Race Doesn’t Matter But Culture Does

I always said that race didn’t matter to me. “That’s because you are white,” I was then told by my co-workers, professors and others. I recently read an article in Mom Sense magazine by an African American mother married to a Caucasian American. She talked about the fact that we can’t just ignore race, we need to celebrate it. I’ve always hated the term diversity. It always smacks of political correct platitudes, as if in every area in life we need every potential combination of human race in order to be “fair.” I didn’t think race mattered to me. I have friends from almost every “racial” group. Example: I’ve never really thought of my friend Josephine as African American, but maybe that’s because she identifies herself as Liberian. Then I got the US Census. First off, I’m not sure why it’s really the government’s business which racial group I fall into, unless it’s to give preferential treatment to particular groups. I’ve always wondered why we just can’t all be Americans, why do we have to identify ourselves with these hyphenated modifiers? Then as I looked at the boxes I suddenly felt left out. Why do I have to be simply white if America is supposed to be a celebration of diversity? I’m just as proud of my Irish Italian heritage. No, I don’t have a history of slavery in my family, but that doesn’t make my history any less important to me.

 I treasure the story of my Great-Great-Grandparents who came over from Italy. My Great-Great-Grandfather was the son of a poor shoe-maker and my Great-Great-Grandmother was the daughter of an upper-class family. He fell in love with her when he and his father visited her home to make the family shoes. When her parents found out, she was sent to live with relatives in America. He took up a collection from among his relatives to pay for his ticket to follow her. They were married here in the United States.

 I understand that it’s not feasible to have a box for every racial group on every survey. But why don’t more Americans use the Other box? Even our own President, who by his own admission is Bi-Racial (and like my friend Josephine, really more African than African American if it comes down to it), simply chose the African American check box, rather than the Other box on the US Census. Just because he may identify more strongly, or finds it more politically expedient to be, African American doesn’t make him any less Caucasian American (Or Irish, Italian, German, Polish, English American, etc). So maybe race doesn’t really matter after all. I remember in college learning the difference between the definition of the word race, and the word ethnicity. Shouldn’t we be identifying ourselves by our culture or ethnicity rather than by our race? You can have “black skin” and be Haitian or Dominican, very different cultures who don’t even share the same language. You can be African-American and your roots can be in slavery or in immigration from Liberia or Kenya.

 Bi-Racial/Bi-Cultural marriage is becoming more and more common in the United States and abroad. Wonderful! I think that’s a wonderful way to celebrate our heritage is to pass it on to our children in all its nuances. But as we continue to become a more heterogeneous culture, we need to stop focusing on such racially termed definitions. How sad to think that a child must choose which she “loves” more, being African American or being Irish American. I knew a girl in college who lobbied to get the term bi-racial put on the college applications. She said that she was just as proud of her mother’s Irish heritage as her father’s African American heritage. She wanted to identify herself as both. So rather than having to pick our favorite ethnic group from the list of those in our ancestry or saddling ourselves with potentially cumbersome hyphenated titles, perhaps we should simply celebrate the wonderful diversity (there’s that pesky word again) that is represented in each of us. But if we want to do that, it should include everyone, not just those people the government decides should get to celebrate their heritage. A lot of emphasis goes into identifying people with African or Latino backgrounds and the beauty of their heritage, but not nearly as much time is spent acknowledging the wonderful traditions of those from Native American or Asian ancestry, not to mention those of us who come from European or Mediterranean backgrounds. If we want to produce a truly “diverse” society perhaps it’s time we stop emphasizing race, and start celebrating all of our ethnic heritages, whether African, Latino, European, Asian or Native/North American. I want to be able to raise my daughter to think of herself as Irish, Italian, and Polish, and ultimately as an American, not simply as White.

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