Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Ethnicity, Race, Politics, Nationalism - are they inextricably intertwined?

Mark Oehlert's recent post about ethnography started a ball bouncing in my head. It must have been a rugby ball, though, because it bounced in unpredictable directions! It kept bumping up against experiences and observations past and present and was threatening to shake a few things loose. Then I found myself on the receiving end of a torrent of vitriole on a facebook discussion board and the bouncing got out of control. The time has come for me to set down my thoughts before the ball gives me an aneurism!

During my childhood, in the apartheid years in South Africa, there were signs everywhere that said "Europeans only". Ludicrously - although I had never been to Europe at that stage, and was the product of several generations of people born in South Africa - this meant me. The Afrikaans version of the sign more accurately declared "Blankes alleenlik" (whites only). It has to be said that, later, the English signs were changed so that they, too, said "Whites only". Later still, they were removed altogether, but that's not where I'm going with this. This distinction was based on the colour of my skin.

When I fly back from a holiday to the UK, where I now live, I have to enter the airport through a gate set aside for non-Europeans, while my husband and sons enter with other Europeans. This distinction is based on my passport, which is assumed to indicate my nationality.

According to the haters I've met on Facebook, you have to be black to be African. Once again, a skin colour distinction. Not only that, but it seems a black woman from Omaha is African, while a white woman from Cape Town is not.

If you use the term "African", most people assume you are talking about a black person. South Africans are no different. Most white South Africans don't class themselves as African. So here we seem to encounter a racial connotation for the word. But surely Africa is a continent, not a race? How can you be South African without being African? Are Canadians not also North Americans?

In the UK, if you say "Indian", you are referring to a person from India. A British person descended from Indians is "Asian". Russians, Chinese and Japanese people are not "Asian", it seems. In South Africa, "Indian" is a racial classification and refers to people descended from Indian nationals brought to South Africa to work on the cane farms, while in the USA, "Indians" are more likely to be native to America than India. Go figure.

Filling in forms where you have to declare your ethnicity is another interesting situation. There is no parity in the descriptors. Some of them refer to countries, some of them to skin colour, some to continents. Some are combinations (such as Black African or White European).

As I was taking a walk a little while ago, I had a one-person brainstorm of the kaleidoscope of terms one encounters in this hornets' nest. I tried at first to group them in terms of whether they were anthropological, ethnographic, racial or national in nature, but completely bogged down. Have a look at the following random list and see for yourself (apologies if you find any of the terms pejorative, or if I have misused capitalisation):

Chinese, Asian, mongoloid, slavic, negroid, black, caucasian, white, African, Malawian, arabic, American, Native-American, aboriginal, coloured, oriental, occidental, Scandinavian, European, American, North American, Canadian, indigenous... the list goes on.

A riposte from the woman in Omaha I referred to earlier advised me to accept that I was a "European African". So should white Canadians call themselves European Americans, then? Should only First Nations/Native Americans have the right to call themselves American? While the term African American is commonly used, I have never heard any black people in Europe refer to themselves as African European.

Where does race end and ethnicity begin? What is the role of nationalism is determining labels? Which set of descriptors is appropriate to teach children, and which are simply tools for racism?

When our children were little, my husband and I determined (somewhat idealistically) that we wanted them to be race-blind. So we simply omitted references to race from our conversation. When our older son referred to a "black man" at the age of 2, there was no point in looking around for someone with a dark skin, because he would have been referring to the colour of the man's clothing. He came home from nursery school with a puzzled frown one day because someone had referred to one of the staff as "black" when he could see perfectly well that "her fingers are brown, Mom, I looked!" For a boy who had just mastered his colours, it was confusing.

