As a nation of many peoples, we have long struggled with questions about our national and cultural identity—a struggle brought into sharp relief by laws recently passed in the Arizona legislature. The reality is that, both as a nation and as individuals, we have many confusing and conflicting identities.
Race, racism, bigotry — I hear these words with increased frequency. Surely, having what many call America’s first black president would kindle this national discussion. So would the shifting demographics of the U.S., where the largest minority — 15.5% — is now Hispanic and, most recently, 55% of the total growth in the U.S. population.
Please consider these stats for a moment.
- 35% of all Americans are minorities. Just 10 years ago only 17% of the total U.S population was a minority.
- This growth will only continue: 48.3% of the children under age five belong to minorities.
Times are changing, and with it so must our world-views.
Which brings me to the point of my blog post — what is racism? I have friends that support the more traditional definition — that racism is “the prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races.” I also have colleagues that argue that any factor dependent on race, including affirmative action, is racist.
So let’s first discuss — what is race? The interested community that edits the Wikipedia article on Race defines it as “the classification of humans into populations or groups based on various factors such as culture, social practice or heritable characteristics.” But reading through the article we see the arguments begin: if racial groupings change over time, how meaningful are they? If a genetically white person can have black skin color, how telling is either? Even in anthropology, race does not represent any type of subspecies and thus not an official taxonomy. All humans belong to the same subspecies — Homo sapiens sapiens — so why even use the word race?
To me race is a social construct that says far more about the people using the term and far less about the people it is supposed to be describing. Race is a shortcut to define someone based on the color of their skin. Race is a way to place borders and limits around a culture. Race is a way of categorizing the relative dominance of one group of humans over another, whether it is categorizing to ensure equality, or categorizing to target hatred. In other words, race is racism. To get rid of racism, stop treating race as a meaningful way to group other humans.
I consider this concept based on my own family history. Physically, I look as Caucasian as they can be — white, pale skin, freckles, red-hair. But genetically it is more complex. I am one half Hungarian going back as far as my dad’s family can recall, and one half Uruguayan, which my mom’s family traces its ancestry to northern Spain only 4 generations ago. Interestingly, my mother’s maiden name is from Arabic meaning “the governor or commander of a Spanish or Portuguese fortress or prison.”
Am I Hispanic? Am I Hungarian? Am I American? What checkbox do I mark and based on what conditions — looks, DNA, birthplace, or culture?
I think the Admiral of the Battlestar Galactica says it best — “there is only one race, and that is the human race.”