I received a request to answer the question of “what is race”, directly from Monica who is our fearless leader and coordinator for Race 2012. Then today Totsymae also asked the question along with, “what does it mean to you?” These are difficult subjects especially during these days; we have tried hard in this nation to pretend we don’t have a race problem. Perhaps a better way of saying this, as a nation we have tried to pretend with the election of Barack Obama we no longer have a race problem, obviously we elected a “Black Man as President”.
What is race? Do we have the language, polite or otherwise to answer that question adequately?
I am adopted. I look different from my family; in fact, I was told not infrequently I looked ‘exotic’. Being visually different was my first taste of what it meant to be different, my father said it didn’t matter. It did though. Not because children are discerning or born biased, they aren’t but they are born with an eye for what is dissimilar and an ear to learn what those differences mean, or to fear those differences. Fear translates into hate, humans hate what they fear; humans hate what poses a threat to their survival. Eventually those reactions become visceral if not addressed, thus a new racist is born.
What is race?
It is what defines our differences; these are purely physical characteristics. Without the physical characteristics, the markers of ‘race’ we would be unable to visually identify a person as belonging to specific racial groups unless they self-identified. The truth is race is a social construct that allows us to demonize or aggrandize a group of people based on nothing more or less than their physical characteristics. Humans have used differences, be they cultural, religious or the obvious physical to commit atrocities against each other since the dawn of humankind. We haven’t changed since we first learned to walk upright; we have only gotten more creative in our genocidal tendencies.
What is race?
When we look at our President, we don’t say we elected our first bi-racial President. We don’t acknowledge his Anglo Saxon heritage, indeed, we also forget his Indonesian stepfather; we only see his Blackness and for many White Americans that Blackness infuriates. That fury has broken the barriers of polite discussion of race; it has pulled out all the stops of racial etiquette and public avoidance of accusations of racism. Truthfully, there are
those who take great pride in their blatant racism, forgetting our President had a very ‘White’ mother and was raised by very ‘White’ grandparents. Instead, they demand his Birth Certificate, certain this very Black man could not be born in the United States of America. Never has a seated President been treated with such disrespect, during his term in office. But then, never has a President of the United States appeared to be a Black Man.
What is Race? It is part of what we hold up as who we are. It shouldn’t be relevant, but it is. I am first Human, then a woman, then American, then part of an amazing and somewhat dysfunctional family that happens to share the DNA of many different cultures and going back generations.
What is race?
It is nothing more than a way to group and identify those unlike ourselves based on differences that have no real relevance other than our personal notion of beauty. In this nation, what is race? It has become something more, hasn’t it? Race has become an insidious and ugly framework for Class, which is really just another way to say ‘poverty’ and ‘wealth’. Race is a social construct, made up and sustained by those who would hold on to power. It is that, nothing more and nothing less.
Race is a grouping and a tick mark on the Census, the employment application, the TSA checkpoint or the show me your papers police check. It is that, nothing more or less. Race is what we agreed would define us as groups of people so we could pick and choose who would win or lose in society. Race divides our cities creating pockets of destitution, hopelessness and lost opportunity for our children, our future.
We have developed an entire polite language, a racial etiquette for our public discourse. One day soon, we will have to say enough, we will have to begin to hold each other and ourselves accountable and allow ourselves to say
what needs to be said without being offended by whose lips say it. We will have to allow talk across the lines of the construct of race, reach through the smog of polite speech and recognize each other for our good intent get our azzes off our shoulders and begin to speak plainly about the problems of Race within the country. We will have to speak across Color, Culture, Religion and Polite Society and across the Racial Etiquette, we have developed if we are to ever fix what is broken and truly achieve the dream that was spoken on the 28-Aug-1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Finally, what does it mean to me?
It means beyond Loving vs. St. of Virginia my husband and I can go out to dinner anywhere and anytime without some ijit with an attitude giving us the stink eye, failing to provide us with service, or worse offering their opinion of our pairing.
Other times it means I have to revisit the scene of the crime, the day three young Black men kidnapped and shot me simply because they wanted to kill a ‘White Person”, each time they come up for parole I am reminded hate and prejudice runs both ways. Still other days I have to defend my personal position on Racism and Prejudice, why I don’t hate an entire ‘race’ for the act of three individuals. Yes, I am asked this often by both sides and my answer is always the same; I don’t even hate them why would I hate perfect strangers? Or even better, all three of them were teenagers should I hate teenagers? It makes as much sense. Yet even when I explain, most people think I am lying.
What does it mean to me? It means someday, maybe not in my lifetime or even in the lifetime of my children, we will finally destroy the construct of ‘Race’, when enough of us finally stop relying upon it to divide us or define us.
My humanity, gender and experiences define me. My appearance and gender define me only if it limits me by the decisions or perceptions of others. The perception of others as to my race it is just that perception and assumption, I never self-identify.