e-Race: Eradicating Race
Race is often a topic of conversation around our house. Anthropologists generally agree that there is no biological basis for race. It’s simply a social construct created to help classify people into groups, mostly so that one group can oppress other groups. During the Civil Rights era and beyond, the Oppressors came to learn that “doing race” is not cool. You don’t really want to go on TV today and say, “I’m a member of the White Better Business Bureau and I proudly support White-Owned Businesses.” Everyone knows that would be just plain racist. So, in my opinion, most “former Oppressors” don’t go around thinking in terms of race. Statements like these would be totally foreign and absurd to them:
I am so glad I am white.
I prefer white friends.
I want to improve conditions for white people.
That’s my opinion. I have never lived in the south or in rural areas, and maybe those folks are not as enlightened. This change in thinking over time is one of the positive benefits of political correctness. Whites have given up race. While they probably wouldn’t go so far as paying reparations or decolonizing North America, they have happily stepped into their role as former Oppressors.
Roger says that since race is not real, we should do away with it. If we stopped practicing race, there would be no racism. He is an idealist and can’t believe people would ignore such an obvious solution to an ugly problem. The problem for him is that he hangs out with people who don’t want to give up race. They make a living at it, they bond over it, and they empower themselves with it. And, yes, they use it to express racist attitudes toward the former Oppressors. It’s ugly, but isn’t it only fair?
It’s been more than 40 years since Dr. King and others marched. White people didn’t change their views overnight. Change comes slowly over time, but there is no stopping it. Hopefully the formerly Oppressed groups will cross that bridge and meet the former Oppressors on the other side of race, and together we can begin to address the real issues we face as members of the human race.
For more on race, check out Roger Echo-Hawk's writings.
In the Land of Rangers & Bears & Hispanics
When I’m not off hiking along the foothills and mountains and greenways of Colorado, I sometimes watch the political talk shows on television. So I’ve been noticing how the term “ethnicity” seems to be growing in usage and popularity in American public discourse about social issues and communal identities.
I wonder whether this reflects the fact that race has been discredited as a useful way to characterize humankind – a fact that is not widely known beyond the halls of academia. I suspect, however, that the term “ethnicity” is losing its character as an outcome of the permeable and flexible guidelines of cultural identity. Giving way to the authoritarian racial laws of alleged genetic heritability, it’s apparent that “ethnicity” is comfortably settling in as the new face of race.
Even so, I must wonder whether the increasing usage of “ethnicity” in public discourse signifies that at least some of the terms and practices of racialism have already begun to slide out of fashion. But rather than do the necessary work to come up with another world, we’ve merely come up with another word.
I often wonder what this “another world” might look like. Toward this end, I made an interesting discovery about myself in the early summer of 2005.
Forsaking my television to hike one afternoon in the mountains under towering thunderclouds with my wife Linda, we paused to chat with a park ranger. At the end of the path, crossing a narrow rustic bridge over a creek that tumbled toward the end of the day, the ranger waved at us.
I didn’t want to stop. Earlier, heading up the winding path, I’d seen the questionnaire in her hand. Another ranger stood nearby with a captive couple, writing earnestly on a clipboard. “Let’s say no and keep going,” I suggested. But Linda was in a good mood and didn’t mind stopping.
“Would you mind taking a few minutes to help me with this questionnaire?”
“Okay,” said Linda to the ranger, flashing a friendly smile.
The ranger stood before us, her clipboard poised for action. This was official Park business but she nevertheless expected another rebuff, polite or otherwise. The clipboard, if needed, would thwart the worst vibes. Studying her face, she was older than us and it was late in the day. She looked tense and tired. Maybe she’d been counting bears all day in the forest and they hadn’t been very cooperative.
It was a lengthy questionnaire. Beginning with “What did you enjoy about the park?” and working on down to the punchline: “Would you be willing to pay more in entrance fees?” Linda answered carefully, as if sworn in. I stood by, trying not to look like I might turn rude at any moment, another surly bear. I watched as the ranger checked off each query.
“What race are you?” She turned away from Linda and looked at me, shaking me out of my reverie.
I’d been pondering what to say when she got to the question about race, running over some possible responses. I knew Linda would want me to keep it simple. I usually do. It seems rude when chatting casually with people to blow up all their ideas about race in the midst of a few pleasantries. What would I say this time? Was this a casual conversation? Or was it official business?
I couldn’t decide, and I didn’t really want to be rude. “What do you think, Linda?” I’d leave the whole thing to her.
But either there’s not much to say, or there’s too much. “I don’t know,” she said, “Go ahead and tell her if you want!”
Now I had Linda’s permission. I could go after this ranger’s expectations and blow away everything she thought about race if I wished. I tapped my chin, picturing how it would go. But it was hopeless. I threw up my hands like a bear standing up to growl at the sun. “Let’s just not answer that one!”
“Okay,” Linda laughed.
“We don’t have an answer for that, so let’s skip it.”
This was just what the ranger had expected and she felt very clever because she had indeed read us right. She expected us to treat her like a door-to-door sales rep. But the conversation had gotten weird in an unusual and mysterious way.
Okay. She had faced worse; she would persevere. There were bears in this forest that could turn your bones to water with their fearsome charging answers to questions. This was nothing!
No choice, she wrote. She had been prepared to check a square and it was a little inconvenient because now she had to write something that couldn’t be readily compiled – where would this go in the carefully gathered and sorted statistics that would provide the science behind the coming increase in park fees?
“Okay. Are you Hispanic? That’s ethnicity, not race!” Her lips pursed with satisfaction. The ranger had countered my vaguely emotional tone with her sense of logic. This war could be won. We’ll get those bears counted no matter what!