But worse was to come when our younger son was spitefully informed by a classmate at the age of 4 that he would not be allowed to marry the love of his life, the beautiful Emily. Since he and Emily had made the decision to get married some two years previously, this news was rather unwelcome, as you can imagine. The bearer of these ill-tidings told him that the reason for this was that "Emily is brown and you are white". My son was well acquainted with his colours by then and could not deny that Emily was indeed brown - this was integral to her beauty - and he was indeed white. He was devastated that I had not told him of the moritorium that existed against their ultimate union. Since this was post-apartheid South Africa, I was able to reassure him on that score, but this still left me with a dilemma: while Emily had a very dark olive skin, she was in fact a white child. I made the mistake of mentioning this entirely irrelevant fact to my son and the worms escaped the can. Having never before raised the issue of race, it was very difficult to try to distinguish between race and skin colour, especially when they overlapped in this particularly instance. All he knew was that everyone had a unique colour that fell somwhere within the beige/brown spectrum and it had never before occurred to him to attach any significance to it. In the ensuing few weeks, he kept demanding to know the race of people who weren't immediately identifiable as being at one or other end of the spectrum. No matter how often we told him we weren't sure and/or it didn't matter, he needed to get it straight in his mind. And of course it refused to come straight!

To this day, I'm not sure what we should teach our children. Scientifically, there are differences between people groups, which would be ludicrous to omit or ignore when identifying remains or seeking a suspect in a criminal invesigation. Our different heritages contribute to the tapestry of life - my children have been raised in a mixed-cultural household all their lives and know no different. But heritage and ethnicity are two completely different things... aren't they?

Culture. Heritage. Ethnicity. Race. Nationality. How do we teach our children to acknowledge and value these things without using them as a tool to pigeonhole people or, worse, grounds for prejudice?


Mark said...


The short answer is yes. They are intertwined and the real issues arise when we try to act like we can somehow use these terms in a way that is value-neutral to both ourselves and the people hearing or reading that usage. Not only do we bring our own histories and contexts to these words, so to does everyone else and the real art is in figuring out what each of us is talking about when we seem to be using the same word.

I once a prof in grad school, in a course on nationalism, assert that he believed in three kinds of nationalism; the first would be the nationalism of your birth (can't really help that right?), next was the nationalism of your parent's (again, not a lot of choice), the final one though was nationalism of your heart. He argued that all were valid designators - each in their own context.

My son (7 and a half) and I are currently working through the repeated explanations of how the fact that a lot of his friends or their families are from India, we (in the U.S.) don't really refer to them as "Indians" but usually as "from India" and that "Indians" (in the U.S. again) is really an incorrect term for "Native Americans" which in itself is comprised on a chuck of European hegemony...Native Americans, really? I prefer "indigenous" but even that is inaccurate since most evidence indicates that North America (back to the dominant term right?) had no indigenous people but was populated by Asians who either cam across the land bridge or now evidence indicates, even by coastal boats. First Nations is good but assumes a Euro-centric understanding of government and collective identity that while evident in such bodies as the League of the Iroquois...certainly was a later development and not uniform throughout the majority of the tribes.

So, we're back to...yes. I am a white/Caucasian, Western Euro/German-American....I think. :-)

Karyn Romeis said...

You raise some very valid points, Mark, and I have to say that we have taught our children that Indians come from India - that the so-called "Indian" people in the US are Native Americans... although you rightly point out potential flaws with that term too. Apart from which - they were native to the land long before it was called America. And for me, this touches on the key issue that the ebb and flow of people groups predates the establishment of nations, and continues to this day - so the relationship between nationality and ethnicity is tenuous at best.

What has irked me enormously has been the assumption on the part of some people to dictate to me how I may regard myself. My passport says I'm South African, my skin says I'm white, my features say I'm caucasian with the possibility of some slavic influence (if those two terms have parity - I'm wa-ay out of my depth, here), BUT...

the effect on my being of the call of the fish eagle, of a cowhide drum, of the savannah grasslands filled with zebra and wildebeest, of the smell of rain on sunbaked earth, of voices raised in improvised, multipart, repetitive harmony, of ululating women, of naked chocolate children swimming in a brown river, of images of AIDS orphans, of war and pestilence and poverty, of fuliminating dictators reducing their lands to rubble, of people who retain their indomitable ability to be generous in the most crippling of circumstances... THAT says I'm African.