Race, ethnicity, diversity - the saga continues

On Monday, I posted two parts to my ethnic story as a white person in the US, and they prompted a variety of comments. Rather than respond in the comments, I thought I'd write another post.

First, I want to thank the people who took up the challenge to write their own stories. DH, grad student, Eric Lund added their stories to the comments, Academic wrote about hers on her blog, as did Ginger Peach, and Makita. Sciencebloggers took up talking about race/ethnicity/diversity and science too including ScienceWoman, razib, Janet, Greg, DrugMonkey, and Maria, and anyone else I missed. If you're still interested in posting as well, do leave us a link in the comments.

So, y'all, thanks.

Next, there was some confusion over what I was trying to do with telling my ethnic story. Please realize that I greatly appreciate your comments, even if I seem to get particularly critical of your comments. :-)

Brigindo made a comment that what I was doing was talking more about ethnicity than about race. Well, that's true - I did title my post my "ethnic" story. Brigindo goes on to say,

"Telling the tale of White ethnicity is great but it doesn't really get at the race issue. Instead I think having White people discuss how being a White person in America has effected their life would be far more helpful."

Brigindo, I agree. But perhaps, as you've seen from the comments here too, you'll also agree that a lot of white people don't even *know* how their race has affected their lives in the US. They think of their experiences as normal or universal experiences, and it's just all those "other" people who keep bringing race into what could be understood as just "human" experiences. They don't realize that having people who look like them in respected positions in society or trusting that the police will come save them if someone breaks into their home, or having food they want to buy available in every supermarket, or etc.etc.etc. IS a part of being white in the US. They don't even realize that not ever thinking about their race is part of what it means to be white.

I think I also need to say to white folks that, if you think you've never benefitted from white privilege, you need to go through Peggy McIntosh's list and see if you still think so at the end of the list.

However, the comment is also about the difference between race and ethnicity. Here's a few opinions on the subject, and a chunk that I find particularly helpful from David Freund:

The most important differences, at least in much of U.S. history, lie in the ways that dominant powerful institutions treat race versus ethnicity. So while one could argue that both ethnicity and race are socially constructed, their influence in terms of power and inequality is in the way that racial identities have been constructed historically. One could argue that they're both illusory and imagined. But racial categories have had a much more concrete impact on peoples' lives, because they've been used to discriminate and to distribute resources unequally and set up different standards for protection under law. Both public policy and private institutional and communal actions have created inequalities based on race. To be sure, groups defined as "ethnically" different have been discriminated against in the U.S. too, but not in ways that had nearly as dramatic an impact. Indeed, those "ethnic" groups that suffered from severe discrimination were usually labeled, at the time, as "racial" groups as well. Consider the history of discrimination against the Irish, Italians, and Jews, for example.

People commonly make these distinctions between race and ethnicity as being biological, or cultural, or based on national origins and things like that. But it's really important to remember two things. First, both ethnic and racial identities have changed a lot throughout history. And second, there's very little evidence that people actually see great distinctions between race and ethnicity culturally, politically, and in daily life. In fact, there is a history of racial self-identification in this country that is very similar to that of ethnic self-identification.

Let me also add as a sidebar to anyone wondering that there is no biological basis to differentiating different "races" - that the genetic variation "within races" is at least as much as that "across races." The only meaningful biological connection to race is the idea of phenotypes. Race is a SOCIAL classification that changes over time.

DrugMonkey, PropterDoc, and stepwise girl were confused by my story.

Drugmonkey said:

But what you seem to be doing here is encouraging the sort of thing that makes Zuska go bonkers when observed in her comments. It seems as though you are trying to get people to say "yeah but I'm not really part of white privilege because I'm descended from X, Y or Z group of phenotypic "whites" that experienced discrimination".

. DM, I am not in the slightest trying to say I'm not a part of and benefit from white privilege. In fact, I said:

So even though I looked white, and benefited from being white (note not a lot of articulated racial discrimination in my story, note a lot of associated class-related benefits in terms of education in my story), I have a different heritage of whiteness. My story is not that of the Civil War, or of racial segregation in schools per se, but one of immigration and the sense of education as a route to upward mobility, even though many may presume my connection to the Civil War and racial segregation, and even though I benefit from an economy that was set up around slavery, a set of racial schemas that set me up as able to be smart and pretty but were more problematic for my friends, and a set of laws that protect the values that I grew up with understanding were most reasonable and rational.

