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Race, Ethnicity, and the Future of Identity

I’m taking a course to satisfy my cultural diversity requirement that has inspired me and caused me to think about identity in a way I haven’t before. Kudos to the instructor and the university as this happens far less than I’d like in most of my courses. I thought it would be nice to share some of my thoughts on a few of the topics I’ve encountered so far (paraphrased), with the hopes that it’ll inspire some conversations.

How do I identify myself, ethnically and racially?

As soon as I saw this question, I could tell that this class is going to help me learn and grow a lot. I have, for most of my life, put so little thought or emphasis on identity for its own sake. I fill out forms, checking the box for Caucasian and/or White, understanding the need to collect demographic information, but I usually find myself wondering if these sorts of forms will be necessary forever. Is it wrong to hope for a “Human” checkbox someday? I worry that putting so much focus on our differences takes away from how similar we all are.

I’m not declaring an analysis of ethnic diversity inherently misguided, or discounting taking pride in who we are or where we come from; I just wonder if maybe we can do these things without forcing labels onto ourselves and then shouldering all the baggage that comes with them. I’m a white guy (mostly a Midwestern mutt), my wife is Mexican, and we have two wonderful children. Am I an honorary Mexican for marrying into my wife’s family, learning Spanish, and enjoying (and being able to identify) authentic Mexican food? I don’t know. What label(s) apply to my children? I’ll also add that I enjoy music, cuisines, and learning about the history of many cultures, though I doubt I could claim membership in their cultures. Is DNA the only measure for truly belonging to a group (See the “No true Scotsman fallacy”)? I’m hoping to learn appropriate answers to these sorts of questions.

If I can identify myself in whatever way I’d like, I choose Human.

Is Recognizing Racial and Cultural Differences Important for Understanding Race Relations in the US?

If the goal is to analyze the relationships between groups of people, then it is necessary to define the labels used to group people. This includes defining the attributes used to determine which labels apply to which people. In essence, how are we grouping people and why? Comparisons involving race are no different. As uncomfortable as it sounds, the differences between races (or perhaps cultures) are either the things used to determine which race a person belongs to or they’re the very things being analyzed. This is just how categorization and comparison works.

Aside from categorizing people, I think the differences between races are far less interesting than the differences between cultures. To me, a person’s culture is a set of traditions, beliefs, and behaviors shared by a community. Cultures can be changed, mixed, blended, replaced, or embraced; they’re mutable and fungible. They last as long as they “work” and are useful, which can sometimes be thousands of years. That said, they are not permanent fixtures of people’s appearance or identity like race is. I’m not sure I could ever be anything other than the race I am, and I’m not sure that is something that should be held against me or something I that should give me pride. I can’t take any more credit for my race than I can for the city in which I was born.

Framed this way, I’m not sure there is much benefit in dwelling on racial differences. Sure, by definition it can help understand race relations in the United States, but I worry that such an understanding isn’t really what we’re after. I think focusing on race encourages stereotyping and gives people with horrible motivations a platform to spout hate. I think what we want to understand is both What about my culture, viewed from the outside, doesn’t make sense while simultaneously wondering where differences between cultures clash. This kind of questioning is better apt to provide us with meaningful answers regarding why people act the way they do.

What about People who Don’t see color…?

People claiming not to see color make no sense (unless they’re literally blind). We all have differences, including our height, build, skin color, eye color, age, and more. Claiming those differences aren’t real seems odd. That said, I question the value of pointing out those differences or assuming they tell us anything interesting about someone. What have I really learned about a person because I see they have green eyes or darker skin than I have? I can make assumptions, but those could very easily be very wrong. Claiming to know anything about someone because I know something about their race, to me, is really what robs them of what makes them unique. Paying much attention to race is paying attention to what they have in common with a lot of other people; having a conversation with someone helps me learn what makes them an individual. Conversation can help me understand more about someone’s culture too. Looking at someone doesn’t really teach me about their culture; I’d rather that person tells me about their cultural practices, traditions, etc., so I can really get to know them.

What is it to be an American? A U.S. citizen?

While my view is that it is safe to treat the terms American and U.S. citizen as synonyms, I believe many people see a subtle distinction between these terms. To be a U.S. citizen means literally to be a citizen of the United States of America (and, according to uscis.gov, showing “your commitment to the United States and your loyalty to its Constitution”). To be an American seems to include both being a U.S. citizen and something else. This something else is notoriously difficult to pin down (as it is with most labels) because it seems to change depending on the context. Is it participating in the government or the economy? Maybe committing to a set of values? Is it blurting out the words “liberty”, “freedom”, or “democracy” (or maybe opposing communism or fascism) as often as possible? Is it belonging to a specific religion or looking a certain way? I think, depending on who you ask, the date, or the conversation, it may be all, some, or none of these things.

Certainly, there are stereotypes associated with being an American, though I will refrain from speculating as what those are given our current leadership. As with any other stereotype, be wary. We shouldn’t assume things about people just because we know one data point (they are an American).

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