Race is not a biological category. There is no Black “race” nor White nor Asian nor Native American. One way you can tell is that in my lifetime the numbers of races keeps fluctuating. Growing up in the South in the 1970s and 1980s, we would hear about the “White man, Yellow Man, Black Man, and Red man.” This, mind you, was in the context of treating all “colors” the same. Well, what in the hell are the new waves of immigrants, the “Latinos,” then?
This post is a very raw, un-researched post on my part. I am taking a risk, perhaps, in exposing in such a deep way some very personal and unsettling thoughts on the intersection of race, identity, and being American. But I was inspired by how the blog council, three White men, mind you, threw out this topic last Friday. They seemed so casual about the implications and so sincere in wanting to create a space to discuss it. See, for me, race was something “nice” people didn’t talk about openly and directly either because in a post-civil rights America it could be unpleasant or because in a “PC” way to talk about race was to be vulnerable to making mistakes, to continuing the subjugation of the oppressed. Maybe this new, younger generation really is more at ease with a topic that has bound and bedeviled four hundred years of Americans? We shall see.
White, like Black, are not real categories. They have no meaningful biological difference. This was brought home most forcefully for me in an essay by the late, great science writer Stephen Jay Gould. (I am paraphrasing- here is a snippet of his approach.) See, a race, if it is to mean anything, must mean that those in the race are more similar to each other than they are to people outside the race. Whites are more similar to other Whites, Blacks to Blacks. But, as Gould pointed out, Black always means descended from Africa (and to complicate matters, sub-Saharan Africa). Those humans are among the oldest; mother Africa is where homo sapiens evolved. Genetic variety is a function of time. The older a genetic pool is, the more diversity it will evolve over time. Hence, as Gould concluded, Africans, “Blacks” will have the most internal genetic diversity. There is more internal difference, biologically, between two people from the category of “Black” than there might be between “black” and someone from another racial group. The take away is that there is no genetic basis to racial categories.
More directly, racial categories still have this weight of biology around them. Our more racist forebears thought of them as different species, even. But any two humans can reproduce. So, clearly, we are all the same species.
But the biological quality of white or other racial labels persists in language. And language, in part, shapes thought consciousness, and culture. That is what I hate.
Race is ONLY a social category. It only means anything in a cultural context. I’ll never forget a Costa Rican farmer I was living with while doing a study abroad program describing me as “white” (blanco) and himself as “brown” (moreno). Ten minutes later, he described a local Indian ( a Bribri) as “brown” and himself as “white.” I mentioned this, and he didn’t miss a beat. He replied, as if I was a bit thick: “Well, you are white when I am talking about you. But I am when I am talking about them.” Race, as durable, permanent, fixed category does not exist.
So, I hate census questions. I hate being asked if I am “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish” as I was in a recent tele-marketing call. If asked, I won’t say I am white. I’ll put other as a quiet moment of demographic rebellion and monkey-wrenching.
But others see me as white. I am less likely to be pulled over by cops or TSA officials. I can treat race as a “non-category” as all whites can even as every other labeled group is always defined as “other” than normal. I know the statistics- white is a privilege.
I can’t escape being seen as white however much I hate the term.
I saw a magazine once called “Race Traitor.” The tag line was shocking and I liked it for that: “Treason to Whiteness is Loyalty to Humanity.” Damn straight. Please note that it is treason to whiteness as a category or an idea, not individuals. (Insert pre-emptive eye-roll).
Ok, Mr. Race Traitor, what is your solution? I suppose some may wonder or ask this. White is a lame identity. Are we supposed to be happy about it? Hey, maybe June can be White American history month! I understand why so many non-colored people grasp at non-white identities. I’m Irish! I have a Cherokee Princess on my Mom’s side (there were no Cherokee princesses). White Men Can’t Jump. Can’t Dance. Yee-haw, country music is my anthem! Any attempt to define whiteness in new terms is either mockable or offensive or sounds like Nazi-lite. ( A good essay on some of these questions, especially of how white people seek out alternative, non-white identities, is found in The Atlantic by Hua Hsu.)
If you deconstruct a white person, are you supposed to hyphenate her? She is not white, she is German-Italian- Irish American. Do those terms mean anything concrete?
If I define all race as simply variations of ethnicity, I can imagine many Black or Asian or Latino or indigenous people may resent that. Does calling “Black” an ethnicity weaken the real history of brutal oppression?
I don’t have a solution. But I still hate being white and I chafe at the linguistic and cultural baggage. And the lack of a good solution won’t make me hate whiteness any less.