I left the book club that night feeling unsettled. We were discussing Everyday Anti-Racism, a book about race in education. I’ve spent the better part of the past decade educating myself about issues of inequality and race in America, and rightfully focused on the traumatic impact on people of color. Yet, in all of my reading and writing, in the quiet moments of self-exploration about my own racial conditioning, I don’t think I ever once considered the cost of racism from this angle, until then.
The group was answering questions about race: positive and negative aspects, and elements about our racial identity that make us proud. I struggled to come up with something specific and felt a little jealous of the people of color who shared aspects of their history and heritage that made them feel empowered, strong, beautiful. And then it struck me---I had only considered myself as white and did not connect at all to my actual ancestry. Those roots feel so faded from my life, parts I can’t fully claim or take pride in.
When asked to identify my race on surveys, I always choose Caucasian or white without much thought. But, now I see how problematic that is. We talked about the racist history of the term Caucasian; that back in the Age of Enlightenment, a specific group of people from the “Caucasus” region was deemed superior to others, and the construct of racism was erected. Today, the term lacks a specific geographic association, signifying the default “American” and emphasizing the hyphenated status of other groups to be less so. The label Caucasian is deeply troubling to me, not only because my ancestors are not in fact from the Caucasus region at all, but because it subtly erases my own ethnicity and culture, and lumps us all together just as “white,” indistinguishable and nondescript.
That, of course, was the purpose: to dehumanize and separate people to justify taking away land and wealth and enslaving Africans. Over time, our cultures and traditions blended together in the “melting pot,” conforming to superficial race groups: white as the majority, and everyone else as an “other.” We may even intellectually know that humans are 99.9% biologically alike, but these ideas and beliefs are so ingrained in our psyches and embedded in our structures and policies that it takes conscious work to combat.
It’s hard not to feel sad, and a little angry, when you think of all the beautiful stories, traditions, and language that were allowed, even encouraged, to fade away. Like many others who immigrated here, my mother’s family experienced discrimination. Irish, Italian, and Jewish people were considered “less white.” The difference was that they could blend into whiteness, while black people continued to be discriminated against, lynched, and oppressed. Many people felt the need to change their ethnic names (or were changed for them by Customs), and hide their language or traditions to assimilate. While I have family recipes to cherish, I long to know more about my ancestors’ stories and traditions, to feel a connection to my heritage.
Every time we use the labels of Caucasian or white, we diminish our stories, erase more of our uniqueness, and feed into the myth of whiteness and white superiority. We fail to recognize the significant contributions that people from different cultures have made in our country and that we (aside from Native Americans and Africans who were stolen from their home to build America) were all once immigrants and refugees seeking the promise of this country, bringing unique perspectives, traditions, and beliefs.
How can we possibly begin to dismantle structures that have been in place for 400 years? What would we build instead? Just calling all U.S. Citizens “Americans” would further diminish the rich context of ethnicity and culture that define our country. We could stop using the terms Caucasian and white altogether and begin to use our specific ancestry: Italian American, European American, Israeli American. But, what happens when someone doesn’t fit neatly into one of those categories, either?
There is no simple solution, but it is essential that we confront and challenge such antiquated and dangerous structures. I can’t help but wonder: was melting into the pot what caused some of the exclusivity and division that we see today? Is this loss of culture what fuels resentment towards the power of black and brown culture, strengthened in response to oppression and struggle?
At the end of the session, the book club created a collective principle and strategy that I hope we can all take away to make our world more just and loving:
Principle #1: To be anti-racist means to reject fixed notions of race.
Strategy #1: Therefore we must unlearn what we know about race and be vulnerable enough to embrace our complicity.
Perhaps if we reject superficial categories and unlearn what we have been taught about race, we could begin to embrace the complexity of each other's lived experiences, and honor the unique thoughts, dreams, and potential of all individuals. The alternative only keeps us separated, perpetuates a system of inequality, and slowly erases our most interesting, beautiful parts.
"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." ~Nelson Mandela