The thing I am trying to do is 1) point out that whiteness is not universal and is in fact complicated, and 2) that regular white people who don't have social theory backgrounds can explore their own whiteness by starting with their ethnic stories in order to see their own lives as not universal. I also didn't say that my white heritage experienced discrimination. In fact, the contrary - I talked about my class privilege in a white society and how I was connected to British colonialism that oppressed others around the world.

PropterDoc said:

Why can't you all just say you are American or Canadian because you live in America or Canada instead of this 'my grandmother was half Irish and half Scottish' so I'm really 1/8 Scottish and 1/8 Irish, and whatever. Is it a reflection on the lack of resonant tradition within North American culture? Does this impinge on your sense of ethnicity? If North Americans were better at accepting that they now live side by side with people of all races and were united in the notion of being North American rather than 'whatever', perhaps many of these racism issues would disappear or be alleviated in some way.

I just don't understand how you expect to improve a situation by encouraging people to magnify their 'ethnic origins' in this manner. Everyone is unique in their family heritage, everyone is identical in being a human being. Identifying historical family discriminations to wave around doesn't help anyone.

PD, I don't want to say I'm "just American." I think that's an experiential fallacy for me. My experience is a result of my heritage situated in a country at this particular time with a particular history of race and ethnicity. Forgive me, but I think that asking people to give up their ethnic stories in order to "become American" is a devastating proposition that is beyond insensitive. Just because some people don't want to connect with their pasts anymore doesn't mean that no one should.

In addition, I think it is an avoidance strategy of white people in this country to talk about how many immigration patterns there are, and how many unique or individual stories there are, and how different experiences there are. There are countless common stories and experiences - that is what fields like sociology and anthropology are built off of. While people may have their own individual stories, it is ridiculous to see little in common with other social groups and historical processes. Individualizing people's experiences tries to negate those group processes that inform our identities and experiences. I don't want to do that.

stepwise girl said:

I always found extremely puzzling the fact that Americans would claim to be Irish, English, German, Scottish,... when their ancestors arrived in the US in some cases well over a century ago, and when their present is far from what people in those countries are experiencing now (for an example look at tours organized for Americans in Ireland).

And that is why I need to talk about my own story for myself and for others. My "ancestors" - my parents - arrived since 1950, not centuries ago. In addition, to think that time results in universal mixing clearly overlooks how race and ethnicity - including amongst white people - still matters for US society.

porkchop brings up a great point, that people can learn more about whiteness through whiteness studies, too. I'd consider reading George Lipsitz, for example, and his book The Possessive Investment in Whiteness.

Finally, a notion that came up in the parallel Scienceblog posts - when we talk about race in science, it is sometimes easier to talk about "diversity" and then slip into rather PC talk about the value of individual and broader diversity, which suddenly includes things like rural/urban differences (is this code for race? Sometimes I think so) or age or citizenship. While this is a valuable discussion too, I think the fact it happens instead of a discussion about the traumatic racial history of this country which wasn't all that long ago either, indicates serious avoidance. Our cities and educational systems and institutions are still set up around racial inequities, and dismantling and reconstituting them is going to take significantly more effort than if we diffuse and distract our focus with "diversity." We need to decouple our consideration of "diversity" from our consideration of persisting racial inequalities.

Two small things: timo, yes, sorry, British, guess my citizenship doesn't map to my ethnicity either. And Martin posted an interesting post on the scary legacy of eugenics in current science that you should read too.

There. Now, if that doesn't alienate our readers and bring out the trolls (thanks for not responding to agnostic earlier, too) I don't know what will. :-S

Let me say once more - we need to have these uncomfortable or heated discussions about race. I hope I haven't offended anyone irreparably by responding to your individual comments. I'd like to hear more thoughts, too. Thanks for participating.


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Alice: "Forgive me, but I think that asking people to give up their ethnic stories in order to "become American" is a devastating proposition that is beyond insensitive. Just because some people don't want to connect with their pasts anymore doesn't mean that no one should."

