Friday, March 10, 2006

Do I Look Ethnic?

Last night, for the second time this week, I presented a lecture on racism in the United States. Now, it doesn't take long for a new group of students to realize that the socially-constructed, political notion of "race" is my "thing." The course can be almost anything, but I will, hands down and unquestionably, talk about race at every opportunity. Why? A better question might be "Why wouldn't I?" No other topic--at least to me and after all, we're talking about my thing here--is as imperative to get out on the table as this one at this time in this country. Even if the rest of the world didn't pretty much hate us (the only nation with a lower world image right now than us is Iran--just think about that for a minute--South Africa, North Korea, even Iraq, for God's sake, are thought better of than we are). Anyway, even if the rest of the world liked us, we would still be in dire, dire straits, thanks to where we are with this one teeny little problem.

So, there I am, revving up my motor, not nearly to cruise speed yet, and believe me, I cruise on this topic--and well above the speed limit--when I was stopped in my tracks by a student's question. I was trying to establish how fixated people in the U.S. are about race. It's not particularly common in the rest of the world to even necessarily designate race. Forms of all kinds that routinely ask "race" in addition to information such as birth date or address just don't turn up everywhere like they do here. Nation of origin maybe, if the person isn't a citizen. But not race. It's understood elsewhere that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization supported a mass international review by eminent scientists from around the world back in the late 1940's and early 1950's that officially established once and for all, for those to whom it was of crucial importance, that "for all practical social purposes, 'race' is not so much a biological phenomenon as a social myth." Not that most countries were struggling with this matter all that much in any case.

But here, in the United States, we seem to have missed the memo. We continue to be so adament about pigeonholing people that, rather than admit that it's an irrational activity, we just keep adding categories. At the rate we're going, one can imagine at some point having to add an entire sheet full of options: Black (whatever that is perceived to be), White (whatever that is perceived to be), Hispanic (not Black), Hispanic (not Spanish-speaking), Native American, Pacific Islander, mixed (oh, please), and so forth on and on, ad nauseum. And these lists are, you understand, what we in social science call "forced choice." You can't leave them all blank. You have to declare.

Once when I was trying to register to vote in Tallahassee, Florida, the young man filling out the information asked, after getting my name, address, and birth date, "Race?" I should have replied, "No, thank you. I just ate." But what I said was, "Why? I'm registering to vote."

"It's just part of the information they ask for," he replied pleasantly.

"Well, I don't care to book into that kind of information gathering," I countered.

Flustered, he finished filling out the little card, had me sign it, and then just checked the box he felt like checking anyway as I turned to walk away.

So, as I laid the groundwork for all this last night, I started telling another story to illustrate the pervasive nature of our apparent "need to know" this information throughout the society. The incident took place about twenty years ago, when my bi-racial daughter and I were standing in a check-out line at a supermarket. I was perusing the magazines or something when I overheard a young voice pointedly asking someone, "Are you Black or are you White?"

I turned and had to look down. There, feet firmly planted in front of my daughter was a European-American boy of about her same age (maybe four or so), eyeball to eyeball with her, and, when she just looked at him, he demanded again, "Are you Black...or are you White?" If he was with an adult, and he surely must have been, he was not being in the least censured.

I was horrified. It had not occurred to me (stupidly, perhaps) that my daughter was going to have to answer questions like that at this age. I grabbed her hand and we exited with our groceries, where I began the process of her education about "race" in the car on the way home.

When I told this story in the classroom last night, however, a European-American's hand went up. "Did your daughter look...ethnic?" the student asked, completely missing the point, as if it would have been reasonable for a child to ask such a question if my daughter had looked "different." I was stopped short. When I'm processing something--usually on a much different level than what is being presented--I stall for time. "What do you mean?" I asked. "What do you mean by 'ethnic?'" Now, I knew what she meant, but like I say, I was processing. And I still am.

The fact is that everybody looks "ethnic." "Ethnicity" just speaks to where your heritage appears to emanate from. I may not reflect all the various threads of my heritage. Few people who look like me do. But I look ethnic nonetheless. You can readily identify me as one who has at least some ties to Europe--probably to England or Ireland or Scotland, in particular--and that makes my ethnicity European-American, if one only uses the visual to establish such a thing.

But that's not what the student meant and she was in no way appearing to be mean-spirited or challenging. She was just trying to establish what made the boy ask the question--rather than taking a good, hard look at the question itself (which is what I had intended for them to do). I side-stepped the issue because I was trying to move on and because I wanted to mull it all over on my own first.

