I don’t use Twitter much anymore, but now that I have more flexibility with my time, I was curious to revisit it. The immediacy with which we communicate and respond today is still pretty wild to me (Joyce Carol Oates’ quick response to a Jurassic World photo being the most recent, as well as how unforgiving the social media universe has been about her misread of the image.)
This morning, in the trending bar, I noticed a new hashtag #wrongskin. Curious, I read through some of the tweets. Godfrey Elfwick identifies as black, but is biologically white has started a virtual storm of backlash from visibly black respondents. His tweet about being “transracial” and standing by a white professor passing as black at Spokane is troubling. The written responses pure vitriol. I don’t deny that race is an ingrained way that we define people, and that there are an unbelievable set of bias related not only to looks but behavior that go along with that. It’s unbelievable that a professor would try to “pass” at a University. The fact that it’s a classification standard we still employ in the 21st Century is troubling to me. The worst part about it is that, even if we to abolish it, I see it reinforced daily in how we speak and engage in the world.
What measures do we use to define race? The first would be what a person looks like. It’s hard for me to even write that statement, because it seems so abhorrent to think that way. Look at the history of eugenics or the U.S. policy towards Native Americans enacted in the Dawes Act: an establish criteria for inheritance based on how “Indian” a person looked, with government agents lining people up to make that decision. Race can’t be that simple. Another assumption would be to look at bloodline, or DNA. I won’t go into detail regarding the history of eugenics (see Nazi Germany and the rankings of people based on bloodlines) in order to explain the extreme. But even on a less dire scale, this can be problematic. I remember reading about a Chinese American basketball team at a local YMCA. How do you define who is eligible to play? Immigrants, first generation children of immigrant parents, second- or third- generation Chinese Americans…but what about children who have only one Chinese parent, or grandparent? Chinese children adopted by white couples? Taiwanese? Children who have grown up in the Chinese community, but are not ethnic Chinese? Genetic definitions of race become problematic because when we say “Chinese” or “Black” or “Indian”, we don’t just mean color, we mean culture.
When we talk about culture, we talk about lived experience and we talk about an understanding (or at least a knowledge) of history related to that culture. Cultural traditions and beliefs are important, as they symbolize, explain, and pass on an understanding of cultural experience. This again can be a problematic criteria to agree on. A child born into a clearly defined cultural experience is easily defined this way, but an adopted child, a victim of a diaspora, a second-generation offspring, all may take on a cultural identity not clearly defined by looks or genetics alone. Cultural identity isn’t always accepted fully, we often accept the parts we understand, identify with, embody. To say that all people of a certain culture are all the same in practice, behavior, beliefs would be a horribly simplistic reduction, and deny the diversity within a cultural group.
The term “culture” is something we bandy around constantly, when we talk not only about religious or national identity, but identities that appear to enable more of a choice: gangs, gamers, television series fans, fashion bloggers, etc. Any identity requires a loose set of rules to be respected in order to participate in it. A visual is helpful, but not necessary. A visual you aren’t born with, one that is easy to change out of, allows for what I have observed as an acceptable change in identity. Culture and race are bound together in the U.S. But identity is complicated: you can be Filipino-American, a geek, and a fashionista. The rules overlap, sometimes are at odds, and are often re-negotiated. Such is the nature of identity. Some aspects of this you are born with, some you choose, most you negotiate with yourself and your chosen social group. This diversity and individuality is what we should pride ourselves on, not use as a stratification of groups on a socio-economic ladder.
To get back to #wrongskin: I don’t know the individuals situation (and I fully understand that the brevity of Twitter won’t give me much insight). I would argue that to identify with a marginalized group is complicated: it’s unfair to have an easy way out if the situation gets too “real” (via the color of your skin) or to choose based on a limited knowledge of what that lived experience is actually like vs. what the media presents it as. I would say, though, that re-iterating difference in order to exclude, drawing distinct lines of difference, only reinforces the idea that race is an important standard to segregate people by. We’ve used race and culture to define what people get, which is the worst part: land, scholarships, jobs, promotions, fair treatment. We love to think of an ideal where there is equality based on an individual’s experience, knowledge, expertise, personality; the reality is that assumptions have created and law has enacted an inequality. If we want to truly get past race as a standard, we need to respect that these differences exist, but not reinforce that they define a social strata, especially through our language.