The minute I say that I’m African American people cast that word “race,” on me faster than the net that they used to catch Kunta Kinte in Roots.
Race is a dangerous concept and it’s source, the evolution of the Western response to human differences and diversity, from treating non-Europeans as titillating alien curiosities to enslaved chattel, colonial subjects and global pawns in a game of winner take all; is the end result of 2000 years of wrangling over what human means, what the divine means, what our destiny means when it doesn’t look like us.
African American is not a race. African American is a cultural designation. It’s as socio-political as Black, Negro, Colored, before it. Its an old term, first appearing in print in America in the late 18th century. Jesse Jackson didn’t invent it and please don’t bore me with “you’re not African,” because it’s up to each person of African descent coming from the line of those who came here enslaved or in earlier migrational waves to define themselves according to their own will. Just because I define myself as a part of the larger African, African Diaspora and African Atlantic and African American families doesn’t mean anybody else should. We can and should tolerate different and distinct understandings of self and nation.
Let’s get back to this “race,” thing. Race is an illusion, a concept with a complex history. Nothing drives me crazier than to hear the phrases, “I don’t care what race you are.” “I have friends of different races.” or “I don’t see race.”
You can’t see some shit that’s not there.
Race is not real. Race is lazy shorthand for a complex mixture of ethnotype, genotype and phenotype every human finds themself imprisoned in.
Ethnotype–the culture most human beings find themselves born into, which itself is usually a fluid and complex blend of a people’s sense of uniqueness bound up with geographical limitations, genetic groupings and a certain body of looks and appearances that are both made by nature and nurture.
You can be a certain genotype (what we cannot see) and phenotype (what we can see) but not identify with an ethnotype (ethnicity, culture, nationality) people might pigeon hole us as or file our appearance.
Genotype–your genes–your particular DNA mixture, your scientific recipe, they can be from all over and they are mostly indistinguishable from other human beings. However the part that is distinguishable, that tiny little sliver, is the hand you’re dealt that makes people see your phenotype and may make them assume your ethnotype.
Your genotype can obscure and often does, the fact that most human beings in the global flow of civilizations have admixtures that reflect migration, war, sexual violation, romantic unions, trade and re-settlement. Our genes until recently were obscured parts of how we viewed ourselves. We assumed mixtures based on tradition and appearances, but we had no clue that a single individual could reflect so many different heritages–genetic and ethnic. Imagine for example if Bruno Mars–who is European Jewish, Puerto Rican and Filipino took a DNA test. His DNA would reflect Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Native America, and Asia and the Pacific Rim. But what does his genotype and phenotype tell you if you didn’t know it was Bruno?
Phenotype–how you look. Your hair, eyes, butt, skin type, color, and other physical features. Some are endemic to certain ethnotypes with specific genotypes. Again there is an interplay between how nature makes us look, how nurture makes us identify and how genes affect our destiny in uneven ways–sometimes predictable and other times as a crapshoot.
Your phenotype can lie. Your phenotype can give you away. Your phenotype can tell stories and hide others. Phenotype is not an accurate way to determine a person’s cultural orientation or ethnic or national identity and it is an inaccurate way of gauging a person’s feelings about their complete self. The way we react to people’s phenotype often conflates with assumptions we make about their character, behavior, identity and understanding of the world–this is where bias, stereotyping, racism and prejudice come into play.
Race may be an illusion but racism is real. Racism is about power. Racism begins with the assumption that ethnotype, genotype and phenotype form immutable sub-species of the one human race. As far as we know, the human race is not breakable into different races. Yes, different genotypes carry with them distinct ways in which phenotypes manifest. My hair and inherited health profile is significantly different from a white Southern male with whom I share a great deal of culture, history and identity. We don’t have the same barber, skin products or guidelines for how to manage our health. That sliver of difference and the difference in our larger histories as members of ethnotypes and individual shape the destiny we are given. It’s not racist to acknowledge those differences which are for the mot part, inevitable. It is racist to work within a power dynamic and use that to oppress or suppress one of us. Race the social construct is a weapon that has murdered millions, racism is a leading undiagnosed cause of death.
There are bigots in all colors and types. Bigotry is largely about our insecurities as part of the human family, old hurts, new pains and cultural and scientific misunderstandings. Bigots may or may not have the power to inflict pain or pass on the cycle of genetic, cultural or physical insecurity known as racism. There have been, in the past 500 years, racists in many colors, but power is largely the arbiter of who’s bigotry flowers into the big ugly Raffelsia arnoldii of racism. It is an unfortunate truth that the Western world has promulgated the greatest amount of racism, and this cancer has ebbed and flowed from victor to victim for about a millennium or so.
When I was a little kid, I had issues with physical self-hatred. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t handsome or pretty like white people. I didn’t understand that this was a completely arbitrary and unnatural response to my own reflection. People tried to sow doubts in my head about my intelligence, my motives, my abilities. However my mother, father, grandparents and other people raged against the cult of anti-Black racism that undergirded (undergirds?) our national culture and Western civilization in some permutations. Self-love began to emerge. I began to appreciate according to my own understanding the complex meeting of my ethnic heritage, my genes and my physical features.
At the same time, I began to appreciate other people’s unique braids in the same way you might assess jewelry or sculpture. Terence, the African, the ancient Roman poet of African birth famously said, “I am human, nothing human is alien to me.” I appreciate my people (s) and braids and hold them central in my focus and affection. However I think its a waste of the human experience to not look at all the rest of humanity and see the opportunity to learn from these gem like expressions of the Adam-creature, this woman, this man, this gender fluid thing called a human, made of earth and star matter, infused with a spirit that is in all cases human and according to many divine.
We are family, a human family and we must make peace with our divisions as much as we make gestures towards our commonality. We are family, a human family, and we are charged with resolving our historic wrongs as well as making a future that is free of the pock marks of our past. Killing off terminology like “social justice,” or “identity politics,” won’t stop what annoys you….we will always have a need to protect the marginalized and oppressed and those categories will shift and gentrify and ghettofy; and at the same time we are all bound up in identities we seem programmed to believe have always been and have no beginning or end. We know we are wrong, we know we are both past and present and seeding a very diferent future, but we think we are unchanging, charmingly static and frozen in purity.
He doesn’t believe in race but he acknowledges the power of racism and knows it is not one thing, but a Madagascar of socio-cultural ills full of names we haven’t had the courage to name and claim, but when we do we are not perpetuating racism but destroying it, acknowledging it is an illusion that can unravel the innate truths we carry in our bodies and bones.
He acknowledges culture. Culture is real. Culture is not perfect, it is always flawed, it is almost always a bid greedy, jealousy, covetous, insecure, wide eyed and plagaristic. It is also resilient, elastic, and sexy. It is all we really have other than our natural inclinations but we are more afraid to explore culture than anything else.
He acknowledges genes and appearances. There are beautiful people and there are ugly people and neither has anything to do with genes or aesthetics.
I don’t do race because simply put, to paraphrase Pearl Bailey, I want to see G-d everyday in my fellow human beings and I don’t want miss the opportunity. Food gives this amazing opportunity to taste the richness of the library of human knowledge, life as this precious, achingly terminable experience that we are privileged to enjoy in increments of seconds and breaths. Food melts and melds genes, appearances and ethnicity and nationality in ways that are package ready, malleable and sweet. It is no less complicated, contestable, difficult and laced with the importance of unraveling the human story, but it is a way in to peace.