Can We Dismiss Race In The Present While Still Acknowledging The Concept’s Troubled Past?
Raising a generation that judges people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin means abandoning the notion of race altogether
Salt Lake City isn’t exactly known or its large minority population. However, by the time our daughter was born in the early 1990s the Hispanic population was increasing rapidly. None-the-less, race relations were not on the top of many people’s list when pollsters called to find out what issues were most important to them. Even immigration only rarely came up.
So it wasn’t as though we needed to put much effort into not talking about race around the house. We didn’t banish it and stick our heads in the sand either. We watched the news regularly each night — usually the PBS Newshour — and often had NPR on during the weekends. If our daughter had any questions about anything she saw or heard, we tried to answer them honestly. The TV or radio didn’t get turned off when controversy of any sort was being discussed.
When our girl began school some of the friends she brought home were of Hispanic and African descent. It felt perfectly natural to simply continue our de-facto policy of not saying anything unless we were asked. After all, it’s not as though there was anything to say. It seemed to us the best way to raise a child who was indifferent to race was to model indifference ourselves. We didn’t refer to her friends by their skin color or ethnicity if we could at all help it, though I’m sure my wife and I unconsciously slipped into our own parents’ old habits now and then.
When I went back to school years later, it was something of a relief to be told by one professor after another that race is a “social construct” and that the genetic differences between individuals greatly outnumbered those detected between groups. Social constructs come with the option of ignoring them built in. Given race’s history as an idea, it didn’t seem a particularly positive construct to be dwelling upon.
I feel awfully ambivalent about hyphenated identities. Likewise, being literally only skin deep makes the use of colors to describe people practically useless. In each case the description provides enough information about a person to reach some very basic probabilistic conclusions, none of which should logically lead anyone to change their feelings about them.
I have a vague memory from childhood of my father expressing disgust with the increasingly common insertion of the hyphen before the word American. “We’re all Americans!” he declared. This sounded reasonable and inclusive, but that he said it in a tone that reminded me of Archie Bunker made it seem as though his real argument was far more insidious than the words alone might lead someone to believe. I was young, and concepts like white privilege had not yet been fully articulated. So for quite a while I was just left with the strong suspicion that my father wasn’t promoting inclusion and no way to prove it.
None-the-less, he got me thinking. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my father’s words were correct even if the attitudes behind them were antiquated; maybe race really doesn’t matter as much as we like to think it does. But why then should being American alone matter any more than being a hyphenated one? What was so special about being born north of the Rio Grande or south of the 49th parallel? While we’re at it, what’s so special about being a melanin deficient American?
Around 2009 my daughter moved south to live with her boyfriend in Mexico. A few years later we became grandparents. Our granddaughter is Mexican-American by virtue of the fact that her parents are from two separate countries. The ever so slight and ultimately insignificant genetic differences that lead us to distinguish between Hispanic and Caucasian are also both present in some combination, adding another wrinkle. However, how society can construct an identity for her using these facts remains an enigma.
We’ve all seen the commercials for tests offered by companies like Ancestry.com or 23andMe. In one of my favorite ads for these services a man who thought he was of German descent discovers he has a significant quantity of “Scottish genes,” so he turns his laderhosen in for a kilt. If someone genuinely enjoys dressing up in laderhosen and attending the local Oktoberfest each year, it’s not at all obvious why a genetic test should cause him to stop. Genes matter, but on a level far below cultural creations like laderhosen and kilts.
No matter what your genetic test reveals, I believe you have the right to alternate your ethnic costume and swill different beverages every month of the year if that’s what you want to do. Vive la différence! That said, at least it is ancestry and not race driving the man’s change of preferred clothing. That’s progress I suppose.
Regardless, I can’t shake the feeling that what we should be teaching our children is that once upon a time people commonly thought ideas like race and nationality accurately reflected fundamental reality, and that these beliefs drove them to do all sorts of cruel and stupid things to one another. Those that still think this way are like those that still cling to the idea that the earth is flat.
Now we know better. We no longer take ourselves so seriously. We understand identity is fluid and something we casually wear on our sleeve, not something that defines who we or others truly are. There’s just one race, and that’s human. We should use colors and hyphens to describe ourselves and others sparingly in historical or ancestral contexts, or when referring to the words used by the racial flat earthers still among us — or perhaps in a medical setting where information like ethnic background may actually convey some vital information.
If only it were so…
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