I sit amid the clamor of a Monday afternoon in Blue State Coffee, bleary-eyed and ferociously highlighting my dog-eared copy of David Roediger’s “The Wages of Whiteness.” My friend sits across from me, gaze unmoving, head cocked to the right — an angling I have come to recognize as a sign that he is lost in a sea of thought.
I pause my music and look at him, eyebrows raised.
“If we can accept identifying as a different gender,” he starts off slowly, carefully selecting each word as it comes out of his mouth, “then why haven’t we accepted identifying as a different race?”
Usually quick with a snappy, sarcastic response, I am, for once, at a loss for words.
According to Barbara Fields GRD ’78 in “Ideology and Race in American History,” we have made the incorrect “assumption that race is an observable physical fact, a thing, rather than a notion that is profoundly and in its very essence ideological.” University of Kansas Professor Roediger agrees, arguing in the beginning of his critique that “race is created wholly ideologically and historically.”
To clarify, just as sex and gender are distinct entities, race and ethnicity are not synonymous with each other. While they obviously can overlap, race is defined primarily by biology and ethnicity by culture. According to Princeton sociology professor Dalton Conley in a PBS interview, the core difference between the two is that race is crafted and socially imposed. It is not within any individual’s control; it is, rather, associated with how others perceive you.
In a similar manner, transraciality and transethnicity often go hand in hand, but can ultimately be separated into different fundamental discomforts. Transraciality reflects being physically uncomfortable in or disassociated with the skin you were born possessing. It is, for example, being an adopted Korean baby living in Italy and feeling, by all means and metrics, like a white Italian in both race and ethnicity.
But if race is ideological, then why are we unable to move on from defining our society by the color of our skin? Just as gender has come to be, can race one day also be accepted as a fluid genre of identity?
The idea unsettled me, stirring a discomfort in the pit of my stomach and a heaviness in my chest. As the daughter of a German-American father and a Chinese mother, born and raised in Hong Kong, race has always been something with which I have contended. Physically, I look like what I am — my father’s blonde hair and blue eyes swirled together with my mother’s the jet black hair and almond eyes. Ideologically, however, I have constructed a different story.
In my heart, I am irrevocably and unapologetically Chinese. I mutter annoyances in Cantonese. I do math and memorize numbers in Mandarin, and can cook in my sleep the dishes I grew up eating. I am Chinese to the point where, sitting in my “The Shadow of White Slavery” seminar one day, I was jolted with the realization that I had completely forgotten I am half white.
Yet, even with the insane diversity of our world, I have never been in a place that comfortably accepts my sense of being Chinese. No place I have gone has been able to easily digest the correlation between my exterior and how I feel internally. Rather, people have the tendency of assigning me a label that, regardless of my efforts, cannot be rewritten.
To put my disillusionment bluntly, people in Asia see my Caucasian descent, and people in the West see my Asian one. My two halves project themselves loudly to opposite sides, one overpowering the other by virtue of its otherness.
On campus, my off-handed comments about being Chinese are always met with curious glances and tilted heads. Yet unlike the whiteness I have chosen to ignore, my Chinese-ness is an inextricable element of my identity — a knot tied to my essence so tightly that nothing could possibly untie it. This inevitably leaves me to wonder if the world has a place for someone like me: if the world is ready to be postracial enough to accept that despite what my features point to, I am, without an inkling of doubt, Chinese.
Accepting race as a subjective construction is nothing new. In 1950, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization stated that race, hitherto believed to be a scientific entity, was, in fact, a myth. The organization pointed out that the metrics by which we determine race can be boiled down to a series of socially constructed conventions, histories, cultures and physical characteristics that we have used to delineate a difference between peoples.
Actual practice, however, has been slow to catch up.
Zulfiqar Mannan ’20, a staff reporter for the News, warns, “It’s dangerous to equate extreme poststructuralism in a world for thought experiments that don’t allow that poststructuralist freedom in equity.”
