August 8th, 2007

International Blog Against Racism Week

IBARW: (Almost) all of the conventional race labels are dumb.

Another post I should have made earlier!

As the subject says, (almost) all of the conventional race labels are dumb. "White"? Paper is white. People of European descent—which in contemporary American discourse, and probably elsewhere too (international folks?), is what "white" really means—are pink or olive or light brown. [*] "Black"? Likewise not an accurate color description. I've known people who self-identified as "black" who had skin lighter than me.

And more: since white is, as we were all taught in elementary school, the absence of color, it implies that color and therefore race is something only other people have (from the point of view of the dominant "white" population, which is after all the one that matters. </sarcasm>). And "black" and "white" are thought of as opposites, which unfortunately has been made true in a lot of ways when it comes to people, not paint chips, but is still a rotten implication.

[*] I know some people use "pink," which I rather like, but I think that it wouldn't be quite accurate for a lot of people with ancestors in southern Europe, along the Mediterranean, who in current discourse count as "white."

"[Location]-American/British" (etc.) is an identity statement that's not universally true. (An unhyphenated "Asian," unless the person is literally living in Asia, is worse, because it only acknowledges foreignness.) "Native American" is apparently only used by outsiders, and "native" has (to me at least) a faint connotation of "primitive." "Latino/a" and "Hispanic," those are my "almost": I'm ignorant and all I know about them is that people outside those groups tend to get them horribly confused, and perhaps there's also variant usage within the groups; I don't know if they have any negative implications. If anyone with knowledge would care to comment or to point me to useful sources, I would appreciate it.

As for group labels: "People of color" or "non-whites"? Same problem as "white." "Racial minority"? Err, only in limited contexts. Asia alone has 60% of the world's population.

What these labels actually mean, in the ways I hear them used, is, "this is where this person's ancestors came from far enough back that almost all of the people around them looked basically like them, or just where their ancestor (singular) came from if we can tell that the ancestor was from Africa and we're in America and maybe some other places too." So, as I already said, "white" people are really people of European descent; "Asians" are really people of Asian descent; "black" people are really people of (some) African descent; and so forth.

And yet, you will notice that rarely in all this week's discussions have I said, "people of European descent," or "people of African descent," or "people of Asian descent." I've tried, where I thought that level of precision would be helpful, but you know what? The phrases are just too cumbersome in ordinary language.

So I find myself, reluctantly, using "white" and so forth. I don't want to, and I wish there were something better. But at least when I use these terms, I'm aware of some of the implications in them and try to keep those implications from influencing my thoughts.

I'm sure I've missed something, besides my ignorance on "Latino/a" and "Hispanic": tell me!

International Blog Against Racism Week

IBARW: Don't ask me my nationality.

This is an American-only post, as I understand that "nationality" has different connotations in different countries. For the general version, which I fully agree with, see karaadora's post, "Where are you from?" "London" "No, where are you FROM?": why this annoys me and other stories. (Also, Supernatural fans, there is a link to a picture of her with Jensen Ackles.)

It is also part of a set with the previous post.

Dear fellow Americans:

Please stop asking me my nationality, or referring to other people of my nationality. Here in the United States, "nationality" refers to your country of citizenship. (See, news discussions about "foreign nationals.")

When you ask me my nationality, or tell me (in a very well-meaning way) that "other people of my nationality" have been having trouble finding glasses that fit because of the way our faces are shaped, you are assuming that I am foreign. That I am not, in fact, American. And since this is a long-standing stereotype about people of Asian descent, that we are foreigners, you are perpetuating a stereotype. You probably don't know that you're doing it, but it pisses me off. And now you know. So don't do it.

What you really want to know is where my ancestors came from far enough back that everyone around them had yellow skin. I'll accept, "what's your ancestry" or "ethnicity", though I have to say, why do you want to know? I don't go up to random people of European descent and ask them what country their ancestors came from.

Oh, and the same goes for showing off your knowledge of some Asian language by greeting me in it. Do I greet you, a perfect stranger, by saying "Ciao"? No. I know you think you're being polite and respectful. But you're not. And now you know. So don't do it.


An American

(Chad does this nicely when asked, with perfect reason, if we're going to Japan because I have family there: "Kate was born in Korea, but she's from Boston." Which I will try to adapt, except that I would substitute "Massachusetts.")

(I say "try" because, for all that I am ranting here, it's really hard to come out and say this when someone does it in person. I'm working on it, though.)

(Also, on ranting: I'm doing this here, and somewhat in the last one too, because this isn't directed at anyone specifically, and because it does make me angry, and anger has its place—as does being polite. oyceter has a good post on this.)