I’ve noticed an increase in conversations about identity at work, so I thought I’d share an observation. I’m not sharing this to call anyone out or to shame folks into behaving differently. I’m sharing it because I think we must reflect on how the language we use has embedded meaning, whether we’re conscious of it or not. If you’ve read my last article, you may remember how “Myths constitute the world!” Well, language reflects those myths, many of which are deeply rooted.
Let me get to the point. When describing your racial background, you probably want to avoid using percentages, fractions, and “partial” language. Saying you are “half White and half Asian” or “part Cherokee” invokes several outdated and often problematic notions related to purity, heritage, and identity. In the background to that seemingly innocuous and widespread, mathematical language is a long, contentious history of race as a biological construct.
To be clear, many folks openly denounce the key premise behind scientific racism, the notion that empirical evidence exists to justify racial superiority. At the same time, we can’t seem to escape the idea that our genetic make-up is an essential part of who we are, that who we are is somehow “in our blood.” So when describing ourselves, it makes sense that we would consider our parents as key contributors. Perhaps to be inclusive of a multi-faceted heritage, we represent ourselves using the language of mathematics. “Well, my Mom is White, and my Dad is Black, so I’m 50% White and 50% Black.” Or, at the extreme, something like, “I’m 1/16th Navajo” (I’ll let you do the math here in terms of this person’s parents/grandparents).
To complicate matters further, some companies have made it a very lucrative business to help you “celebrate your ancestry.” Despite some serious concerns from the FDA and others, folks seem all too eager to spit into a vial to get a detailed rendering of their ancestral genetics. Of course, only a small number of people will take the time to learn how to interpret their results accurately. Most will be happy to know that they are 81.4% Sub-Saharan African, 15.3% European (mainly from Northern Europe), and 1.3% East Asian & Native American (feel free to convert that to fractions, if you’d like).
Despite agreement among the scientific community, popular conceptions of genetics and the “5 races” vastly oversimplify the actual genetic variation among the human species.
In short, “race” cannot be biologically defined.
If you’re curious, here’s a detailed article out of Harvard (complete with diagrams) that goes deeper into the topic, which frankly is beyond the scope of this article. This article is about how we talk about our identities, not about the “truthfulness” of that discussion.
If you are at all ethnically ambiguous, chances are you’ve encountered questions like, “What are you?” pretty often. If English is not your first language, it may take a moment for you to parse the actual meaning of this question, given its many possible interpretations. But chances are, especially after being asked repeatedly, you’ve come to understand that the question’s intended focus is on your racial/ethnic identity. There are many reasons why people might ask, “What are you?” and many reasons why it can be offensive, but how we respond reflects our thinking both about the construct of race/ethnicity and ourselves.
We certainly inherit traits from our biological parents, so their identity seems relevant in as much as it informs our identity. But many folks have never met their birth parents or don’t “see themselves” in their parents at all. Alternatively, if I have two Moms, or two Dads, or lots of Moms and Dads, don’t they inform my identity? Does the math simply get more complicated? Or do my biological parents get priority because, you know, “they’re in my veins?” Again for most of us, it feels intuitively relevant to include our parents as part of our self-definition. That makes sense, but how we incorporate them matters, no?
Despite our knowledge of Mendel’s peas, few would be satisfied describing their identity in strictly biological and mathematical terms. Why is this different when it comes to race? We do not, for example, talk about our sex assigned at birth in this way. “My Mom is female, and my Dad is male, so I’m 50% female and 50% male.” Few people would apply this oddly specific language to themselves, even though, perhaps ironically, the science says sex is more complicated than “I’m male.” or “I’m female.”
Moreover, various other phenotypical features are relevant to who you are and your lived day-to-day experience, such as your height and attractiveness. But these kinds of features rarely get included in our self-identities, if at all, let alone get the “privilege” of being precisely conveyed in the pseudo-scientific, mathematical language we use for race.
“I’m half good-looking and half average-looking. My Dad was a 6, but my Mom was a 9. So, I’m a 7.5 in terms of attractiveness. Nice to meet you!”
Of course, this is not to say that our biology is entirely irrelevant or that it would be absurd to use it to describe ourselves. Due mainly to the extended global history of scientific racism and its continued material impact on society, things like skin color will, for the foreseeable future, continue to play a role in maintaining a systematically biased society. So, even if you don’t define yourself based on your appearance, the chances are that other people will do just that and that they will continue to do so for some time. Still, how you talk about yourself matters. It signals to others how you think about yourself and your race/ethnicity broadly.
If not “half and half,” then what?
Why not both? You are both your Mom and your Dad. You are both Black and White. You are both White and Asian and, perhaps, a new THIRD kind of identity— the combination of the two. You are no “less Black” or “less White” than someone who is “fully White” or someone who is “fully Black.” To divide yourself up as part of your self-description is to invoke, and by extension subtly perpetuate, the idea of “racial purity.” It is to say that being “100% something” is the standard to which we must all compare ourselves. It is to say that we must fastidiously keep track of any “mixing” that might take place and that the “sum of our parts” biologically determines our identity.
This idea of being limited to “only one” racial identity, to the point of needing to divide that identity up based on your genetics, is, to put it mildly, simply wrong. You do not need to divide yourself up like we’ve historically divided up racial groups. It’s just not the way identity works, whether it be racial, sexual, cultural, personal, or any other kind of identity. You’re not any “less” a scholar just because you’re an athlete. You’re not any “less” a “Trekkie” just because you’re into Star Wars. Why can’t we be both?
That all said, you might be different from someone who has two Black, or two Asian, or two White parents, but you’re not “less than” them. Someone with one Black parent and one Asian parent might be different from someone with two Black parents or someone with two Asian parents; certainly, that’s true. It also goes the other way. Two people, both with parents with similar backgrounds, might also be different from each other. I know five people with whom I share the exact same parents, and we are all extremely different from each other (anyone with siblings knows what I’m talking about here).
In the end, and I mean this in the most literal, biological terms — You are not half and half. You are both, fully both, and likely a third.
I hope you don’t feel the need to describe yourself any other way & that you don’t feel the need to check my math on it.
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