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.

Comments

  • Y08

    If race doesn’t exist, how can there be racism, racial profiling, affirmative action, and all the other social phenomena based on race? Not all of the distinctions the human brain can perceive are based on scientific definitions. Take language, for example – there is no scientific definition for what makes two languages different, but if you go to China and you don’t speak Chinese, you won’t have any doubt that different languages exist.

    Just as with race, the difficulty with defining languages comes from the fact that no language is “pure,” so it is not possible to absolutely define when one language becomes a different language. French is more closely related to English than Chinese, while Cockney English is even closer to standard English, yet most Americans would probably have significant difficulty understanding either one. Where do you draw the line between different languages?

    It seems that this lack of clear definition is the limitation of both “race” and “language” as conceptual categories, yet that doesn’t mean the distinctions they highlight don’t exist. The social impact – historical and modern – of “race” and “language” would exist anyway, solely on the basis of those underlying distinctions, even if we had never used the categories of “race” and “language” to talk about them.

    That being said, I have always identified myself very strongly based on my ethnicity, but very rarely based on my race. I think my various ethnicities are more interesting than my various races, since each one has a country, a language, and a culture to learn about!

  • true

    Amen.

    -a Cape Verdean

  • HDT

    Yo8- I always feel annoyed when people ask questions that could have been answered had they read the article more carefully.

    You ask why racism, racial profiling, etc. exist if race doesn’t exist. Ms. Feldman, however, has answered that question when she discusses how the very idea of race causes us to ascribe meanings to physical appearance that simply aren’t there. A basic psychology course would have taught you both that this is known as stereotyping, and it occurs because the human brain is used to categorizing the world so as to be able to save the time it would take to reprocess information every time we encounter it. This article is a discussion of why this is problematic. It is superficial, overly subjective and unsatisfying, yes, but your question still seems sort of silly to anyone who read the article carefully.

    My problem with this article had more to do with the discussion of genetics. I don’t know a lot about genes, but I do know that there are medical conditions to which some races are more prone than others. I also know that animals of separate species reproduce all the time (yielding, e.g., mules or ligers)–does this mean that there is no genetic basis for species as well? That’s probably a very silly question, but Feldman’s assertion that “Science has at last come to a conclusion which rattles the base of a great deal of human history” just seems so tenuous in the face of the fact that there is so much in the way of genetics that is still up for investigation. I can accept the idea that appearances and race don’t warrant the depth of meaning we ascribe to them, but the science here is so poorly explained, and the rest of the article is based so heavily on the author’s musings about her own identity, that I’m not sure what I can really say I’ve learned from it.

  • BK ’13

    Well, I wouldn’t quite say that race “doesn’t exist” from a scientific perspective. It is a general fact that people of one “race” tend to marry people of the same or a similar “race” and thus the gene pool isn’t always homogenous. Those of African heritage are much more likely to have sickle-cell anemia than others, and Tay-Sach’s disease in Ashkenazi Jews. Just as you can compare the genetic information of different populations of a species of cougar/puma/panther (they’re the same species), so you can with humans. Blood groups in humans are another example of thing that depend on heritage.

    So though some may be quick to cry “stereotyping,” it is true that there are differences between these blurrily defined gene pools. Diseases, blood types, skin color, facial characteristics, hair and eye color, height/build, all depend on these genetics, and often vary greatly from “race” to “race.” Since your ancestors are mainly European, your genes will hail mostly from these gene pool. In other words, you’re white.

    Also, do note that you stereotype by putting race along with social status: white is rich, …

    Also, why is there such a desire to cling to a past to which you are not attached? To be indignant for the sake of your long-gone ancestors? To cry that “you”, your ancestors whom you don’t know, were the victim and not the victor? I know you seem to imply that you are also of Eastern-European Jewish decent (which would also indicate oppression), but is it also not possible that even some of your ancestors were oppressing the others?

    Your answer to your identity crisis lies not in decrying statistical facts about the different gene pools of the human race, but in creating your own identity rather than drawing it from your ancestry.

  • Madas

    Fantastic! If only we were all so enlightened.