London: Why do we always talk about race in this country strictly in terms of black and white?
Rodriguez: America has never had a very wide vocabulary for miscegenation. We say we like diversity, but we don’t like the idea that our Hispanic neighbor is going to marry our daughter. America has nothing like the Spanish vocabulary for miscegenation. Mulatto, mestizo, Creole – these Spanish and French terms suggest, by their use, that miscegenation is a fact of life. America has only black and white. In eighteenth-century America, if you had any drop of African blood in you, you were black.
After the O.J. Simpson trial there was talk about how the country was splitting in two – one part black, one part white. It was ludicrous: typical gringo arrogance. It’s as though whites and blacks can imagine America only in terms of each other. It’s mostly white arrogance, in that it places whites always at the center of the racial equation. But lots of emerging racial tensions in California have nothing to do with whites: Filipinos and Samoans are fighting it out in San Francisco high schools. Merced is becoming majority Mexican and Cambodian. They may be fighting in gangs right now, but I bet they are also learning each other’s language. Cultures, when they meet, influence one another, whether people like it or not. But Americans don’t have any way of describing this secret that has been going on for over two hundred years. The intermarriage of the Indian and the African in America, for example, has been constant and thorough. Colin Powell tells us in his autobiography that he is Scotch, Irish, African, Indian, and British, but all we hear is that he is African.
London: The latest census figures show that two-thirds of children who are the products of a union between a black and a white call themselves black.
Rodriguez: The census bureau is thinking about creating a new category because so many kids don’t know how to describe themselves using the existing categories. I call these kids the “Keanu Reeves Generation,” after the actor who has a Hawaiian father and a Welsh mother. Most American Hispanics don’t belong to one race, either. I keep telling kids that, when filling out forms, they should put “yes” to everything – yes, I am Chinese; yes, I am African; yes, I am white; yes, I am a Pacific Islander; yes, yes, yes – just to befuddle the bureaucrats who think we live separately from one another.
London: There is a lot of talk today about the “hyphenating” of America. We no longer speak of ourselves as just Americans – now we’re Italian-Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, even Anglo-Americans.
Rodriguez: The fact that we’re all hyphenating our names suggests that we are afraid of being assimilated. I was talking on the BBC recently, and this woman introduced me as being “in favor of assimilation.” I said, “I’m not in favor of assimilation.” I am no more in favor of assimilation than I am in favor of the Pacific Ocean. Assimilation is not something to oppose or favor – it just happens.
What prompted this was a report by Marc Cooper about Rodriguez being pressured into canceling his commencement address at Cal State East Bay.