869: Ethnic Arithmetic

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.

Ethnic Arithmetic
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.