Book Review: “The Racial Middle” by Eileen O’Brien

It is not often that I read a book that simultaneously expands my knowledge base on social and cultural realities AND draws me into deep reflection upon my own life in the midst of the knowledge.  What a gift Eileen O’Brien has given this cyclical armchair sociologist.  Throughout the reading of The Radical Middle I found myself exhaling with deeps sighs of self awareness while being moved by the thoughtful way in which she has dug deeply into the lives of those who contributed to her study.

The Radical Middle is the account of what many of us have experienced who have lived a life in a world who’s rhetoric around race is arguable controlled and guided by that of the White/Black dynamic.  Those of us “brown” folks have been, for generations, stuck in the middle and much of society not knowing what do with us.  Are you White?  Are you Black?  Where are you from?  Where did you learn to speak English? “What are you?” This list of confusions goes on and on. Many of us know exactly what this cultural location feels like, we are adeptly able to shift from context to context without skipping a beat, but there are few who have captured this experience so well.

But . . . now add to your list of books to read on race, The Racial Middle: Latinos and Asian Americans Living Beyond the Racial Divide, by Eileen O’Brien

While this book feel a little academic at times, especially the first chapter where we get a glimpse of the methods that were used, the rest of it is deft dance between the sharing of first account stories and experiences and O’Brien’s insightful analysis and reflection.  Throughout the book O’Brien acknowledges and affirms the realities of this middle racial reality while challenging some of the ways that this group is still impacted by race, racism and the divide between White and Black.

Here are a few snippets from the book.

on self-understanding of race . . . Perhaps the most striking finding is that racial and ethnic categories operate more as sliding scales or continuums in the mind of respondents rather than hard and fast classifications.  That is, one can conceive of race and ethnicity as continuous variables rather than categorical.  Race and ethnicity appear to be “relative” designations that take shape for respondents as meaningful or salient categories for them depending on the context or who is surrounding them. – page 30

on the middle race’s upholding of racist paradigms . . . When we look at this racial hierarchy from the vantage point of Latinos and Asian Americans themselves, we see that they are highly complicit in its maintenance.  Leeway is given for white partners that is not given for blacks.  Often antiblack prohibitions are not explicitly stated, and are seen as taken for granted or matter-of-fact. - page 123

on the future of race . . . The future of race may be thus not in academic theories and racial terminology, but in the everyday experiences of the racial middle themselves, as they do the work of carving out a space that they ca call their own.  This space values bilingualism, even multilingualism, language “of the world,” whether or not they seem to correspond to one’s particular ethnicity.  This space values cultural traditions that do not emanate from the dominate culture, and welcomes the opportunity to celebrate multiple traditions simultaneously. - page 217

Needless to say, I would highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in what I would call an “emerging” reality of the racial landscape in the United States that will continue to affect all facets of American life: religious, political, social, cultural, etc.  And yes, it does have a Kindle version.

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