Some questions on race

It’s true. I’m abandoning the blog. I’m not a blogger, at least not now and not full-time. I’m a fiction writer.

But before I go, I want to use this space to ask my friends to help me with some questions I have about race and racism. Please know that I’m asking these questions not to offend but to learn how to best love my neighbor.

Also, you should know that this has come to the forefront of my mind because of Americanah by Chimimanda Ngochi Adichie.

Without further ado, here are my questions about race (with preamble on some research on how to define terms):

Race, as defined by “Cultural Anthropology” by Ember and Ember: “in biology, race refers to a subpopulation or variety of species that differs somewhat in gene frequencies from other varieties of the species. All members of a species can interbreed and produce viable offspring. Many anthropologists do not think that the concept of race is usefully applied to humans because humans do not fall into geographical populations that can be easily distinguished in terms of different sets of biological or physical traits. Thus, race in humans is largely a culturally assigned category.” (So why do we use this term, and functionally, what do we mean by it? Even “culturally assigned category[ies]”, does this mean there’s only one “African-American” culture?)

Culture (defined by same authors): “the set of learned behaviors, beliefs, attitudes, values, and ideals that are characteristic of a particular society or population”

Ethnicity (defined by same authors): “the process of defining ethnicity usually involves a group of people emphasizing common origins and language, shared history, and selected aspects of cultural difference such as a difference in religion.” (This seems more helpful than “race”, but I still don’t understand how it applies to “African-American” or “Asian-American” or “Hispanic” or “Latino/a.”)

So as I try to figure out what these terms mean (or what we mean by these terms)…

What does it mean to say someone is African-American or Asian-American, and how does this relate to race or culture? How does this apply to, say, friends of mine who came from South Africa and are now American citizens? By the way, they’re white. Why is it that I’m not called Euro-American or something like that? Does “African-American” actually say anything about who someone is? What if their ancestry has been in the United States longer than mine has been? And what about the fact that “African” or “Asian” is not really a good descriptor of race or culture or ethnicity because it’s so broad? Or what if their ancestry came, yes, from Africa but via, say Dominican Republic or England? What of the term “Hispanic” or “Latino/a”? What if someone comes from Mexico but has no Spanish ancestry? (And, pardon my ignorance, but does “Latino/a” mean having some sort of Latin ancestry? If that’s the case, aren’t I Latina?) Are any of these terms helpful? Why do we use them? Is there a better way? I don’t mean to say that we should all be colorblind or that color is not significant, but in what ways is it significant and in what ways is it not significant?

How do we prioritize what is meaningful to our identity (individual and shared): ancestry? shared history? And how far back do we go with shared history—my generation, three generations? What are the things that unite us and what are the things that divide us?

By the way, I don’t mean to say that even if we live on the same block we have the same experiences of the world. People treat us differently based on color. The sins of the fathers visit for generations, so just because Jim Crow laws don’t exist anymore doesn’t mean that we’re not still experiencing the ramifications of them in my day. But I’m trying to probe how we move forward, how we see each other, identify with each other, how we listen to each other and know one another. I want something easy, like, well, as I get to know individuals, I can listen to their stories, get to know them, and I think there’s something to that, but I don’t know that that’s enough, not when most of my church is white because most of the people in the suburb where my church is located are white. Not when most of my friends are white even though I live in a neighborhood with so many Indian and Middle-eastern immigrants (and second generations).

(Confession: I suck at meeting new people. So I go to story time at my library, where as a white person, I’m in the minority, and I want to meet others there, but I just suck at it—it doesn’t matter what color your skin is or whether or not your head is covered. I’m no good at going up to someone and striking up conversation.)

So there it is. Thoughts?


  1. I really think that today, for our society, it really does have a lot to do with maintaining victim/savior status. the people that champion issues – not just race, btw – get to be the saviors who ride in a have a quest and the victims – again, not just race – get to be the victims and be seen in society as not responsible for everything that happens to them.
    I know it gets sticky saying that when referring to race but I really think that’s a portion of it. There are people out there making a living off of keeping racism alive. If racism dies, which I truly think in a lot of places it IS dying, then they lose their power and place in society.
    Obviously that’s not all of it. People find a sense of community and identity in their labels, too. So that would be a positive from the labels. But I can honestly say I am not concerned with a persons race at all. I care about what kind of person they are. I don’t care what color person my kids bring home to marry one day. I care how they treat my child and how they will parent my future grand babies :)

  2. heather says:

    Gina, while I think that happens, I suspect that’s an oversimplification of things. Friends have told me about assumptions made of them purely based on color. You and I may not make assumptions, but that doesn’t mean those assumptions don’t exist. (Have you seen the “I, too, am Harvard” project? Obviously some assumptions and hurts exist.)
    I want to know how to take into account cultural and ethnic backgrounds without making that the whole of a person, or assuming there’s only one cultural or ethnic background for a black person or an Asian person, for example.

  3. heather says:

    Another thought: assumptions have been made about me because I’m a woman. I’ve been limited. I’ve been told things like, “Wow. You accomplished that as a woman.” It was meant as a compliment, but it was hurtful. Why is it more amazing for me to earn a certain degree because I’m a woman? These are the sorts of things that happen to blacks (“you’re a credit to your race”) that betray assumptions that we expect less of blacks than we do of whites (for example). (Or there’s something like, “You’re so white for a black person” as if certain attitudes or personalities or preferences make us black or white–and is a comment like this arguing that a white person’s attitudes/personalities/preferences are better?)

  4. I agree. I didn’t mean it doesn’t happen that way at all, I just meant that I think the reason the race issue is so focused on and dragged out, for some, is because of that.
    I know racism still colors some people’s POV. I just don’t think it’s as many people as some would have the world believe.

  5. I have really strong feelings about this subject but I’m not able to verbalize or write it down well. Maybe because my feelings seem so insensitive to the loudest groups out there. Or maybe because my argument is made from my gut, not logical conclusions.
    I’ve always wanted to call black people black. People call me white. It makes sense to me. I’ve never really gone farther than that. I haven’t known what to call Latinos…Hispanics….Mexicians. Or asians….oriental….eastern. I always feel like I’m going to pick the wrong one. And that maybe the word I chose is offensive. I don’t want to be offensive.
    So now that I have two children from Africa I’m caught making some choices. Just last week I was filling out well-check paperwork at the Dr’s office and I had to choose a race. My choices were Latino, Non-Latino, African-American, American-Indian. My kids are more African-American then most black people here, but I feel like the term is so emotionally charged that I found myself not wanting to mark it. For medical purposes, my children are Africans. And for my white kids the best option is Non-Latino? Really? I don’t get it.
    I feel lost in this reality of race. It’d be nice just to banish racist people to their own part of the world. I don’t care about race. My children are my children. And my neighbor is my neighbor. I don’t care what color they are. They have more important titles. And just because I talk about race, doesn’t make me a racist.
    I feel like most people are shocked when I call my youngest kids my black kids. It isn’t a put down. It isn’t a judgement. I love them. They are no better or worse because they are black in my eyes. Sometimes it is just an easy distinguisher. Just like I might call my third child, my blondie.
    Why can’t we all just get along!
    (This probably doesn’t have anything to do with your post, but seeing what you wrote stirred up my soapbox. SORRY!)

    • heather says:

      Melissa, your comment has everything to do with my post! I think we’re all trying to figure out how to move forward in a way that recognizes both shared histories and individuals. You bring up the aspect of adoption, which has interesting perspectives for the shared history dialogue.

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