Sunday, October 25, 2009

What is your race?

Will someone explain to me why the state requires us to collect information about race when it is illegal to do anything differently according to race. We say African American, Black, White, Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, Latino, Native American, American Indian, as if that actually means something. Young (younger than I) friends in Durham, NC, carry around copies of their application for a marriage license on which the options from which they had to choose included Puerto Rican and Colored. Huh?
I'll ask people about their ethnicity when I have to, and very often end up checking other. No one has ever been offended when I ask, in fact usually they are very happy to explain. A person with dark brown skin might say "Well, my grandfather on my mom's side was half Cherokee and my grandmother came from Ireland. My father is Black, so I guess that makes me. . . " And I'll suggest, "American?"
Or someone with medium brown skin will say, "My dad is Mexican and my mother's mother came from England."
A person with light tan skin might answer, "My great-grandparents came from Germany and my other great, great grandparents came from Scotland."
Or they might take my question from a different angle and state, "I was raised in the inner city;"
or "I'm an orthodox Jew;" or "I grew up in a series of foster homes."
These last examples might actually tell me something useful about them, but there isn't a box for me to check for those.
One of the coolest things about America is our blended ethnicity. We can get any kind of food and wear any kind of dress and listen to any kind of music we like because we are in America and it's all handy.
But how is race determined? How many races of humans are there? How can I tell if you are Black or White? Sure, I can look at your skin and eye color, the color and texture of your hair, the shape of your nose and I could make a guess about what continent your ancestors came here from. Is that race? That could be some quirk of genes. Perhaps your father has red hair, green eyes and freckles. Are you still Black? What about a dark brown skinned person who was born in Haiti? Is that person African American? Is Oback Barama Black? Is Tiger Woods Black? Does it matter? If I call Tiger Woods Asian is he going to play golf differently?
I think Hitler decided that if someone had one great grandparent who was Jewish, that person counted as a Jew. But if it was only one great-great grandparent, then you weren't Jewish. How they determined Jewishness is not clear. I've read that most of the Jews from Germany who were killed and/or tortured during Hitler's rule considered themselves German.
How long must my ancestors live in a certain part of the world before I'm considered the race associated with that area? If we go way, way, way back, I reckon we all evolved from people around the same one (or possibly) two parts of the planet. Doesn't that mean we're all the same race?
We are mutts. And that's a good thing. Pure breeds tend to have genetic weaknesses. Mutts tend to get the strengths from all donors.
When I am asked to check a box declaring race for myself, I tend to be creative. If they want me to describe the way I look (never happened) I guess I'd have to call my skin pale to see-through. I've never had a tan, but I can burn really well.
When my son (also very pale to see-through) was a toddler, a priest from Tanzania was visiting our house. The priest was intrigued with Patrick's toys and they'd been crawling around the floor playing with trucks and blocks for quite a while when Patrick rubbed the man's arm and said, "Fodder, you're green." My daughter, much more worldly at 22 months older, explained that Patrick was just learning his colors and told him that Father wasn't green, he was really dark brown. Then she went on to say that she and her daddy were light brown and Patrick and Mommy were light tan.
The priest said, "Well, I've been called lots of things but never green."
I'm not trying to get a sing along of Ebony and Ivory going here. I just can't figure why we need to keep categorizing people according to race. Especially when no one has yet given me a good, working definition. There are so many better ways to categorize people.
Maybe we should have people check if they are grouchy, silly, loving, happy, angry, hungry or tired. Those things might be important.

1 comment:

  1. And don't forget about us adoptees who may not even know our true heritage. It's hard to check any box with certainty. I usually just check "white."