to stereotypical racial archetypes still operate, to a certain extent, within racist stereotypes. For example, Omar Holman, despite his clever word play and hilarious representation of his identity as a young black nerd, uses some language that still perpetuates the stereotype of the violent, criminal, and misogynistic young black man. Holman repeatedly uses the word “bitch” in his piece and he refers to himself as an “internet soldier and MySpace gangster.”  One could say that Holman’s performance is an example of how a conventional African American man can also be a nerd. However, Holman accesses conventional masculinity through the same tired and racist tropes of violence, crime, and misogyny. The way Holman represents his masculinity is of particular concern because White male poets that identify as nerds do not reinforce their manhood in this chauvinistic way. I also wonder what it means that in a poem about being a nerd, Holman feels the need to reinforce his masculinity.

Admittedly, Holman’s piece is a vastly different portrayal and interpretation of African American masculinity than conventional American archetypes, despite his proximity to racist stereotype. At least for me, Holman’s piece prompted a critical examination of what black masculinity means, and disrupted some of my preconceived assumptions. It is possible, that the audiences Holman performs for are having similar conversations. Like I was forced to rethink what it meant to be Mexican when I was confronted by my professor, Holman’s piece about identity forces poets and audiences to question our fundamental constructions of race. And ultimately, it is only through the recognition, and questioning of these beliefs that on can transcend the subconscious racism all of us carry with us as Americans.

 


[1]A law during the slavery and Jim Crow eras that insisted even “one drop” of African blood prevented a person from claiming the status and rights of Whites; a person was either White or non-White.

[2] Blood Quanta are laws enforced by the federal government on Native communities to regulate who can receive tribal benefits. The laws establish a legal threshold based on blood percentage for what individuals can legally register with a tribe. In most cases an individual can be no less than ¼ Native American to qualify for the tribe.

[3] Until 2000 the census didn’t allow citizens to claim more than one race. Currently the census only lists 5 racial categories and “other”.

[4] As of the 2010 census 2.9% of the population, 9 million people, identified themselves as multiracial. Among children mixed-race is the fastest growing racial category, increasing 50% between 2000 and 2010. Including 57 different racial combinations.

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