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I Am Race. My Tweets Go Back Centuries.

Posted by Francie Latour  August 21, 2011 01:12 PM

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The weirdest thing happened the other day: After 40 years living in this skin, with good chunks of that time spent thinking about race, I finally met him. Race, that is. He started following me on Twitter.

It's not every day you meet somebody who has profoundly affected your life while also remaining invisible. But there he was with his self-evident handle, @iamrace. The guy sounded like he had a chip on his shoulder; he kept putting his name in quotes, like he wasn't sure he existed, either.

"I am 'race.' My cousin is ethnicity. She thinks she's so great."

"I am 'race.' The U.S. Census loves to count and tabulate my peeps."

"I am 'race.' Who says I'm arbitrary? I'll show you arbitrary."

Parody Twitter feeds are all the rage; these days you can embody anyone, fictional or real, hip-hop icon or über-suburban teenager. Darth Vader tweets, as does Jesus, who has 351,000 followers; on Father's Day he tweeted, "Crap! Forgot to get Dad a gift again." Sadly for Jesus, he's got nothing on Harry Potter nemesis Lord Voldermort, who just cleared 1.5 million followers.

It was only a matter of time before the digital satire started personifying institutions, movements, and the grand social narratives of our time. After the 2010 BP Oil disaster, a Twitter account spoofing BP's publicity team became a viral sensation. (Last week, when a new oil sheen surfaced in the Gulf of Mexico, @BPGlobalPR tweeted, "Very excited to see there's a Sheen in the Gulf of Mexico! #winning #bpcares.") Capitalism has about 30,000 followers. Then Race, who follows Capitalism, popped up in July. When Race started following me, I sent him a message: @iamrace who are you?

It turns out Race is a married 39-year-old white guy from California who works in information technology and voted for Obama. His name is Glenn Robinson. He met his Mexican wife at a hardware store where they both worked when they were young. "I've always had frustrations about the labels of black and white and how they're oversimplified," Robinson said. After the birth of his 6-year-old daughter, he found himself asking an increasingly common question in this multicultural age: What is she?

"I was driving my mother-in-law home from the hospital when the paperwork person came in and asked my wife what to put down on the birth certificate," Robinson said. By the time he got back, his wife had checked off Hispanic/Latino. Robinson was told he would have to go through a petition process to change it. "Generations from now, if our descendants are doing genealogy research, they'll look at that record and say, 'Oh. My great-great grandmother was Latina.' And that will be that."

Robinson started ruminating on race through a blog and YouTube channel. But those weren't instantaneous enough to capture what he calls our uniquely schizophrenic race dynamic. "Then I stumbled onto @_Capitalism and I thought, that's it. I can just tweet it and get it off my chest."

If Race were a person, Robinson figured, it would probably be bipolar and pissed. "I thought, okay, what are the things Race would complain about? He would probably just start attacking whatever he could latch onto, and the closest thing would be ethnicity," he said. "She thinks she's so high-falutin', and here I am having to fight just to prove my existence."

A couple years ago, Robinson overheard his daughter telling her cousin that she couldn't do gymnastics, because her cousin wasn't Chinese. "I can do it because I'm Chinese! See? Ni hao, ni hao!" she yelled, repeating the Mandarin phrase for 'Hello.' "That really got me thinking," Robinson said. "What makes us who we are, and what can we change?" Robinson hasn't answered that question for himself yet. I think I know exactly how he feels.

I have three mixed children of my own. Right around the time my oldest started asking why Thomas the Train couldn't ride the Underground Railroad, part of me started wishing that race was a character on TV -- something with a shape and a voice, like Barney, who could explain why brown people are called blacks and pink people are called whites. My son is too young for Twitter. But it's nice to know there's someone out there calling out all the ways our ideas about color can be both deadly real and utterly ridiculous. Race, it's nice to meet you.


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About the author

Francie Latour writes about race, gender, ethnicity, and cultural identity. She’s written about everything from working-mom guilt to black Barbies as a contributor to The Boston Globe, where she worked for 11 years as an investigative reporter and features writer. More »

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