Would you mind explaining why this is a devastating and insensitive proposition. In general, I am not a proponent of policies which sacrifice the individual to promote social cohesion, so i do not think that people should be forced to give up their ethnic stories. But at some point, maintaining these ethnic stories inhibits social cohesion.

I also do not like your wording about connecting to the past. I do want to connect to my past. I do that by emphasizing my ancestors' roles in the US. My families (both mother's and father's lines) have been in the US since the late 1600's or early 1700's. While I know which European country they came from, I fell no connection to those countries. Rather I feel a connection to the US, both the good and the absolutely horrible.

At what point will there be an "American" ethnicity? (NB, I do not mean any slight to native americans. I do not know the right words for this discussion and do not intend to offend anyone by choosing the proper wording).

I think that asking people to give up their ethnic stories in order to "become American" is a devastating proposition that is beyond insensitive

1. "Becoming American" is an ethnic story. Ideally, it could be layered on top of other stories, or opted out of, as people choose.

2. I don't feel like I'm giving up any of my ethnic story by calling myself "just American", but that's because my particular race and ethnicity happen to be very close to the default image of "American". Adopting that label is not something that erases or conflicts with my family history or my upbringing - it resonates. Which is privilege in a nutshell, really.

And I think that makes it tricky for me, and other immigrant-ancestry-several-generations-back white Americans, to use personal experience as an introduction to the concept of "this experience is not universal". Because the dominant narrative supports my experience in so many basic ways, and I have this nice little store of racial privilege to use for the times when it doesn't, I can see my remaining differences as unimportant, something that doesn't much affect my life that I can easily just "get over" or relegate to cultural fun fairs.

Anyway, I know you had a good experience with this strategy at your workshop, but I'm curious how it played out among the really whitebread attendees. It's really easy to veer into "whiteness stole my cultural heritage" which, while sort of true, is also really really problematic because it's still stuck in the idea that privileged white North American experience is just a blank spot where culture used to be.

Firstly, I'm not asking people to give up their ethnic backgrounds to 'become American', I'm asking that they view their ethnic backgrounds as backgrounds and not the reality of their nationality. I don't think it is insensitive to point out that a stronger sense of collective national identity might help Americans overcome ethnic background issues that lead directly to racism. If you want to take it as insensitive then you go right ahead but I think you are viewing my comments in the most negative way possible.

Again, I'm not sure how this post addresses racism.

I'm asking that they view their ethnic backgrounds as backgrounds and not the reality of their nationality

PD, you realize that this places a disproportionate burden on people with "ethnic" backgrounds (vs. the ethnic backgrounds that whitebreads have but don't always notice), right?

One thing that I've seen as I begin to understand the systems that perpetuate racial discrimination is that they depend largely on social class. Classism seems to be at the heart of a lot of social structures. It bothers me that the variable best correlated with SAT achievement is parents' income. It bothers me that our inner city schools are under-resourced and dominantly black. It bothers me that in Southern Big City, private schools that cost over $10,000/year for a child are one of the only ways to get an education. The new university aid programs of "no tuition for families making below $$$" are steps in the right direction, but generally these programs are only successful with the top 1% of under-resourced high schools. Race, and the historical structures associated with it, did wonders to establish our current class system. However, I think we cannot address issues of race without also considering the role of poverty.

PD, you realize that this places a disproportionate burden on people with "ethnic" backgrounds (vs. the ethnic backgrounds that whitebreads have but don't always notice), right?

No it doesn't. You are assuming that the "American" ideal would be based on a white phenotype.

OTOH, this is a good assumption.

The question is "where in the world or in history do we have examples of nation/states in which observable phenotype was completely overtaken by some version of citizenship?"

One plausible answer is "in the US". Meaning that being "Irish" or "Polish" or "Swede" or what have you, has at a prior time identified one as a second-class citizen. I would argue that this is not so at present.

To get back to my original confusion regarding what Alice thinks this exercise is about, it is not clear to me that the process of integrating "the Irish" into our national "whiteness" was furthered because of St. Paddy's day celebrations. The increasing popularity of St. Paddy's day is rather a reflection of that integration, not a cause. Thus I am not convinced that analyzing one's precise makeup of phenotypically white ancestors is useful.

Alice, to be frank, despite your re-statement of what you think this is about, i.e., the acknowledgment of privilege, I don't see how the audience exercise leads someone else to this same acknowledgment..?

