There are a few topics that get a rise from me, stirring my thoughts and emotions. One of these is racial issues.
Recently, I read a post from With Some Grace which was inspired by an SBS Insight special, “I’m Not Racist, But…….”. The show, in turn, was most likely prompted by the government’s upcoming National Anti-Racism Strategy, which we are all urged to be a part of.
One focus of the show was the “psychology of racism”, using a Harvard University Implicit Association Test (IAT), to explore “whether humans are all biologically hard-wired to feel threatened by people who look different to them, and are genetically predisposed to want to stick to our own ‘tribe’.”
The post and the show stirred so many thoughts that I’ve ended up blogging these over three posts.
Today, I share my thoughts on the concept of “race”.
In the next post, I will share my opinions on testing for prejudice using the Implicit Association Test (IAT). I will finish with the “nature versus nurture” debate and provide some resources for educating our children about difference and diversity.
I need to state from the outset that I am not an academic expert in any aspect of race or ethnic studies, either from an anthropological, biological or sociological perspective. I purely have a personal interest in the topic due to my own cultural background. I also acknowledge that I write of this from, what might be deemed, a perspective of “white privilege” and I realise those who live with daily prejudice might beg to differ. I welcome your thoughts.
The limits of “race”
The term “race” is normally used to classify people simplistically on skin colour and common physical features. Taken to its extreme, all people should be classified by colour such as “black”, “white, “yellow”, “brown” etc., such as is still done in the Brazilian census to this day. However, in most countries, the colour classification stops at “black” and “white”. Everyone else is then categorised more in line with an ethnic heritage such as Asian, Latino, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, etc.
To me, this inconsistency immediately shows the limits and inaccuracies of this concept. The world is not a dichotomy of black and white but of numerous, dare I say “colours”, in addition to ethnic groupings.
This concept also does not account for cultural and ethnic differences of people within a colour. For example, “blacks” could be of African, Indian, Aboriginal, Caribbean descent, all with differing cultures and heritage. Labeling all of them “black” drags them down to a common denominator of colour that does nothing to extend understanding of the actual people and their rich and diverse cultures and histories.
Racial categories also tend to imply a purity of type; you are one or the other. Mixed-race people, of whom I am one (being both Caucasian and Chinese), do not fit well within this concept. For starters, who determines which race you belong to when you are mixed-race?
If you happen to look more black than white, or Asian than white, where do you fit? Does the “one-drop rule” apply? Is it society’s duty to classify you according to your looks? If so, this leaves no room for those who choose to embrace their diverse heritage such as Tiger Woods who coined the term “Cablinasian” to cover his Caucasian, Black, Indian (native American) and Asian heritage (Thai through his mother).
In any case, how can anyone be 100 percent sure they do not have diverse ethnic heritage way back in their distant ancestry that is now visibly hidden?
Ethnicity over “race”
I believe “race” is a social, not a biological, construct. Studies have found that shared and diverse genetic variation does not strictly follow “racial” lines and that there are a lot of common traits between what might be defined as different “races”.
Personally, I dislike the the term “race”. It immediately conjures an image of division and exclusion in my mind, which I find distasteful. Thankfully, I don’t hear the word much in the Australian vernacular today, although I am not naïve enough to think that this implies the eradication of prejudice (More on this in a later post). Many countries, however, still use this term regularly, collecting race related data in their population census. In contrast, Australia stopped categorising “race” in our census in 1967, choosing instead to focus on ethnic origin.
As with the Australian census, I much prefer to use the concept of “ethnicity” when talking about people of different cultures and backgrounds.
“An ethnic group (or ethnicity) is a group of people whose members identify with each other, through a common heritage, often consisting of a common language, a common culture (often including a shared religion)…”
(Source: “Ethnic group”, Wikipedia)
I believe it is more inclusive and more accurate than colourising people. It allows for an acknowledgement of diversity and I truly believe with acknowledgement, a door is open to greater understanding, which is the pathway toward respect and acceptance.
For my part, I have chosen to identify as multi-ethnic, specifically “Eurasian”, a term I adopted from my youth in Singapore. I embrace the opportunity to complete the Australian census and acknowledge all the ancestries that make me who I am. In fact, I see it as a privilege because not all countries provide this opportunity and some, like the USA, have only recently introduced it.
Nationality vs Heritage
In raising the issue of the national census, I have to address one additional gripe specifically about nationality.
I have often heard people use the term “Australian” to imply “white” and I have a problem with that.
I only ever use the term “Australian” when discussing my nationality or citizenship. Otherwise, if people ask about my ethnic background, I answer “Chinese and Caucasian” or specifically, as far as I have researched the origins of my ancestry, “Chinese, Irish and Cornish/English”.
Anyone can be a Australian whether by birth or naturalised, regardless of their ethnic and cultural heritage. Never was it better articulated than by Bruce Woodley of The Seekers and Dobe Newton of The Bushwackers.
“We are one, but we are many
And from all the lands on earth we come
We share a dream and sing with one voice:
I am, you are, we are Australian”
Next week, I will share my thoughts on testing prejudice. Is it really possible?
What are your thoughts on the concept of race and racism? Is it something you have experienced? Do you speak to your children and friends about it?
RACE: The Power of an Illusion from PBS.org