869: Ethnic Arithmetic
869: Ethnic Arithmetic
I’m Major Jackson and this is The Slowdown.
Several years after college, I moved to Providence, Rhode Island. My neighbor in the apartment upstairs, heading out the door, introduced himself as I was bringing in boxes to my second-floor walkup. Noticing the chessboard beneath my arm, he asked if I would like to play games in the evening, to get to know each other. I appreciated his warmth.
We were both relatively young in our careers. Like me, he commuted to Boston daily to work. Over several weeks, the game, along with a Samuel Adams beer, was a welcomed ritual of winding down while making a new friend. Having only won two games out of two dozen, he began to notate our moves on a piece of paper. Then, after another week of losses, out of frustration, one evening he flipped the board, and said, exasperatedly “But you’re Black.” He apologized. We never played chess again.
All my life, I’ve encountered such damaging beliefs, that somehow intelligence levels and a human’s relative worth are based solely on phenotype.
One of the deeply harmful and insidious ways white supremacy wounds people is having them believe they are superior to (or less than), based merely on skin color. There’s a deep sadness in not seeing each other as whole human beings, in not recognizing the gift and potential beyond bureaucratic designations that confine us. Even here, I almost wrote “define us.” Identity is fraught and never more so than when we are reduced to a box to check on a census document, employment record, or audience survey.
Today’s contrapuntal poem offers up a cypher against mere ethnic categories, that which seeks to reduce us. The poem also calls out the policing of authenticity and how that, too, is a complicated storm.
by Sara R. Burnett
again I check ethnicity boxes write fractions ½ and ½ next to squares as if I could measure with a stick figure a type of equation devise an algorithm to derive the crude dimensions I’d wanted of my identity—those parts to keep separate as black beans and rice moros y cristianos nunca congri never together my mother sighing it’s how a true Cuban eats them but you don’t have any accent her quick smile betraying who am I to know who I am some part of me quiet another confused as though sliding back and forth invisibly like her with a doll and suitcase forever in hand and because of this and maybe only this she rubs the white of her forearm with two fingers which feature to cover or show a gesture I’ve learned conveys superiority as if a distinctive mark that says look at me I belong a curl of tongue a darker jaundiced eye here not there check guilt shame denial check what’s fair—what’s not check every cliché I know exists to erase me
“Ethnic Arithmetic" by Sara R. Burnett from SEED CELESTIAL © 2022 Sara R. Burnett. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, LLC on behalf of Autumn House Press.