Now if the exercise was one like that deCode analysis of Watson's genome, then we might be in business. If people who think they are "white" discovered that they are in fact part "black", well....

"PD, you realize that this places a disproportionate burden on people with "ethnic" backgrounds (vs. the ethnic backgrounds that whitebreads have but don't always notice), right?"

No it doesn't. Look, as Alice would argue everyone has an "ethnic" background (why the quotes?), or else this exercise would be pointless, so there can't be a disproportionate burden. The observable phenotype may well be conquered by a sense of nationality at some point in the future, and people can integrate as much of their heritage as they choose to. And the term whitebreads? Did you spell it wrong? Do you actually mean whitebred. In anycase, the use of that term offends me. Did I use any terms that were offensive to any group? No, so why do you Maria?

My initial point was that I did not understand why North Americans were so quick to classify themselves as something other than American or Canadian. To clarify this misunderstanding, I think North Americans are more aware of their 'ethnic' backgrounds than Europeans are (with out exercises listing all the way in which they are ethnic), because there is not a strong sense of cultural cohesion or resonant tradition within North America. Not yet anyway.

PD, no she meant whitebread. as in the baked cereal product.

no doubt thinking of a specific exemplar, namely Wonder Bread.

interesting. I've never run across anyone who considered this a slur. learn somethin' new everyday...

well, okay, a slur, yes. but not usually considered very high on the Offens-o-meter*.

*unless one is a rightwinger trying to fake up some victimization equivalency.

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 13 Mar 2008 #permalink

I read Academic's comment after posting my own story here.
I very much concur with the need to address class simultaneously with race.

FWIW, I claim in-group status on "whitebread", and have never thought of it as offensive. I apologize, though - in a touchy discussion I really should have stuck to neutral terminology as much as possible. But I'd like a snappier term than "white Americans of mixed European several-generations-back-immigrating ancestry", can you suggest one?

"Ethnic" gets scare quotes because of its common use as code for "of color" and/or "different". White people are not commonly understood to have ethnicity in the same way people of color do - "ethnic" food doesn't mean hamburgers, etc. - that's what Alice's exercise was trying to counteract. Of course, her challenge was mostly taken up by people who basically already understood that point, which may be why we're not seeing the benefits of it...

You are assuming that the "American" ideal would be based on a white phenotype. OTOH, this is a good assumption.

The American ideal is, currently, based on a white phenotype and mixed-Euro-blah ethnicity. That is why it is less of a burden for mixed-Euro-blah white people to say that we are "just American". I do think you could make a good argument that the ideal is slowly expanding to include more people, even if it's not quite there yet - however, even a cursory look at immigration politics will reveal that Latin@s are still right out, for example.

"Yeah, people who look and talk like you are frequently harassed and even jailed because people assume that they aren't citizens and don't belong, but you really should think of your ethnic identity as secondary to your nationality! It'll promote cohesion!"... for some reason, I don't think people's ethnic self-identification is the problem here.

During a recent gender discrimination conversation I asked a man the following:

How would you feel if tomorrow you woke up and all of the people in power were women, all of the people in your textbooks were women, and the only men around you were in third and fourth level positions?

His response was thoughtful and worth the time it took to ask the question. My point was to find a way to reach the mans "perspective" on how it feels to have your gender excluded. It seems that a similar question is relevant here:

If you woke up tomorrow and white were the minority in the U.S., and it mattered if you were of German, Irish, etc., how would it change your world? What would a day be like? How would you be different in that world?
A couple of years ago a waitress at "christian" restaurant did everything but vocally refuse my black colleague service. My collegue would not complain to the manager; but rather, stated we would just never go to the establishment again. I complained but the manager did not seem to care. I stormed out to meet my colleague and stated proudly "I don't know how you can just put up with that. I would NEVER!" The collegue said sharply, and appropriatly, "That's right, YOU would never - because - you will never have to!"
In that moment, I knew she was right and I would always be white. I am proud of who I am, but like all self-identifiers, it comes with it's own limitations. Accepting those was one of the most difficult realizations of my life. For all of the diversity in my world, I know that I can only ever truly see it through white blinders. I'm hoping awareness counts.

Oh, she is now my friend and we don't eat there anymore.

