Sunday, March 15, 2015

Busting Out of the Race Box

As a matter of principle, I refuse to identify my race on forms. I have come to view racial definitions as the cornerstone of an artificial social construct that creates barriers and divisions between people and ultimately validates racism. That is not to say that our cultural background and context is insignificant, or that we are all basically the same because we are all human, both of which I view as false assumptions. First, our cultural context is extremely important and impacts us and the people we touch in our lives in a myriad of extraordinary and vital ways. I would never want anyone to perceive me as anything other than Jewish. My culture is a key part of me; and to see me, you must see that part. Second, I do not believe all people are fundamentally the same, with the same basic human attributes. I believe people are fundamentally different and that we can learn so very much from each other if we are open to discovering different perspectives in the world and accepting diverse truths. By thinking people are fundamentally the same, we risk imposing our personal or cultural perspective on others and making assumptions that are condescending and insulting.

I want to share a couple amusing family stories about exploding the race boxes.

In the 1980s, my father presented at a math conference in Moscow. Dad has his Ph.D. in math and has worked as a mathematician his whole life. He has published a couple of important books that form the foundation for a particular branch of mathematics. On the airplane on the way back from the Moscow conference, Dad sat next to a man who introduced himself as a physics professor who taught at Clark Atlanta University. The professor recognized Dad from the conference. He told Dad that he had attended the conference mainly to get help solving a math problem in order for him to move forward with his work and he was disappointed because no one at the conference could solve the problem. During the flight back to the U.S., Dad solved the man’s problem for him. Dad says this was not as dramatic as it sounds. He explained to me that the problem was one that any number of mathematicians at the conference could have solved, but the professor had sought assistance from physicists and, according to Dad, it was not the kind of problem that a physicist could easily solve. Being a mathematician, Dad was better able to solve it. When he returned home, he told Mom this story. Mom asked, “You say the professor was from Clark Atlanta? That’s a historically black university. Was the professor black?” Dad thought for a moment and replied, “I don’t remember. He was a physicist. I can’t remember what color he was.”

When I tell this story to black friends, they laugh uproariously and declare that they love my dad. Good for him. Several years later, the professor invited Dad to visit Clark Atlanta as a guest lecturer. Dad discovered that the professor was, indeed, black. He was light-skinned. Dad remarked to me that if the man had been dark-skinned, he would certainly have remembered, but since he was light-skinned, he couldn’t remember for sure. I guess the distinctively African element of the man’s features did not stand out to my father, who spent his time with the man engrossed in a math problem. Bravo Dad for seeing the content of the man’s work and not the color of his skin.

Here’s another fun family story about busting the race boxes. My brother Dan once rented the 2007 remake of the movie Hairspray to watch with his children. His youngest, Ben, was five at the time. You may remember that at the end of the film, Tracy Turnblad successfully integrates the The Corny Collins Show, a dance show that is white-only except for once a month on “Negro Day.” After the movie ended, Ben asked Dan what Tracy did that was so special at the end of the movie when all the kids were dancing together. Dan explained that at the beginning of the movie the black kids and the white kids weren’t allowed to dance together, and that was the way it was in this country for a long time in history. Then he pointed out to Ben that at the end of the movie, Tracy had made it change, and all the kids got to dance together. After the explanation, Ben said to Dan, “So the black kids and the white kids couldn’t dance together at first but then at the end Tracy made it so the black kids and the white kids got to dance together.” “That’s right,” Dan confirmed. “I get it,” Ben said, “and which ones are we?” When your uncle is black and your only first cousins are black (actually multiculti), it can be confusing as to whether your family is black or white.

Thank you, Ben. Racial lines blur and racial divisions lose their meaning. What a relief. It’s time that we busted out of the prison of those racial identity boxes that attempt to rigidly and falsely classify the huge diversity of us humans.

Traditionally, the three races are itemized as Caucasoid (white), Negroid (black), and Mongoloid (Asian). Beginning around 1885, and going for about 100 years, these were the only three races recognized. More recently, indigenous peoples have been classified as their own race, often listed on forms under categories such as “Native American” or “Pacific Islander;” because, really, where do they fit in the three-race system? Anthropologists are careful to state that “Hispanic” or “Latino” is not a race per se, but terms that refer to people of any race who have a linguistic connection to the Spanish language. Yet “Hispanic” is now a box on the race/ethnicity form. How confusing is that? Truthfully, Hispanic is, in most instances, multiculti; i.e., part Latino (originally of Spanish origin) and part Native (indigenous), and often something else as well. I have often wondered which race box should be checked by people from India or Pakistan, or by Arabic people who come from countries like Iran (i.e., Persians). What race is Persian supposed to be? Is it considered Caucasian? Seriously? Is Pakistani considered Asian? Moreover, most American blacks are multiculti (unless they have recently emigrated from Africa), with a common combination being black, white, and Native. When Ron did a DNA test, the results showed that he has more Northern European DNA than any other single type of DNA in his make-up. So theoretically he should check the Caucasian box. This invites a whole other discussion about which box inter-racial people should check.

I prefer the concept of ethnicity to race as a way to explain who we are. Ethnicity is more about the culture from which we come and is more elastic than the three races. It gives me the opportunity to define myself as a Jew. When I am pressed to check a “white” or “Caucasian” box, it makes me feel as though everything that my people have suffered as a marginalized and minority culture is invisible. Suddenly I am the privileged white majority. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ethnicity tells more about who I am, but it’s still not the most informative way to classify people. I could go for describing myself based on cultural context. But the way I envision this sort of definition, it’s not a definition so much as a story. What I would like on the race form is a box I can check that is labeled “personal narrative.” I suppose that’s the same as “opt-out,” but it implies I have a story about my background and home culture that’s worth telling and that makes me who I am. Everyone does. Those narratives do not fit into the boxes.

Some people would argue that the statistics gathered using racial delineations are helpful in telling us something useful that can be applied to help improve people’s lives. As a grant writer, who makes arguments for need based on these kinds of statistics every day, I can see how that works to gain funding for helpful programs. And yet, I wonder how much of the disparities told by the numbers were created in the first place by those boxes. The thought of busting open those boxes on the race form makes me feel free and empowered. Don’t stuff us into those boxes. Let us be the sum total of our life stories, in which race or ethnicity or culture plays a part, but is not necessarily the defining characteristic. Imagine a whole world in which everyone pauses briefly in confusion and asks, like little Ben, “Which ones are we?” 

Here is a scene from the 2007 Hairspray -- getting ready for integrated dancing.

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