What is Race?

It’s hard to have a debate about race in America. And one reason it’s hard to have a debate is because no one bothers to define their terms. For example, when talking about race, we seldom ever bother to define what race actually is.

In America, we think that people with light skin are white and people with dark skin are black. Although we have sizeable numbers of Hispanics, Asians, Arabs, Native Americans and other groups in the United States, discussions on race still tend to focus on white versus black. Seems like a distinct line, right?

Well, the thing is, after four hundred years of intermingling, most Americans of African descent also have some ancestors of European descent in their family tree. So, how black is black? Does one have to have a majority of black ancestors? 50%? In 1892 Louisiana, Homer Plessy was forced to be segregated in the black train cars despite being only one eighth black. This led to the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case, where the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was constitutional. The answer at that time to “how black is black?” was “any amount.”

And that’s a mindset which has carried on to this day. Barack Obama is considered America’s first black president, despite being only half black. But since very few people in America are of full African descent, this doesn’t really matter, because Barack Obama considers himself to be culturally African-American.

Which shows that the question of race is not really about skin color but about culture. African-Americans do have a distinct culture. But in our society, African-American culture is often lumped with other cultures such as Afro-Caribbean or various African cultures under the umbrella of skin color.

Just as the question of race is not really about skin color, neither is the question of racism. The history of South Africa can attest that the British colonization of that country involved racism not only against the Zulus and Xhosa but against the light-skinned, European-descended Boers. The Boers had a different culture and language than the British, and where there are differences there is often friction. Extreme racism between ethnic groups in Africa occurs in many places, groups that we Americans tend to lump together under “black Africans.”

This of course means that there are thousands upon thousands of ethnic groups that have the potential for racial animosity. What’s more, measuring racial groups in statistics becomes far more complicated, even impossible.

Nevertheless, the US census still asks people their racial status. In 2010, the US census will continue to ask responders to identify their race. For some reason, the census bureau does not consider “Hispanic” to be a race, so before moving to the race question responders will first have to answer if they are “Spanish/Hispanic/Latino”, and further identify themselves as “Mexican”, “Puerto Rican”, “Cuban” or “other”. The next question then asks the responders their race, and gives a limited selection of fourteen options. Now, this is a great improvement over 1870, which simply gave responders the options of black, white or mulatto. But fourteen still does not adequately describe the world, or America even.

The choices you will have to identify your race are as follows: White, Black/African-American, American Indian/Alaska Native (write in your tribe), Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Native Hawaiian, Guamanian/Chamorro, Samoan, Other Pacific Islander, and the all-encompassing “Other Race (Write in).”

Now, this is really a hodgepodge of options, some of which are defined by skin color and others by culture. Apparently, most groups get to be defined by culture (such as American Indian tribes) while others are defined by skin color, such as “White” and “Black”. And if you define yourself as hispanic, you have to pick another race/ethnicity as well. Other groups such as Arabs are just plumb out of luck, as are South Asians who are not from India, Jews, Melungeons, Cajuns, and many more.

I believe this convoluted situation is a result of our failure to address a key question: Is race defined culturally or genetically? If it is defined culturally, then we can choose our own race. If it is defined genetically, we can’t change it one bit.

I am culturally a white American southerner. But I am genetically of Irish, Scottish and German descent. However, I can in no way be considered culturally Irish, Scottish or German. I don’t speak German, Gaelic or the Irish or Scottish dialects of English. I wasn’t raised in nor have I adopted Irish, Scottish or German culture. Yet according to genetics I am Irish, Scottish and German. And according to the US Census Bureau, I am defined as “White” solely by the level of melanin in my skin.

It’s all a big mess, isn’t it? What it means is that our culture needs to end its obsession with categorizing people into races. We can start by removing questions about race from the 2010 US census. We can continue by not using racial or ethnic status to decide anything substantial, including but not limited to college admissions, hiring, and “firsts” for any racial group. Whenever people start categorizing each other by racial status, silly convolutions are the inevitable result. Any anyone that attempts such behavior is sooner or later going to end up tying themselves in knots.

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