Johnson addresses personal questions of racial identity

May 16, 1999
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Kevin Johnson is a quiet, private man who has written a thoughtful memoir, "How Did You Get to be Mexican? A White/Brown Manís Search for Identity" (Temple University Press, $27.95, 1999), about what might be called his racial confusion.

He is associate dean for academic affairs and a professor of law at King Hall School of Law at UC Davis. He is the son of a Mexican-American mother and an Anglo father who uses his experiences as a mixed Latino/Anglo to examine issues of diversity, assimilation, race relations and affirmative action.

("Put more sex in it!" his publisher told him. But if you want a sex book, this is not it.)

Nonetheless, this book is interesting and important. Itís important because a lot of people share Johnsonís interest in and confusion about racial identity.

Professor Carlos Munoz Jr. at UC Berkeley says people of color make up 52 percent of the state population and 30 percent nationwide. Nationally, people of color are expected to make up 46 percent of the population by 2050. A lot of those people have mixed backgrounds or will have children with mixed backgrounds. Is it an issue? Sometimes itís blatant Ė if your skin color is dark Ė but sometimes, as in Johnsonís case, itís more subtle.

"It can be hard for some individuals to figure out what they are, but society demands we make a choice and itís not always easy," he said.

Johnson could, if he wanted to, pass for an Anglo. But "passing" does not mean assimilation.

"For me, being raised by a Chicana and growing up with Latinos made blending into the Anglo mainstream a stressful experience," he said. "There is always the danger that comments made in my presence will irritate, hurt or simply make me uncomfortable. Some Anglos may see me as part of their club and assume that I will join them in baiting those inferior Mexican Ďforeigners.í "

But he felt uncomfortable, too, when he joined the King Hall faculty in 1989. The fact that three professors of color were hired at the law school that year was newsworthy enough to result in a front-page article in the local newspaper.

"The students and faculty, I feared, might not really be getting the minority professor they wanted," he said.

Not white enough, not brown enough. Itís ironic, really, because race is biologically a meaningless construct.

"Race is something that weíve made up as a society," he said. "There are no biological differences."

These issues came to the surface a few years ago when Johnson attended a conference of Latino law professors. A senior professor asked him if heíd consider writing a book on his mixed Latino/Anglo heritage and describe how it fit into a larger social framework.

"I said no at first because I thought it would be boring. But I started thinking about it and decided to draft something even if I decided not to pursue its publication. In May and June of 1996 I wrote the book.

"The daunting challenge in writing this book was knowing that I would have to show it to my family, my father and other relatives.

"My fatherís views on race and civil rights were more enlightened than many people including members of my own family. My mother claimed she was Spanish, not Mexican. My parents were divorced and I got these conflicting messages. My father talked about our Mexican-American ancestry and my mother about Spanish ancestry. As I became older it became clear what the true state of affair was. My mother and I have talked generally about the book but she hasnít read it. Her effort to assimilate and become whiter was to marry Anglo men.

"It took me quite a while just to figure out our family history and where I fit into it. Itís hard to see yourself as a Mexican-American in this society if your name is Kevin Johnson," he said.

In his book Johnson describes growing up in Southern California, his university years at UC Berkeley and the quiet, gradual decision he made to embrace his background. He describes his unhappy years at Harvard Law School. Things got better when he began working at a private San Francisco law firm and could devote pro bono hours to immigration cases.

Private practice was OK, but not the career he wanted.

"I missed the ability to focus on scholarship," he said. "I missed a certain social justice overview. Most of my research now deals with immigration law. I came to Davis because I wanted teaching and scholarship," he added.

"I work a lot with La Raza Law Student Association and I like to think Iíve made a difference in some peopleís lives," Johnson said.

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
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