Just got off Skype, being in a live discussion on BBC World radio on the topic of ethnicity as a choice. The topic was raised because of the controversy over the race of the head of an NAACP chapter, and someone across the pond came across my article “Ethnicity is a Choice” from four years ago. The other guest was an African-American Studies professor, born of one “Black” and one “White” parent, who chooses to self-identify as “Black”, which she explained was based heavily on how other’s perceived her. There was much common ground, namely in realizing that ethnic identity isn’t rigidly genetic, but assertions that people self-identify versus strict social distinctions was not. I countered that such labels are amorphous and ever-changing (silently being aware it may not feel that way to many).
I argued that people self-identify all the time — a comment the radio host understandably laughed at. My explanation included examples of adoption, living in a neighborhood of a different culture, and that we all self-identify on the census, just as with religion. If you choose to see yourself as a Jedi, it’s your choice. In fact, the count of such people rank between Jewish and Pagan in Great Britain’s census. People ignore the guy dressed as Obi-Wan on the weekend, but someone who didn’t grow up a particular ethnicity who wants to be a leader in a self-advocacy group based on it is going to have trouble. So if I had time in such a short piece, I would have demonstrated fully that most people self-identify in one way or another, but it does not seem so because it is rarely questioned.
Well, strike that. Not only is ethnic self-identification everywhere, it is a hard reality for countless people of “mixed parentage” where both ethnic groups shun them for not belonging. The can’t get past the bouncer at either door. My Native-American-slash-German stepbrothers are a perfect example. And sometimes it’s a win-win. Both “Asians” and “Blacks” claim Tiger Woods as “one of their own”. On a less coloured note, my daughter is mostly Polish by “percent” but sees herself as mostly Irish — as is the neighborhood she grew up in. She’s also Jewish by birthright, but has no interest in that part of her heritage (at this point in life, at least).
Not so laughable when you break it down, is it?
However, I am not deluded to the fact that being “African-American” is intimately tied with the “Black Experience” — one that has been dictated directly and indirectly for too long by “White” society. But many wo are seen as African-Americans have had no such experience, and some “outsiders” actually have. Americans who are first-generation from Africa are shunned, and yet they — and dark-skinned people from other parts of the world — are all treated similarly by social convention. But why should we accept any of this just because it is currently so?
That is my biggest fear — accepting the judgments of a larger society as to dictate one’s ethnicity is a huge step back. It is the sinews of racism, even when imposed from within a group. Many are scolded for not being “Black (or insert other ethnicity here) enough”. Many of these divisive conventions have been internalized from generations of oppression, just as many allow themselves to (and self-identify with) their personal traumas.
What Would I Do?
For the record, I do not believe in deception. If one self-identifies (which I argue we all do, intentionally or not), they should be honest about what that means. If I would have been asked to be president of my college’s Black Student Union or Latin-American Student Organization (both of which I was a member, by the way), I would have turned it down. I would not consider myself worthy of representing either ethnic experience, and not want to cause confusion, suspicion, and be even unwillingly complicit in the derision of others toward myself and my friends — my “people” in a deeper-than-skin sense.
Did I consider myself “Black” or “Latino”? No but I did not consider myself NOT those things. Any ethnic culture and history is part of American and World history and culture. All heritage is Human heritage, and I am a Human. We deny ourselves a larger identity for fear of losing our specific identity. I am not any less Polish for embracing Chinese culture to the point I wore a Darn Jian and red outfit with frog buttons at my own wedding. I am not less Catholic or Taoist because I am a regular volunteer and parochial friend at the local Greek-Orthodox festival.
I would not choose as the controversial woman had. But I am not in her shoes. And apart from contextual honesty and intention, it’s not my place to judge. If we want to impose limits on ethnic identity, what shall we choose? The quadroon, which serves race activist and bigot alike? Should we echo 1930s Germany to make sure people “know their place”? Is it really any better if people already under a label make such rules who must wait outside?
Ultimately this isn’t choice about how to define ethnicity, but who gets to do so. As I said in my original article, who we are individually helps collectively define the ethnicity itself. That’s why it’s ever-changing (and often confusing). But if we do not choose, the choice WILL be made by others. So make it a good one.