'Think Brown' in terms of blended cultures, Richard Rodriguez tells House of Bishops

Author emphasizes importance of being a 'learning church' willing to listen to others
September 26, 2004

San Francisco author and essayist Richard Rodriguez challenged a gathering of 132 bishops to think "brown," as they meet here through September 27 to discuss reconciliation and communion.

The story of Christianity is the story of brown, the story of melded cultures and blended traditions, he said. An amazing array of racial and generational complexities challenge the world and the church today, Rodriguez told the bishops, who are discussing ways to deepen collegiality and hospitality.

"There is nothing browner in the history of time than the mystery of the Incarnation, of God, intruding into history, God entering history, in Jesus Christ, true God, true man, that's very brown, I think," Rodriguez said.

"Brown is everywhere in the Christian tradition, Christ was the great experimenter who dared to come to love us in ways that frighten us. Love turns out to be the stumbling block in the church right now.

"It's a scandal, that the church is having difficulty loving," he said.

Definition, Description

Rodriguez, a frequent PBS essayist on the Lehrer News Hour and a Pacific News Service editor, said the history of our nation and our lives are filled with brown, yet we struggle with its definition and description.

His book, "Brown: The Last Discovery of America," grew out of his agent's suggestion that he write about Hispanics as the fastest growing ethnic group in the country. After traveling to Chile and Ecuador and to Latin America many times, he concluded: "there are no Hispanics in Latin America. I had to go to Dallas, Texas, to meet one."

He said former President Richard Nixon invented the racial category in 1972, along with another category, Asian/Pacific Islander, for use on government forms. 'Hispanic' appears between white and black on those forms.

"We appear as people in the middle which, logically, would make us grey," Rodriguez said. "We can't compare to black and white. Hispanics don't constitute a race. There is every racial group in Latin America: white, black, indigenous, Asian, Lebanese, Thais, and a vast population of mixed-race people who are not properly described."

And America's "one drop" theory for racial designation -- the notion that if you have one drop of African blood, you are considered black -- doesn't work, he added. Rather than being black, Rodriguez says, one drop makes you brown.

"Brown is a color we're afraid of; we can't deal with brown. There are more than 300 words in Brazilian Portuguese for brown. In America, we are between white and black.

"It's too much of a complication, too embarrassing. We give Pulitzer prizes to people at Yale and Harvard who wear bowties and write dreadful histories and leave out Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings. We don't ask who are the brown children playing outside Monticello? Who are the brown children?"

He cites other examples, like U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell who says he is "Caribbean African, Scots Irish and Native American, but every newspaper in the country identifies him as the first black secretary of state."

Or, a friend who identifies himself as black but admittedly has Native American ancestry.

"'Then you're not black, you're brown,' I told him,'" Rodriguez said. "He replied, 'I'm black as long as that's what a policeman sees when he pulls me over.' Touche, I said'."

The history of our nation and of the world is filled with stories about brown.

"In 2004, we open the newspaper to see the daughter of Sen. Strom Thurmond. It seems that this Dixie-crat was publicly saying there should be no mixing of the races but privately he was involved with brown. He was even tender toward his daughter and she, toward him. And she says to us, who barely believe it, I am brown."

He recalled an immigration official "who looked at my parents' two brown faces and wrote down white on a form for them," Rodriguez said.

"All things brown in time. I can't give you my blood, I can give you my culture. I can cook my culture and you can eat it. I can wear my culture, drink my culture, sing my culture late into the night. Yet there we are, between white and black."

In the 18th century, when slaves were imported to Mexico, the Africans and Mexicans "began to melt into each other. Everything melts," Rodriguez said. "Their children came out looking Asian. Chinos, they were called, Chinese. Sooner or later all of us are going to be Chinos and everything will taste like chicken."

World, church are browning

Brown is not a primary or a secondary, but a tertiary color, created by three or four colors, Rodriguez says. "The mixing of colors is what I'm talking about today. America is browning, the world is browning, the entire vast world is browning. I'm here to talk about us, my relationship to you, yours to me."

"Brown is denied even by a number of churches. We have stumbled over the issue of love, have forbidden brown marriages. But, the founding palette of this country was white, red and black."

History omitted the love of the other, he said.

"We happily give children history books about hatred; it doesn't bother us in the least. There is talk of civil wars, massacres, invasions, no talk of love. I've always been grateful for Pocahantas."

The story of the birth of Mexico goes beyond the story of "a rape. The birth of Mexico was a rape -- no cherry trees there. It is the story of the Spaniard and the Indian, his lust for her, his control over her. I never trusted that version because it gives the Indians a passive role," Rodriguez told the gathering. "The truth is closer to her, who makes love to Cortez. After nine months I was born. I am 400 years old. I am Indian and Spaniard, Conquistador and victim, rapist and raped, I am brown, I am other, all within me."

The nation's browning is continuing, he said.

"The assumption in America is that the Indians have gone somewhere-maybe to a casino in Nevada. But, they're coming across the borders and the cavalry can't defend us against them. They're Central American, Mexican. They're painting houses in New York, making pizza in Chicago, gardening in L.A. Indians are on the move.

"Some young men I met in Tijuana in 1999 worked for Victory Outreach and were planning to come to America to convert us to Protestantism," he said. "They considered the U.S. to be post-Protestant. And they're going to Europe to convert the Europeans, to Paris, to London, to Frankfurt, and God, help them, to Amsterdam. It has taken a long time to happen. I do not know what the story of Columbus means yet but we are surrounded by a new world."

Brown synchronism

Rodriguez noted that often, during talks at local schools, he is approached by Anglo youth who say: "'I'm white, I'm nothing, I have no culture.'

"It's too big a price to pay for Americanization. The idea was that you came to America and lost your otherness, lost your Italian grandmother. I tell them, you're not white. You are the first generation in your family to go to college. Your mother has breast cancer and your dad has been out of work for nine months. You have a story and you're not white."

The limits of language and the outdated notions of race have resulted in a failure to our youth, he said.

"Many children have invented names for them selves because adults have no names to give them. There are Blaxicans in L.A., Negropinas in New Jersey, and I have a friend of Jewish and Hindu descent who calls herself a Hidge.

"Like Tiger Woods, who says he's not black. Who says that to say I'm black would dishonor my mother. I am African and Thai and American Indian and white. Name it," he said.

"The world is so different. We are living in an age of brown synchronism. There are brown children in this world, there are brown children in this city and we don't know what to say to them. It's unprecedented. It's a mystery.

"And yet we approach them with a 19th century construction, as though we were explorers in the African jungle, coming upon natives who speak a language we don't understand. They have taken language to a place we have yet to go."

Religious fundamentalism is also on the rise, in proportion to the browning of the world, Rodriguez said.

"Fundamentalists have overcome tribalism with faith. As brown rises, as this melting goes on, there is a need to clarify, to cleanse. Mixed meaning gives rise to ultimate meaning of clarity."

The challenge for the church, Rodriguez said, is to become a "learning church" and to find a way for "reconfiguration of the way we imagine priesthood.

"For so many years now, we've gone all over the world teaching others. Now, can we learn from them? We must become familiar with others' traditions, their saints who aren't part of our tradition. There's no map, just lead me."