On Racism and Epithets

Brian Ach/Invision for Spaulding/AP Images

One of the greatest features of the literary essay is its flexibility. An essay can be linear and chronological. It can be digressive and circular. The dots it connects can form a trapezoid whose structure remains hidden until the last sentence makes everything crystal clear. The best essays are, as essayist Phillip Lopate once said in a lecture, a map of the movement of a human mind, and part of an essay’s pleasure is seeing how different minds work.

For the New England Review, fiction write Robert Lopez explores racism’s vastness and influences, in both his life and the world at large. Ranging freely to collect seemingly divergent points, he connects elements from American culture with his past and present to create a brilliant, fresh portrait of racism and its lasting effects, using particular racial epithets to lead his way. We always need powerful perspectives on American racism. His is wildly original and affecting.

I used to describe myself as half Puerto Rican and half Italian and half Cuban and half Spanish. I called it the new math.

Of course it wasn’t true, those percentages. But saying one was a quarter or eighth or some other tiny fraction of anything always felt stupid to me.

Which is akin to being classified as a quadroon or octoroon, which was also ridiculous and awful.

During American slavery, quadroon was used to designate a person of one- quarter African ancestry, that is equivalent to one biracial parent and one white or European parent; in other words, the equivalent of one African grandparent and three white or European grandparents.

Some terms for quadroons in Latin America are morisco or chino.

In the ’90s I worked at an Italian restaurant on Long Island as a waiter and, like in many restaurants in New York both then and now, Latinos staffed the kitchen. One such line cook was referred to as Chino. That’s what everyone called him and that’s what I called him. I have no idea what his given name was, perhaps it was Roberto or Jesus.

You can imagine why he was called Chino.

The term mulatto was used to designate a person who was biracial, with one pure black parent and one pure white parent, or a person whose parents are both mulatto. In some cases, it was used as a general term, for instance on US census classifications, to refer to all persons of mixed race, without regard for proportion of ancestries.

The US Government used quadroon and octoroon, etc., as distinctions in laws regarding rights and restrictions.

The only math I did as a teenager was the calculation of batting averages and earned run averages, the probability of drawing to an inside straight, now known as a gut-shot straight, which you should never attempt.

Now the only math I do is by increments of 15. 15-love, 30-15, deuce.

My tennis community here in Brooklyn is diverse and glorious. In the past year I’ve played with Mexicans, Guatemalans, Haitians, Jamaicans, folks from Qatar, Egypt, Nigeria, all manner of Europeans, quite a few Australians and South Americans, Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Pakistani, even people from Ohio.

White, black, brown, color and off-color. All kinds of fractions.

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