For my poem I chose a spoken word performance by Vincente “SubVersive” Perez, a third year in the college here at UChicago as well as a highly accomplished slam poet. In this poem, Check One, Perez tackles the complexities of growing up multiracial in America via the lens of his experience as both Black and Mexican. The title of the poem is a reference to the common question on informational surveys that asks, “What race are you?” and then asks the participant to check only one race among the pre-labeled boxes. In this poem, Perez explores how being forced to “check one” is at its core a denial of the transnational identity of multiracial Americans.
Perez prefaces the poem with a note that the American Census only began recognizing multiracial people in 2000, a somewhat shocking fact that establishes the deeply-rooted, American concept of compartmentalizing human beings into racial categories. As the poem begins, Perez recounts the first time he was asked to “check one” in an in-school survey. In response to this dilemma, Perez responds, “So I guess I should pick who I am today” (0:55). This evocative statement, packed with the sentiment of resignation, encapsulates the struggle of the multiracial person today as one of constant fluctuation between identities. The unrelenting barrage of pressure to be racially “one-dimensional” is tangible for Perez, as he finds himself forced to conform not only for in-school surveys but around his segregated friend groups, his Spanish-speaking teachers, and within the histories that others have written for him. To Perez, the very question “check one” is a manifestation of the American obsession with racial identification: “Somebody asked me, ‘What are you?’ As if my race preceded being human” (1:59).
As he launches into the end of his poem, Perez repeats the powerful line, “I want my ‘then’ back,” claiming the right to establish his own past, and thereby his own present and future. For Perez, the only way to combat the “check one” mentality is to use words as a means of creating a multiracial narrative that has been suppressed for so many years.
As college students, we discuss issues of transnationalism and identity within the secluded walls of old brick buildings, but now and then we need people like Perez to speak out and remind us that these theoretical questions are realities for all multiracial Americans. What do you think of Perez and his account of growing up multiracial? If anyone in our class is multiracial, I would love to hear your perspective on the poem.
– Joe Joseph