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.