I guess I should also mention that I am a blonde, blue eyed, midwestern woman. We came from other places but I don't celebrate those cultures or embrace them in anyway. Rather my culture involves brisket, fairs, football seasons, christmas time, neighboring states, insulting our president (with no fear of being jailed for it), and spending more money than I make. I'm fairly sure that makes me an American.

Until I read Peggy McIntosh's list that you refer to, I thought we whites got a pretty good deal in Japan. But I only score on two!

5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

46. I can choose blemish cover or bandages in "flesh" color and have them more or less match my skin.

Nevertheless I do think I get some privileges through my race/nationality. Because I am foreign, and married to a foreigner, my sex is irrelevant. This coupled with the fact that in my sphere of work the British are (oddly) particularly respected by the Japanese, means I get well treated at work. Better than in the UK in fact...

The minor irritation I was most reminded of reading the list is the way that my every action is taken as representative of "Western" (the Japanese aren't so subtle on the distinctions between different types of foreign-ness). It was kind of fun at first, but when 6 years later the same people are still making the same assumptions, and asking the same questions, it starts to get a bit wearing - I take it as meaning they are actually paying no attention to what I tell them but instead reinforcing their own prejudices of the Otherness of Foreigners.

Of course the longer one stays away from "the West", the more blurry one's recollections and I'm pretty sure I'm giving my Japanese friends a bonkers impression of the "typical westerner". It's not like I was very normal to start with.

A couple of years ago I met a group of Japanese-American-Methodists. How?! I wondered. I understood Methodism to be British and very few Japanese are culturally Christian. But actually it made perfect sense - Methodism travelled very quickly to the US and then when people in the US were rounded up in the 2nd World War certain missionaries set to work in certain places, and so co-located groups were converted to particular dominations. What that showed was how quickly we change our cultural identity - we can all only be in one place at a time and it inevitably shapes us.

I think we should just admit it allow our ethnicity to evolve. Thus, presently I'm a "white foreigner in Japan", but to be honest I wish it was permissible to just not bother with it and say I am "of the earth".


Of course whitebread is offensive. I can not understand the mentality of thinking it is not offensive. When talking about ethnic stories, claiming that some people are whitebread (cheap, plain, boring, unhealthy) contrasted with others who are whole grains (rich, nutritious, vibrant, and healthy), clearly makes a value judgment.

I've read this all with interest.

Biologically, I am considered white but I neither feel like I am, nor do the truly white people (if you can please allow the use of such a word) feel I am..

I am white in appearance and I am treated as white in social interactions at first sight. I am from a 3rd world country have been living in USA and UK at different times of my academic career.

I grew up middle class in my own country and was lucky to have educated parents who could afford to send me to school. I did not have to marry at 13 to some rich guy in the village. I did not bear 5 children by age 20... I can't complain about the opportunities and priviledges I had (being middle class and living in an urban area of my country). I have little complaints about my life in my own country. Comparatively, I've had huge privileges...

Now in the 1st world, I say where I am from when asked, and get treated differently after that - sometimes it's just a minor discomfort, other times all-out argument about things I'd really rather not talk about... I could have been born with a darker skin colour, which would have meant I would experience such reactions at first sight, or maybe more intensely.

The colour of my skin is a priviledge even when combined with my passport. If the experiences I have vs. some of my darker-skinned and male friends during visa and passport applications, or crossing the border into many countries including the UK and US is an indication, I am often being treated OK, comparatively: After "SSSS" for "security" stamped on my documents and being searched thoroughly, sometimes multiple times, each time I travel, I at least usually get allowed into those countries (even though my home and family is there, I need to prove I am worthy to get in).

And once I am in, I am white. Except, not really...

For people like me, how do our upbringing and middle class background translate when we live in a 1st world country? Are we still white if we can't relate to any of the culturally unifying aspects of "white"?

I feel like a minority even though in appearance, white. I think one emerging idea with all this discussion is that many people who are one way or another included in the white category, may feel similarly (re: Zuska's post about class)

I do get the priviledges of "looking" white. I don't know if I am any more aware of these than a truly white person. But inside me, it doesn't work. I know in my heart white doesn't mean from a 3rd world country (or the particular country I am from at least).

That's my experience of being white, get some of the priviledges, not all. And I don't belong.