Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Confession Tuesday-Race as a social convention

This Sunday voting process for the health care bill showed us that the progressive America is not dead. This is the America we tend to imagine while still living back there, on the old continent. The tea partiers however, while they were shouting repeatedly slogans with the n** word expletive showed us that racism is not dead either.

But what is race?

Painter's book "The History of White People" , reviewed in Salon.com here, presents the issue from a contemporary perspective and concludes that ,after all, race is no more than a social convention. So it is not like some of us are chimps and some orangutans. From a genetic standpoint, I am afraid that we all belong to the same species of monkey. From a wholehearted, genuine Christian one we were all children of God as far back as the first century.

And whilst race is not an American invention, it seems that recently the country which is most plagued by the issue is the USA. Why so? Since I am no specialist in American history I could only guess, but the fact that the year 2010 represents the "tipping point" for minority births as more than half of children expected to be born this year are not white. (Or non-Hispanic white?)[1]

But who is white nowadays?

The question had been lately puzzled me as it became last two years a leitmotif in my ramblings about my identity as a immigrant. The ramblings ceased after a while –as I started to feel better in my skin- but the question remained open:

What makes me white?

The rector of one Episcopal Church I attended said: Appearance.

I agree that appearance could play an important factor but it does not make me white. In fact based on appearance only I had been (in this particular order):

1. South –Asian. And I had met a few South Asian people who look whiter.

2. Hispanic. Most of my South American friends do appear whiter than I am.

3. Middle-Eastern. If we consider the Middle East to be a compact group –which they are not – a larger percentage are looking whiter than I.

4. White. Yeah, finally… But based on appearance only, so is my daughters' friend who is bi-racial (the other race is African American). She is, like my daughter, a genuine blue eyed blonde. Judging by appearance only them two are the White ones and I, the South Asian…

And it's true that in a world in which we became more estranged , appearance weighs heavily, but cannot define who is and who is not white.

My ex said: your European ancestry. Now he is right- as far as my European identity goes. I was born and raised in Europe (geographically). I am an EU citizen. And as far as I know my ancestors were born within the same geographic boundaries. As far as I know…meaning as far back in time as I can go. Which is not that far sometimes …how far back can you track birth records for your ancestors?

As for me, some were rumored to be Swedish, some were Romany, most were Romanian and one was from Ukraine. And the one thing they all had in common was geography, and whilst most had belonged to the 'white groups' , the Romany group is now identified as South Asian so …here we go again. Am I white or South Asian?

Of course, white. This is what checked in the Census form. And I had to check "white" because not because I felt that the word does clearly define my ancestry, appearance or even culture but because no other choice fit so closely. So, what is race?

Painter states: race is a social convention. And what is "white"? No more than a linguistic convention, I'd say- one that identifies members of group that resemble more one with each other due to a multitude of factors from shared ancestry to cultural, religious and social conventions. An as any other linguistic convention the white race does not trace a clear definition but continuously shifting boundaries. After all, it was not that long ago that the Irish were the non-white minority…

[1]Hope Yen' s Minority births on track to outnumber white births for AP


Anonymous said...

This is such an interesting post. I've only thought about race and mixing in relation to Asia (South and East) because of my background and never really considered the identity issues for people who are white/European until quite recently. It seems that even in a society where there is only one race, people still experience issues of identity because of their geographical background and religion. Seems people will always find something that will differentiate them from others. I know that in Japan there is an explosion of mixed race celebrities on tv now and the Japanese are becoming more accepting of mixed marriages. In Sri Lanka where there has been mixing for centuries, people are more accepting, yet will still differentiate. I, for one, find it quite exciting when I meet another mixed person and hear their story.

Ana said...


To an extent most people are multiracial. Europe is no different as local populations mixed with central and South Asian ones during the migration periods.
However I never questioned my race until I came to live in the United States -in my country I was just Romanian. And the fact that one of your grand-parent happens to be Tatar, or Turk or Romany or in other regions of continental Europe maybe Moor or Arabian or just a descendant of mongoloid Attila, does not make you question your race. Of course if one is obviously biracial it does make a difference. As, I understand it does make a difference in Sri Lanka .
But here in the U.S., race is a totally different story ...
As for looking for things that make us different, hmmm, but we are different....Because our cultures, social environments and families shape our differences. But difference shall not be exclusive (btw. did you read Ondaatje's Elimination Dance?)