What is race?

I read an essay today (RACE IS ABOUT INTERPRETATION, NOT IDENTITY.) which spun up my thinking wheels.  Go read that essay and then come back.  I’ll wait.  Ready?  Did you really read it, or ..?  Ok, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

When I was a little girl, “race” was a simple concept (aren’t all concepts seemingly simpler when you look at them as a child?).  I thought that “white” meant people with pale or fair skin and “black” meant people with darker skin.  Simple, right?  But then I met a Japanese boy, who told me, “I’m not white, dummy, I’m Japanese.”  I was thoroughly confused.  His skin was literally the same color as mine.  How could he not be white just because he was Japanese?  The whole concept of “race” fell apart for me.  If a pale skinned person might not be white, then maybe some darker skinned people might not be black.  How was I supposed to know who was what?  And why did  I even need to?  If it was just an arbitrary designation, then what difference would it make if I got it wrong? But getting it wrong apparently made me a “dummy,” so I needed to get it right.  But how could I get it right if there were no reliable rules?  It was my first indication that “race,” like so many other things in my life had turned out to be,  was just something grownups made up to confuse children.  To be fair, it also confuses grownups, I have found.

Later, as I got older, I began to realize that the “white” people were considered the right kind of people and the people who were not “white” were the people who lived in the bad part of the next town (not in our town).  I understood that my parents were proud of their choice to move to the mostly all-white smaller town rather than the more racially diverse larger town nearby. That didn’t make any sense to me.  The larger town had better schools, a movie theater, lots of things that the smaller town didn’t have. (Pretty sure the smaller town didn’t even have a public library, for god’s sake), but they liked it because there weren’t so many … blacks.

Needless to say, I’ve always had a complicated relationship with “race” as a concept.  I’m pretty sure that I am a  racist, on a deeply subconscious level.  I was raised that way.  I heard the “N word” growing up more than I can count, especially from my cousins who would call me and each other that as the worst insult they could think of.  I never remember saying it myself.  I never remember hearing my mother or either of my sisters say it.  But that was maybe more out of an ingrained need to be polite than an absence of racism.  But, I’ve always been skeptical that such a thing as “race” actually exists.  And in college I learned that the definition of “whiteness” has changed and evolved over the years.  New immigrants are almost always considered “not white.”  Over the course of time, the Irish, the Hungarians, and even the Italians all graduated to “whiteness,” but they had to be here a while first.  In some regions of the country, there are still debates about who gets to be “white” and there also exist hierarchies of “whiteness” (ever heard the term “white trash”?).  But the overarching idea is that “whiteness” is power.  “Whiteness” is privilege.

And “whiteness” is in the eye of the beholder.   As Marissa Jenae Johnson points out in her essay, the cop doesn’t know what race you identify as or what race your parents are when he pulls a gun on you because he has characterized you as “black” and therefore dangerous.   That means that a person with the “wrong” physical characteristics will be labelled by observers to be less worthy than another person whose characteristics are deemed more acceptable, regardless of the fact that said characteristics are surface-level and superficial and have nothing to do with the person’s actual character.

And as I noted above, the characteristics change over time and vary by region.  A person might be considered “white” in one place and “black” somewhere else.  Or maybe they might be considered “white” when on their own, but “black” when seen with their mixed-race family.  It’s achingly subjective.    It’s all subjective, ephemeral, and meaningless, but used to subjugate some lift up others.

We are not talking about genetics here.  To quote from the essay that I have now mentioned a few times, “There are no genetic markers for being Black and people born to one or more Black parents may or may not be born with features that label them as Black to the outside world.”  (bold in original, and I liked it so I kept it.) There have been people in every generation who were able to “pass” as “white,” because they possessed fewer of the superficial traits that are used to judge  “blackness.”  But what would it be like, to be such a person, living their life and being themselves but feeling like a fraud for “hiding” something that is ephemeral and subjective to begin with, and for living in the world of privilege denied to their darker-skinned or kinkier-haired or  more obviously (fill in the blank with some other random “black” trait)  than their family members?

Being perceived and treated as white is protective.  At one point in my life, I had over $500 in unpaid tickets and a warrant out for my arrest for not showing up to pay said tickets, when I got stopped because my license plate had expired.  Now, if I had been a black male in that situation, there’s a non-zero chance that I would have ended up shot to death.  If I had been a black woman, I most likely would have at least been arrested.   Instead, I just got another ticket, to add to the other $500 worth that I hadn’t paid.  (I ended up finally talking to a lawyer and by showing up to court  while white and in a suit, I ended up only paying like a quarter of the tickets and the rest were dismissed.  That is white privilege.)

I don’t have any answers.  I’ve spent most of my life trying to find the right questions to ask.  For instance, how do we get rid of the systemic racism that ties “blackness” to negative traits and causes blacks to be perceived as a threat just for being black?  How do we level the playing field so that all of us get a chance to reach our potential based on how hard we work and not on what we look like.  How do we disrupt the school to prison pipeline? It’s going to take white people caring about the issues and working toward fixing them.  But, we’re going to need black people to show us the way to help or we’re just going to look like supercilious, privileged people trying to assuage our own guilt.

I subscribed to this thing called The Safety Pin Box.  It’s useful information, plus assignments curated by black women.  The proceeds from the #safetypinbox go to help black women entrepreneurs succeed, so it would be worthwhile just for that.  But, you get so much more than just a warm, fuzzy. You get to actually learn new things and grow your own consciousness and do tangible, helpful things that you wouldn’t have thought of doing on your own.  Maybe I haven’t found any answers, but I’m definitely starting to ask the right questions.

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