Let’s Talk About Race

We talk about race constantly with our kids.  We’ve talked about how race is a social construct that helps the dominant group to establish and maintain its boundaries based on perceived cultural or ancestral similarity.  We’ve talked about how the color of an individual’s skin doesn’t always track with their racial identity, and we’ve talked about how race is often performative, and we’ve talked about how race, like gender, is a convenient shorthand for social purposes but isn’t actually real.

But I still wasn’t expecting Númenor– catching a glimpse of How To Get Away With Murder over my shoulder– to come out with one of the hardest questions he’s ever asked.

“What are all the different races?  Can you make a list for me?”

Oh, child.  Oh honey, sweet, baby, child, with your lisp and your first loose tooth.

I know he wants to understand the world.  He wants a logical, discrete system.  He wants it to make sense.  But that’s not the way it is.

There are whole graduate-level seminars on this topic.  There’s no pat answer.  I don’t know how to render my response in small-child vocabulary.

I answered him, because the biggest single responsibility of unschooling is answering questions, but I wanted to think about my answer more, so I’m going to explore it here.

Hold on tight.

  1. Remember that race is a social construct, and as such it is different in every cultural context.  The racial categories in mid-20th-century London and the racial categories in rural Oregon in 2016 are not the same.  If you compared either of them to the racial categories of ancient Rome or late classical Maya, you would find almost no common ground.  The dominant group varies between places and times, and is always defining and redefining itself, and therefore constantly amending and adapting the divisions and stereotypes it practices.
  2. What racial categories an individual person’s brain is socialized to recognize is even more specific and variable than that.  Someone who grew up in a Tongan-American community in Portland might racially distinguish Samoan, Tongan, and Hawaiian people but be unable to distinguish between European origins, whereas someone who grew up in a white suburb of Chicago might lump Tongan, along with Kazakh and Han and Japanese and Maori, into the umbrella racial category of AAPI, but hold Polish people and Irish people in separate racial categories.
  3. Race isn’t idempotent.  In the 19th century, many light-skinned people were legally categorized as racially black in the American South (see the “one-drop rule”), but were able to migrate to states with less stringent legal standards and “become” white.  An individual’s understanding of and identification with different elements of their ancestry may change over time.  Mixed-race is currently the fastest-growing racial identity in the United States, which means an increasing number of people have two or more significant racial backgrounds.
  4. Some racial categories supersede others or rely on a secret code to make sense.  Mixed race people in the US who have significant black ancestry often experience the invisibilization of the rest of their racial background, as do mixed race people who “pass” for white.  The racial category “Hispanic” is a hot mess that cannot be understood unless you hear the racist dogwhistle embedded in it.
  5. Fiction muddies the waters.  American Indian characters have been played by Italian, Latinx, and mixed-race people overwhelmingly more often than they have been played by American Indian people.  American families of color on TV often have a striking and unrealistic similarity in skin color between members– actors are cast “Pantone-matched” between characters’ relationship partners or family members.  Mixed race people are cast to play a variety of races over the course of their careers.

What all of this means is that race could be as varied and as specific as to put practically every individual on earth in their own category, and this would be neither more nor less accurate than the “Mongoloids and Negritoes” system of Thomas Huxley, because race isn’t real.

We can talk about the racial categories I recognize, or the racial categories available on the US census (although their “mixed race” category has, so far, been an othering, invisiblizing sham), but neither of these would be a full and accurate list of all the races people can have.

The fact is that there is no system.  There is no list.  There is no rubric.  It’s all just layer upon layer of euphemism and inspeak, seeking to reduce humans to checkboxes in an effort to control them and practice social grouping.

And just like with gender, you can guess about someone’s identity by looking for their cues, but the only way to know someone’s race for sure is to ask how they identify.