Saturday, October 20, 2007

Some thoughts about race...

Here are some thoughts I read on another prospective Ethio parent's blog. Read to the end- it's worth it!

...this post is about Transracial Adoption (though I can't imagine how anyone would guess that from my title or introductory paragraph...see why my journalism major only lasted a semester?), so I'll get right down to it. In the last post, I described the evolution of my feelings about parenting, race, and this adoption journey of ours. Now, I'd like to share some ideas that I have about the same sorts of issues. I like to divide things up, break them into smaller parts so that I can look at them more closely (see Homeschool vs. Public School, for example). I have come up with two concepts of race that hold perfect tension on the tug-of-war line between confusion and truth in my mind. I'd like to share them with you, but the caveat for embarking on this post is that if you read only part of it, the tug-of-war sways grossly out of balance. So (if you can tolerate all of the self-indulgent parenthetical asides), read the whole thing in a single sitting. Otherwise, you'll be choking on dry cereal one morning and drinking silty milk from a bowl the next.

First off,Race is a CONSTRUCT: One of the last classes I took during my last run at school spent a lot of effort in examining the ways in which people create ideas, especially socially significant ideas like race, culture, and gender. We talked about the fact that categories that seem pretty discrete and concrete actually exist along a much more fluid continuum than our conceptions would allow. Gender was, during that course, the example that impacted me. Our professor walked us through reading and class discussion that shook apart the dividing lines between categories so broadly accepted that stick figures in skirts or slacks almost universally symbolize their preeminence. But what makes a man a man and a woman a woman? Biology? That answer seems most obvious, but consider the biological qualities that we accept as identifiers. Hormones? Some self-identified women have hormone levels more saturated with testosterone than most culturally identified men. Chromosomes? What about Jamie Lee Curtis and the better part of a women's Olympic shot-put squad, all of whom have been dramatically affected by their ambiguous chromosomes, which include the decidedly male Y attatched to their pair of Xs? That's not to say that men and women aren't different, but it does illustrate the fact that the words we use to meen "male" and "female" are more pliable than we might normally recognize, that they actually represent some combination of a whole slew of factors that may or may not come into play in every instance to which they are applied.

Did I mention that this post is about Transracial Adoption? (7 right turns do, indeed, make a left.) All of that to say that if categories such as male and female represent loose amalgamations of expectations that we drag around without realizing it, then certainly already ambiguous categories like race and tribe slip their fences.

Did you know that people who are from India living in England are considered black? Most American people don't use that word in the same way. What about the word "Indian" in America? At least two stridently distinct ethnic heritages carry that label in our country. And are Russian's Asian? Are Haitian's African? Do you see how the words we use to describe other people leak like sieves? None of the categorical qualifiers that we might stuff in the bottoms of our language are sufficient to plug their holes. Complexion? Language? Family History? Many people who would check the box next to "Black" or "African-American" on a survey line have lighter complexions than other people who identify themselves as categorically white. People from several different continents all speak Spanish when they talk to their great grandparents, friends, and business associates. And while we're on the subject of great grandparents.....consider the flexibility in your family tree. Most of us don't know our great great grandmother's maiden name, and we know even less about the minutae of her daily life or the person she perceived herself to be. Some people's worlds are rocked when their family tree changes color or shakes off its leaves. My husband's German family is actually Danish. My grandmother's mother was Scottish and not Irish. My patrilineal ancestor snuck over on a boat from England and not Ireland. What about Carlos O'Kelly? Where's that guy from? Where are any of us from? Cultural heritage and ethnically rooted traditions can bind families together, but they cannot be regarded as racial signifiers. They don't have the stickiness to do the job. They're like a pencil-scrawled post it note, passed down from generation to generation: the writing has faded, and the back just never holds.

So what is race? Just like gender (only moreso) it is a conglomeration of labels that have slowly saturated our ideas about one another. Some of those labels were scribbled on the back of the post it note passed down to you through the generations. Some seeped in between the worksheets in our kindergarten classes. Some, we made up to explain the vague trends in our own experience. Who knows? I didn't know that "Jewish" could be used as a racial identifier until recently. Ten or twelve years ago, when I went to college, I think, I first heard someone say something like "He looks Jewish" or "That sounds like a Jewish last name." I had absolutely no idea what that person meant. In my arrangment of seives, Jewish was the religion of Moses, Abraham, and Jesus, and the people who observed Purim and Yom Kippur in my high school were white, like me. They just went to a different church. There was no special look, no identifiable last name in my construct of that "race."

Add to that (or add that to) the fact that I am committed, by a lifelong faith, to the absolute particularity of every person and his or her crucial importance to the heart of a loving God, and you have nothing but a shattered reflection through which to sift for any remnants of what you (or I) once labelled "race." In such light, the CONSTRUCT, simply cannot hold.

My children will be (are being) raised in accordance with that truth. Their indispensable voices, their irreplacable selves, their inimitable perspectives...their perfect particularity in the sight of God....will always govern the way our family operates. Our lives and the love that infuses them with meaning will unrelentingly reflect our commitment to the unity that comes from absolute diversity (not the shoddily drawn diversity of arbitrary categories but the radical diversity of individual, unrepeatable souls).

There you have it. Tug of war team # 1, truth, and its presidence over our family and all of its members: Race is a CONSTRUCT. It does not exist.

And here's the second, unmistakable fact:

Race IS a Construct: It DOES persist as arguably the most powerful construct in human history. It has been used to justify war and cruelty beyond measure. It continues to dellineate neighborhoods, churches, and cafeteria tables. In its prevalence, it creates commonality. People who have been stung by the broad, stupid application of the construct, again and again, are galvanized into unity by the heat and pressure. Likewise, people coagulate into like-mindlessness and power by virtue of their appropriation of a construct in common. So, at its best, the construct of race offers people a home, a place where belonging exists before words because common experience rarely needs to be spoken. And in this solidarity, people are comforted, empowered, and understood. At its worst, well....read the papers.

If I don't arm my children with the tools to face down the wrong-headed implications of the most powerful construct in human history, then what kind of parent am I? And if I deny them an opportunity to melt into a community where they can find ease and identity without words among people who share common experience, an experience of a construct that I will never have nor completely understand, then I will have failed my children. I have an obligation to educate, encourage, and empower my family on all sides of this volatile, powerful, hateful, ennobling construct with every tool that my own resources and the resources of my community can provide.

I don't know how we'll manage it, but I'm fairly sure that if we let these two facts slide out of balance, if either side begins to pull harder, our whole family will collapse in a filthy heap. So I'm committed to the effort, with all of my heart. And I'll trust in the miracle of being set aright and hosed off again and again by the one who created without construct and yet enabled us to create them. And I can't tell you how much peace washes over me as I end that sentence with a solid, definitive period.

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