How Do You Prove Your Heritage to Skeptics? You Don’t

Race Manners: This question and more from an Ask Me Anything on Reddit.

Generic image
Generic image Thinkstock

How do you prove your Mexican heritage to skeptics? In the latest Ask Me Anything on Reddit, our Race Manners advice columnist tackles this question and weighs in on concerns surrounding the fate of black-dominated music categories and the nature of her interactions with readers. Read the highlights here:

PatrickBeccarra: I am the whitest, palest guy around. I am also 50 percent Mexican, but I got none of the pigment or other defining characteristics of Mexicans because I was raised with my white mother in Michigan (born in San Bernardino County, Calif.). My entire life people have not believed that I am Mexican.

What can I do other than carry around a picture of my dad to convince people that I am Mexican?

Jenée Desmond-Harris: I think the confusion is not about what you are but about how racial and cultural identity work. You can explain to people first that a person’s physical appearance says little to nothing about whether he or she is from Mexico. Mexican people can have indigenous, European or African heritage. So it would be hard to tell by looking at you whether your father was Mexican, just as it would be hard to look at someone and tell whether they had a parent from the United States.

It sounds as if, separate from being skeptical about your father’s nationality, people don’t believe that you should identify as Latino. If that’s the case, it represents some confusion about what one has to prove to claim that label. Beyond telling them that your racial identity is up to you, not up to the perceptions of others (which are totally unreliable and can change with perspective, time, geography), you can challenge them to take a look at the origins of their own stereotypes about what a Latino person looks, sounds and acts like. Ask them exactly what physical or behavioral qualities you would have to have to be considered Latino in their minds, and they’ll realize how silly the rules they’ve made up are. Also, the burden will be on them to define what Latino means, versus on you to prove something that ultimately can’t be proved.

For a similar dilemma, check out the response I wrote when some people accused MSNBC’s Karen Finney of not being black enough to count as an African-American host.

People continue to police others’ identities with a lot of enthusiasm (so you’re not alone), but they end up looking ridiculous almost 100 percent of the time. Hopefully you can encourage the people who challenge you on this to think a little harder before they do it again.

Zannal: What is your interaction with readers like?

JDH: I receive probably five emails a week with questions that people would like me to answer. I always make sure to write back and let them know that I’ve received their message and often have a good exchange (sometimes, just about how tough the question is, which I think is something people appreciate hearing) even if I don’t respond publicly. One thing I would like to do more of going forward is to follow up with readers who write in to see whether they found my advice helpful and whether they were able to implement it.

Mkr: You might have read this already. Short version: White people are dominating traditionally black-dominated music categories, and the institutional gatekeepers in music seem to be complicit. Is this something to worry about?