Tuesday, December 26, 2017

More thoughts on the difference between race and socially-contrived identity -- and the dark implications of why our ancestors contrived such identity to begin with

One of the most memorable themes for me this year has been the expansion of my focus from interfaith and intercultural relations into race relations. One of the first crossovers for me was an event at the Holocaust Memorial Center which helped clarify the concept of Jewish identity as a race and not just as a religion. While discussing my blog post about that event with Dan, we attracted the attention—and quickly the friendship—of a Jewish couple who helped us expand our understanding further into the story of the Jewish experience and into the idea of “white” being a social construct instead of a race. We had a few excellent opportunities to discuss race relations in the context of Detroit, both in our private small-group conversations and at the SGI Buddhist Center for the fourth installment of the Vanguard Discussion Series.

I also became aware of the most recent additions to the Michigan State University School of Journalism’s cultural competency guides series, including honest and accurate answers to common questions about Jewish people, African-American people, and certain immigrant groups to the U.S., which can serve as great ice-breakers to help mainstream Americans get over the fear and embarrassment that stops them from truly connecting with people from other colors and cultures.

And during last week’s conversations, both at Starbucks and during a Chanukah celebration, I realized that perhaps the biggest contributor to the recent intensification of racist actions in the U.S. is the idea that for “white” people to make more room for diverse viewpoints in conversation, media, the workplace, and politics, they must forfeit their power and compromise their beliefs and values.

As I pointed out last week, it doesn’t have to happen that way. White people don’t have to forfeit anything that’s truly good for them to help people of other colors and cultures to catch up. Allowing more voices at the table doesn’t have to mean that the voices of the people who’ve been there longest must be silenced or cancelled out. They will have to limit their talk-time, however, and that just means they will benefit all the more by spending more time listening.

As a person who was raised “white,” with no sense of ethnic identity of origin coded into that, I realize that the steep price white people have paid for their cultural dominance is the loss of their identity. “White” is not a race. “American” is not a race or a culture. These designations represent a social construct that resulted from many diverse groups of people forfeiting their original identities to break free of whatever negative value-judgments had been historically used against them to create a new identity in a foreign land based primarily on the achievement of social power and economic prosperity.

It drives me and my friends bonkers when people insist that being German, Croatian, French, Cameroonian, Lebanese, Chinese, Slavic, English, Mexican, Japanese, Indian, or Peruvian is irrelevant to the fact that we’re all “American.” This insistence on being “American” totally misses the point that for many—if not most—people who don’t fit under the white umbrella, the idea of being American means very little in terms of social status or economic power, because their groups have always gotten the short end of the stick in the so-called New World.

A great book I intend to read to help deepen my understanding of this cultural phenomenon is 
Working Toward Whiteness, which covers the creation of the defense-mechanism of European immigrants who de-emphasized, or shed altogether, their original identities as Italian, Irish, German, and so on, to equalize their social ranking.

Such attempts at cultural white-washing are not limited to people of European descent; Dan introduced us to the book Brown Skin, White Minds, which explores the heavy toll of colonization among Filipino people, particularly since they are still surrounded by predominately white beauty standards.

A third book Dan brought to the table is The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which can go a long way in helping white people understand that the disproportionate representation of people of color (particularly black men) in prison is a systemic problem that can’t be solved simply by blaming and punishing individual people for their criminal behavior.

In my next post, I’ll share some thoughts about ways we can help bypass or short-circuit the resistance and preconceived notions that block many white people from being willing to listen long enough to understand any of this.

Image: "One World Heart," by Karla Joy Huber, 2017; Prismacolor marker, Sharpie marker, metallic gel pen, white gel pen

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