“I’m not racist, but…..” – The Terminology of Difference

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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.

Disclaimer

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”

(Source: Song: “I am Australian”; Lyrics)

**********

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?

Further resources:

RACE: The Power of an Illusion from PBS.org

RACE: Are We So Different? A Project of the American Anthropological Association

Related Posts

“I’m not racist, but…..” – Let’s test your prejudice

“I’m not racist, but…..” – Nature or Nurture?

Will my children look like me?

Mistaken Identity

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21 thoughts on ““I’m not racist, but…..” – The Terminology of Difference

  1. This is a very well researched and thoughtfully put together post. I honestly don’t think much about ethnicity in daily life. People are just friends, neighbours etc but I guess not everyone has the same perspective.

    • Thanks, Misha. I guess I am more sensitive to ethnicity. Maybe it’s because I’ve worked in an extremely diverse working environment with many international colleagues for a long time. This is in addition to my own personal experiences. I don’t see anything wrong with being aware as long as we treat all people with equally with respect.

  2. Very well thought-out and stated. It is a very complicated subject. Someday maybe it will be very simple and people will just be people. As far as prejudice goes this was my somewhat toungue in cheek blog on that subject:

    joeh-crankyoldman.blogspot.com/2011/11/are-you-prejudiced.html

    Cranky Old Man (I am a Euro-american)

    • Thanks, Joe. Tongue in cheek or not, your post touched on examples that could reveal prejudice. It is a really complicated subject. The issues and nuances also differ between countries too. I too think we all have some prejudice. I mean if we just talk about it in terms of stereotypes, it becomes a little more obvious. Sometimes we are conditioned without knowing it. That’s why I think it helps to explore and talk about the issue.

  3. Interesting thoughts. You see, I never had a problem with the term “race” but on the flip side, I hardly use the term “Australian” but will describe myself as “Indo-Australian”
    But after reading this, I’m understanding the importance in using the term “ethnicity”. It seems to sit better with me after having a think about it. And I guess using “multi-ethnic” is going to be more relevant in our household than anything else.

    • It’s fascinating seeing different perspectives, Grace. Multi-ethnic is apt. Multicultural too. I still think one of the interesting things in time to come will be how your sons and my daughters choose to identify themselves and how others identify them. Their generation may not experience what past ones have. Either way, we are there to help and guide them.

  4. So much to think about. I do discuss it will my girls (6 & 8), but race, ethnicity, colour don’t matter to them. They just believe everyone is perfect because God made them how he thought they should be. Such an innocent and lovely way for them to view the world. Rachel x

    • Thanks for sharing, Rachel. That is a beautiful way to view people especially from so young an age. I’m trying to make sure my pre-schooler tries to appreciate people the same way.

  5. You’ve tackled complex subjects very well. It’s interesting that “race” is not really used where you are as much because here in the states that word is everywhere. “Ethnic” is not a commonly-used word in comparison. It’s also interesting that many people correspond “Australian” with white. I think there’s some of that here, too, where people (especially non-Americans) view them as white, too. I know that when I’m traveling overseas, people don’t see as American even though it is my citizenship, because I look Asian.

    • Thanks, Maria. It is so complicated and I know I am no expert.

      I did find it interesting about the use of “race” in the US compared to Australia. I’ve heard and read quite a bit from a US perspective because it is a more prevalent social topic than it is here. It doesn’t mean we don’t have issues to deal with, but we don’t talk about it as much in the community. Maybe it is more of an obvious issue in some communities that are very diverse. I know there were issues when some African refugees were settled in some more regional/rural communities a while back.

      In the UK, for contrast, “Asian” tends to refer to Indian or what we might call “South Asian”. Chinese people are usually called “Oriental”.

      As to not being taken for American whilst travelling, I can imagine that happens in Asian countries but has it happened in non-Asian countries too?

  6. Love your thoroughness, Veronica. Definitions are good. So many misconceptions and misunderstandings arise from ignorance. So thank you for a very educational and informative post! I sometimes struggle with what word to use when I’m genuinely interested in someone’s background and don’t know if they will be offended if I say “what heritage do you have?” or “what is your ethnic background?”… I’m not trying to label, just really interested in history and culture and heritage. And I ask it of anyone (that I know well enough) regardless of their skin colour.

    • Thanks, Deb. I’ve read a fair bit about this because it is of such interest to me. I have even thought of studying the topic before.

      It is a tricky thing to know if you can or should ask someone about their background or not. I do know some people hate being asked. In my experience, everyone takes it differently. I don’t mind people asking me about my background (I guess I’m used to it) but I answer differently depending on how someone asks. I can’t say what it is that makes me answer differently. It’s a gut thing.

  7. Brilliant, thought-provoking and I can’t wait for the next two instalments, Veronica. Sometimes I wonder if the only people who spend time considering the ‘race’ issue are people who identify as being ‘other’. I say that as someone who married a ‘wog’ (his preference) and have really had to give more thought to culture and diversity ever since. x

    • Thanks, Bron. You might be onto something there. Some of the material I have read that I will broadly refer to in my last post mentions how of African American children tend to be more aware of racial issues and initially more accepting of difference than white children (hate using “white”! – anyway). Some suggest this is because African American families choose to discuss the issue more because they face more challenges earlier due to their race. I find it really interesting. I just can’t locate much research or studies in the Australian context. Much more in the US and some from the UK.

  8. Pingback: “I’m not racist, but…..” – Let’s test your prejudice « Mixed Gems

  9. Pingback: “I’m not racist, but…..” – Nature or Nurture? « Mixed Gems

  10. Can’t add much more to what you have said. you have said it so brilliantly. I too say to people im australian but I have a lebanese background. I’m Australian first and the rest I see it as a bonus being lebanese and muslim.You can’t place lebanese into colours anyways. My husband is white I’m a light brown colour and he was born in lebanon. Its hard to categorise people by colour.

  11. I did write a response to this. Must of got lost in the WWW. I do like Brons response in how people who do think they are an “other” think about it more. I know I do and I am more accepting of other cultural backgrounds. I also agree with you on all your points. My husband is white but born in Lebanon. I’m brown but born here in Australia. I see my self first as Australian. When people ask what nationality am I, I say I’m Australian with a Lebanese background.

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