Hearn Feldman: Colors of self-identification

I shopped a molecular anthropology class, and though I’m not taking it, one moment of that class stands out to me more clearly than any other from shopping period. The professor said a sentence that, strangely, our world still seems incapable of comprehending: “Race doesn’t exist.”

“What do you mean?” A student at the back called through the suddenly heightened silence of the room.

“There is no genetic definition for race.”

Science has at last come to a conclusion which rattles the base of a great deal of human history.

Though I am not a scientifically-minded person, I’ve been trying to explain my firm belief in the non-existence of race for years now.

Race has been a large part of my life, but in a different way than for most people who say that. I’m white, or, I look white. My ancestors hail mostly from Europe and the Baltic, but some of them are from China, others from Africa. I’ve grown up with my darker-skinned mother telling me stories about our slave ancestors. I’ve been raised sharply aware of the fact that, had I been born in different eras, I would be a slave, or in a concentration camp.

And so, the brand-name of “white” has never seemed right to me.

As a middle and high school student in schools where racial identity was important, I yearned for solidarity with others whose heritage was something like mine. I only got such solidarity for one facet of that past: the European one. Among so many who were defined by their racial inheritance, who paraded their past by their skin, I felt alone.

My light skin frustrated me, because it didn’t give me the physical manifestation of my full history, or, not one that others recognized. I’ve always felt the need to justify myself, to explain that I don’t come from a comfortable, colonial, background. I’ve always felt the need to prove that I have an identity I can be proud of. I yearn for an identity that is prominent on my skin.

But really, the whole range of brand-named, so-called races seem wrong to me.

Genetics cause us to look different from each other. Hair, eyes, noses, skin. But there are no genetic lines, there is no genetic “purity” of look, of “race.” My genetic code is not divided against itself. There is nothing inconsistent in the so-called mixing of ethnic heritage within me. My genes are just as consistent and unified as are those of someone who can track their ancestry back to King Henry VIII with only Englishmen all the way.

So why, I ask myself, did I spend so much of my life feeling as though I have to explain myself? Feeling as though I’ve somehow been denied an identity because no one ever guesses at my multi-faceted ancestral pool?

We as a species have taken physical appearances and manifested them as a far more fundamental concept. In order to have an identity, and self-awareness, we must know where our ancestors are from, what they went through. We must feel the guilt of their misdeeds, pride at their strength.

Because that is so much easier. By looking at another’s skin, we automatically guess their heritage, and there lies the trouble of race: we forget that it is not a rule, that skin color isn’t an identity in itself. Skin color ties us to culture, a cultural understanding. Skin color manifests a set of ideas. It would be too time consuming, tiring, emotional, to go into our heritages with each other. So we settles for assumptions. It makes life simpler, but it makes the very nature of self-identification constricting.

Timmia Hearn Feldman is a sophomore in Morse College.

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