Anyone who is able to see the exhibit on race now touring the country should do so. The information is posted in the Upcoming Event section of: www.middlepassageproject.org.
Mulling over the videos and interviews of people who participated in the exhibit, one phrase struck a chord; it has been repeated a lot since President Obama was elected in 2008. The idea that this country should “transcend race” has been offered as a remedy to racial bias and discrimination, and a measure of social progress. What does that mean? One of the interviewees interpreted it as everyone who is non-white becoming an honorary white person, in a sense losing identity as “other.” Perhaps another spin could be applied.
In discussions with people under thirty years of age, the argument is made that if race is a historically enforced social construct then it can be replaced by ethnicity, which is more accurate because it recognizes cultural distinction and heritage. Would that work? There is always the inherent potential for ethnic rather than racial bias with that formula as well. That system has previously been used in this country as a system of identity. For example, citizenship before the 20th century was not granted to Armenians, Syrians, or East Indians unless they identified themselves as “white.” Their ethnicity was too undefined or unfamiliar. In 20th century in Boston, Chinese Americans were categorized as “white.” Even today, according to US Census, Asians for the sake of identity are just one huge group with no differentiation by national heritage and cultural variations. Pacific Islander is a catch-all category as well.
For example, one possibility would be that all people in the US would be American, followed by the option of heritage/ethnic breakdown. Using this method, individuals could also select their hierarchical preference, or it could be based upon mandatory DNA screening at birth, e.g. African 75%, European, 15%, Native American-East Asian 10%. Each person could have the additional choice of being even more specific in the nationality of ancestors – Ibo, Irish, Chinese, Cambodian, Jamaican, etc.
The question has been raised why we would still have to have these sub-categories. In the exhibit on race, the US Census states that these categories provide trends and the ability to analyze behaviors, patterns of discrimination, poverty levels, services, and legislation that impact different citizen or resident groups. With the nation’s past history of discrimination and bias, these markers serve as base lines and indicators for the population as a whole. The argument is that if you eliminate race, there still needs to be one or more markers that assist in evaluating the status of different groups of people. Over time, if people are aware of their ancestral origins, there may actually be more commonality. This method would not eliminate individual or family history related to Latin America, the West Indies, Native America, Africa, Asia or Europe, but this arbitrary definition of race that runs the gamut from physical appearance to “one drop” would no longer, over time, have the same impact on a person’s identity. Most people in this hemisphere are mixed, as is the world, so why not have a society that operates within that context. Celebrating who we really are and our origins could be a wonderful thing.