In the past few years, our world, and especially the Yale campus, has grown comfortable with the idea of gender fluidity — that gender is a spectrum and, as a species, our placement on the spectrum is flexible. At Yale, gender has transitioned from being something inborn, unchangeable and unambiguous to something each individual has say over. Our campus hallways are lined with gender-neutral bathrooms, during ice breakers we begin with a declaration of our preferred pronouns — two things that would have seemed absolutely unimaginable a few years ago. We’re moving into a world that increasingly upholds subjectivity and personal emotion as a means of deciding who and what is socially acceptable.
But this increasing acceptance of gender diversity has not simultaneously translated to an acceptance of the fluidity of racial identity. Theoretically, an increasing acceptance of transraciality should not only be part of this reimagining and reconstructing of barriers, but also a puzzle piece in the natural trajectory of globalization. As more people are born with multiracial and multicultural backgrounds, feeling as though you cannot be constrained by one culture, nationality or race should become more and more prevalent.
According to William Robertson Coe Professor of American Studies and History Matthew Jacobson’s book, “Whiteness of a Different Color,” “as races are invented categories — designations coined for the sake of grouping and separating peoples along lines of presumed difference — Caucasians are made and not born.”
Race, therefore, is an idea that we, as a society, have built and imbued with meaning over time. With this in mind, I have never understood how we have allowed something as arbitrary as the tone of skin — one that we are born with — to hold such power over us. We have given something completely nonsensical the authority to divide our society, to dictate our status in the world and characterize our feelings towards others. We have given something as benign as color the power to forcibly dictate our sense of culture and our sense of self.
Sam Brakarsh ’21 argued that how you define identity and what factors come together to formulate identity lie in the root of this debate. In a world where genetic roots are becoming more diverse every day, biological traits are only the tip of one’s identity.
The debate of nature versus nurture is well known. Brakarsh pushes forth that nurture serves as the more significant benchmark: The normalization within which you are brought up defines the lens through which you view yourself and the world.
“I am a believer that identity is formulated by external stimulus and cultural influences,” Brakarsh explained to me. “It is not a dichotomy or a binary. Humans are inherently paradoxical and imperialistic, so if identity is viewed as the core of someone, their identity is just as much cultural as it is genetic.”
In 2015, President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapter in Spokane, Washington, Rachel Dolezal was forced to resign after having lied about being of African American descent. That same summer, at the age of 65, Caitlyn Jenner came out as transgender, and the world celebrated her for her courage.
As University of California, Los Angeles, sociology professor Robert Brubaker points out in “Trans: Gender and Race in an Age of Unsettled Identities,” why did the world accept Jenner’s self-proclamation as a woman but reject Dolezal’s seemingly equally legitimate claim of being black? Theoretically, just as Jenner felt her entire life that she was born the wrong gender, Dolezal’s identity is grounded in her innate sense of self.
According to Brubaker, “We are chronically and continuously remaking who we are.”
Yet, we cannot accept when the person trying to remake themselves has to cross racial boundaries to do so. Our society has a gender spectrum but no racial one. You do not have the freedom to select who you are. That part is dictated from the moment of your birth by your ancestry, lineage and the color of your parents’ skin. Brubaker concludes that the world could not accept Dolezal because it regarded her as a liar, committing racial theft, yet that same society applauded Jenner for having the courage to be her truest self.
We cannot accept that Dolezal is, as her teacher said, “a white woman with a black soul.” We frown at the Chinese boy from Hong Kong who takes up Arabic, changes his name and moves to Dubai. We adopt babies from across the world and then imprint them with a sense of their own foreignness while asking them to assimilate into our own society.
We reject the idea that someone with my physical features can call themselves Chinese.
My hope is that we can one day move into a postracial society where the metaphysical barriers between humans are not governed by the color of someone’s skin; where someone’s character and personality and values are not associated with their skin tone; where identifying as yourself does not come prepackaged and prelabeled with precisely who you are meant to be.
Hana Davis | firstname.lastname@example.org