Relenting, I watched her win. It’s nice to see people win; I like the look in their eyes. I nodded and the ranger tapped the clipboard with her pencil to drive home certain incontestable finalities, a victorious glint in her eyes.
On that note, we finished the interview and she let us go.
But something very complex also happened. Every so often in the days and weeks and months that followed, I paused with whatever I was doing to think about ethnicity and the idea of being Hispanic. Ramey Air Force Base, Puerto Rico, circa 1970 What does it mean if I am an ethnic Hispanic? Working my way slowly through this logic, thinking back to the ranger’s survey, I finally concluded that I must be Hispanic. I am Hispanic if we do not artificially warp the concept of ethnicity with misplaced racial biology. Setting aside the biological imperatives that dominate the practice of race, the outcome is clear for ethnicity. We must identify ourselves according to our cultural experiences.
Am I Hispanic?
The ranger had distinguished race from ethnicity; in her mind the two were not the same thing – maybe her use implied that “Hispanic” could avoid being biologically racial. Maybe it could be strictly a cultural construction.
But how can I not be Hispanic if it is purely cultural? Standing there at the end of the path observing the ranger as she finished up with her random survey of visitors to the park, I thought back to my youth.
During the 1960s, when the park ranger was also young, I dwelt upon the Enchanted Isle with my family. I swam in the living sea and dipped my hands into the bubbling sand and listened to the ever-present humid trade winds and to the surf like wind in a sunken undersea forest. Upon green seaweed pathways I wandered. And I dearly loved eating the national dish of that far-off realm. I miss it even today. Maybe there’s a hollow place inside me that will never be filled.
How could I not be Hispanic after that?
In the Land of Enchantment in 1972, I saw a film about the unforgettable poetry of Pablo Neruda and he became my favorite poet through the years that followed. Who am I after all these years?
You see, if ethnicity is not race, if ethnicity is truly not biologically determined, then the rules of culture have the logical final say over the character of ethnic identity. According to this logic, we must acknowledge that the idea of being Hispanic comes not from genes, but from exposure to culture.
Taking a liberal view, maybe just a few drops of culture is all you need to “be Hispanic,” but how few? Adopting a more conservative perspective, maybe one needs many drops, but how many? Who of us does not have at least a single drop of Spanish-derived American culture in their cultural experience?
In fact, one can argue that very few Americans, if any, can truthfully assert the total absence of Hispanic cultural ethnicity. To assert that some of us may not be Hispanic is to deny the seeping soaking fluidity of culture. It gets everywhere in the world. You just can’t keep it out of all the little nooks and crannies. And once it’s there, you can’t get rid of it. Carlos Santana and Pablo Neruda and rice & beans and the Land of Enchantment and the Enchanted Island cannot be made to vanish from our souls.
Setting aside the important question of defining “Hispanic” without relying on race – no easy task – my point is really that we shouldn’t deny the true complexity of our cultural selves. To deny our communal Hispanicness would be to accept and willingly carry on the false idea that race is genetic and that ethnicity should also be somehow biological.
If we agree to reduce ethnic identity to race, we’ll lose something very useful; we’ll diminish the ability of ethnicity to describe and orient our cultural selves. Treating ethnicity as a purely cultural matter, we can ask it who we are and who we want to become. Culture is generous and inclusive and it gets everywhere. Once it touches you, you can’t get rid of it. You can’t undo the experience and go back to who you were before. I like that.
Race is not nearly so generous a concept; race is inflexible. It prefers to dictate rather than to listen. Under the rigid rules of race, we can’t really embrace our true cultural diversity. It would be wrong to transform living ethnicity into discredited race.
Freed from race, ethnicity is like the air we breathe. We cannot breathe only the nitrogen in the air. We cannot live on only the traces of this & essences of that – the pure traces and essences of race and racialized culture. To live, we must inhale everything all at once. It is impossible to do otherwise. And this reality sustains who we really are. For this reason, we are all at least a little Indian, black, Hispanic, white, Asian – a little of everything around us.
If ethnicity is truly race-free, then it is a word that usefully evokes the vast complexity and infinitely meaningful details of who we are. Ethnicity in this sense gives us a way to think that is unburdened with false notions about human biology, so we can enrich ourselves constantly through our cultural experiences, and they can change who we are.
An idealistic race-free definition of ethnicity liberates us to think of ourselves as unique individuals enmeshed in the whole world – a world in which cultural diversity gives us many ways of being ourselves. We can breathe and live and dream. We need this kind of ethnicity at the center of our discussions about identity and culture.
Having learned something interesting about myself, I wanted to go back to the eaves of that forest and speak again to the ranger and her clipboard. Maybe I shouldn’t have let her win. Maybe I should have flung out my paws and mauled her conception of things.
I have little doubt that someday we will find ways to free ourselves from race. And being free, we will return to the forest much wiser than when we left it. And filling out our questionnaires in that future, we will know what to say when it comes to race and ethnicity, and when we consider the nature of our humanity.
Permitting race to slip away into ethnicity and on into the graveyard of discredited ideas, in the future we’ll get on with more useful pursuits. I feel certain that in the end we’ll get those bears counted no matter what.
Ramey Air Force Base, Puerto Rico, circa 1970
What does it mean if I am an ethnic Hispanic?
Working my way slowly through this logic, thinking back to the ranger’s survey, I finally concluded that I must be Hispanic. I am Hispanic if we do not artificially warp the concept of ethnicity with misplaced racial biology. Setting aside the biological imperatives that dominate the practice of race, the outcome is clear for ethnicity. We must identify ourselves according to our cultural experiences.
For more of Roger's writings, visit floatingworlds