European-Americans use the term "ethnic" interchangeably with the term "exotic" to describe someone who looks different from the "norm," which is "White," of course. In and of themselves, ethnic and exotic are not pejorative terms, but what caught my attention last night was how they are used in the United States to establish "otherness." There's "us" and then there's "them." As Paula Rothenberg (see the links list on this blog) says, White privilege and power have "normalized" and "naturalized" Whiteness, making them the standard against which all else, and most particularly anything "ethnic," is judged. The trouble is, of course, that we are all 100% ethnic. And most of us probably don't begin to realize how many ethnicities we do, in fact, represent.


Rachel S said...

That's such a good point--the notion that Whiteness=raceless and that Whiteness=no ethnicity. It reminds me of the notion that some of my students have that people of color are "cool" or "hip." I constantly hear about how being Latina/o or biracial is in style when it comes to modelling and other pop culture stuff. My response is, "You don't want to be in style because that means you're gonna go out of style. Nobody says White people are in style or that blonde hair and blue eyes are all the rage because White people are always in style. It's a given."

I love the stalling technique you used. Sometimes, I have to come back to those comments on another day because there are certain things that students say that really stun a person.

For example, I do a discussion on "privilege" in my intro class. I ready for students to say that men and Whites don't have privilege, but last semester for the first time ever I had a large majority of the class saying that rich people don't have privileges. I was so stunned at that comment, so I turned it back to the class with the classic, "What do you think?"

I have those moments every semester. I'm a little better prepared when it's about race because I teach more classes in that area.

Changeseeker said...

This is an example of the embedded nature of oppression, of course, Rachel. Derald Wing Sue and Lee Mun Wan both taught me about asking "What does it mean to be White?"

European-Americans are insulted by this question, I think, because it forces them to acknowledge what they know to be true, but don't want to admit. It makes the power visible. If Whiteness is about power (and I believe it is), then getting a job when you're White may be, at least partially, about being White, and so forth. The next thing you know, the house of cards is all over the floor and everybody's ranting. :-D

This is why I use the term European-American instead of "White" (unless, of course, I mean "White" :-D). James Baldwin wrote and was known to say, "You can learn everything you need to know about 'race' by asking a White person whether or not they would like to be Black."

Changeseeker said...

P.S., Rachel:
I agree with your surprise at your students not seeing rich people as privileged. Amazing. Why else would they suggest that "everybody" is trying so hard to get rich?

Last semester, I gave extra credit to students who managed to draft a short list of "privileges" (a la Peggy McIntosh) based on race, class, or gender. Some of them really got it.

veganelder said...

I wasn't going to bother you with a comment here...but...I read a phrase in your response to a comment that really resonates with me. You wrote: "It makes the power visible."

I'm very intrigued by the way cultural conditioning works to "invisible" certain things. It's beginning to seem to me that there's sure lots of action associated with the "invisibling" process. It's very similar to (or so it seems to me sometimes) the processes of suppression and repression the psychoanalytic folks write about. I don't know.

It does seem though...that where there's culturally promoted invisibling going on there's something important happening.

changeseeker said...

You are exactly correct, Veganelder. "Invisibling" is a crucial aspect of the process by which those with the power to define hold their position. Alberto Melucci's book Nomads of the Present turned me onto this back in the early 1990's. (If I recall correctly, that's where I got the term "making power visible.") I think I'll bring this up in my Stratification and Gender classes later today, getting the students to explore how this is done in each case.

Sátiro said...

Interesting and sad story not only in America

changeseeker said...

Indeed, Satiro. Indeed. White Supremacy is a global phenomenon.

Emily Cartagena said...

I really feel like as a nation, we are completely back pedaling and racism has to taken the front seat once again. I really hope history doesnt repeat itself...

Emily Cartagena said...

I would love to take a dna test because supposedly i am a mix of three or four different races, and have a very universal look, because to some whites i look native, others have said i looked pure european, and poc usually just think im white with a strong tan and curly hair(like ariana grande and jessica alba mixed, they both have a universal look as it is) and i have been discriminated against for being too dark but ive also been treated better because i was considered more euro than someone else. I feel bad for a lot of africans or poc with non euro features because if someone like me gets discriminated against (a U.S. Citzen, No accent, College degree) then I cant even imagine what they have to go through. I mean even spainiards, jews, and the irish, whom are for the most part considered caucasian, have been victims of racism.

changeseeker said...

White Supremacy founded this nation and has never gone anywhere, Emily. What has been done in this country from time to time is to give the surface culture a "make-over" while ignoring the cancer underneath. The cancer will kill the body even if the make up is perfection. Additionally, while Latinos, Jews, and the Irish have all experienced prejudice and discrimination, they are not "races" and therefore can't be victims of "racism." Jews are a nationality (or a religion). Irish and Latinos are ethnicities. But you are correct that White Supremacy does pick and choose who it wants to target, when and how. Just now, White Supremacy in the U.S. is attacking Latinos in particular -- supposedly as immigrants (whether they are or not). But, in any case, the way White Supremacy functions to brutalize so many all over the world is why I don't typically use the word "racism" any more.