After reading Ana Castillo’s fifth book, Peel My Love Like an Onion, I was reminded that I had recently written an essay about the meaning of race. The following excerpt from her novel addresses a theme that I would like to expound—that of belonging, not belonging, never belonging.
“For some reason looking Mexican means you can’t be American. And my cousins tell me, the ones who’ve gone to Mexico but who were born on this side like me, that over there they’re definitely not Mexican…Still, you try at least. You try like no one else on earth tries to be in two places at once…you try here and there, this way and that, and still you don’t fit. Not here and not there.”
I would like to share my essay because I think that there is significant overlap with the identity issues that Castillo’s Carmen struggles with and my own experience with race. I hope you enjoy.
And On Some Occasions, Other
It is undeniable that the concept of race affects the lives of Americans and other citizens of the world in numerous ways (for the purpose of this essay, I will focus on the race issue as I have experienced it within the U.S.). It seems that we cannot avoid encountering race in human interactions, the media, and even our own deeply rooted perceptions of others. However, it is interesting to note that the definition of race not only varies from person to person or school of thought, but that a sole definition of race is difficult to obtain. This essay will address a series of race-centered concerns including the characteristics of different racial groups, how others may view race, and the way I have come to self-identify racially, and, as I will later explain, ethnically.
Before having ever taken a sociology course, I believed that race was another item that could be checked off on applications and surveys. It helped to put people into a category and it meant being American Indian, Asian, Black or African American, Latino/a, White, and on some occasions, Other.
After taking a couple of sociology courses, I came to challenge my previous notions and see race as a social construct aimed at grouping people together oftentimes based on arbitrary physical characteristics. I do not think that a biological marker exists that can accurately categorize people objectively—I have yet to find scientific evidence that races exist. Therefore, I do not categorize people in terms of different racial groups, but rather in terms of varying ethnic backgrounds. These ethnicities are the culture-groups in the world and I cannot establish a finite number or list of them, as cultures are continually evolving and changing. Furthermore, my list would shift based on how macro or micro my level of analysis.
Historically, race has helped to foster an “us” and “them” framework between a group that perceives themselves to be superior to an alleged inferior group. For example, during the rise of the slave trade, it became more salient to differentiate one group from another in order to justify the cruelties of slavery. In Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, where he addressed what should happen to slaves if they were to be emancipated, he described the differences between Blacks and Whites using seemingly biological evidence. He wrote: “Besides those of color…there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race…they secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong disagreeable odor” (American Political Thought 550). Such descriptions are present throughout this text, but ultimately, Jefferson claims that the most powerful obstacle to the emancipation of the slaves was the “unfortunate difference of color”.
While slavery no longer exists in the U.S., the racial implications of that period have continued to affect certain stigmatized members of society. According to New York Times contributor Shankar Vedantam, “Our brains, shaped by culture and history, create intricate caste hierarchies that privilege those who are physically and culturally whiter and punish those who are darker” (2010). It is clear that over the course of history, the definitions of race have changed, as have the number of races that exist at present.
In the U.S. today, races are divided roughly into the five groups I mentioned earlier (American Indian, Asian, Black or African American, Latino/a, White, and for the sake of political correctness, Other). These groups are differentiated from one another by shared geographic locations and the characteristics that make up an ethnic group, not a race. These characteristics include shared language, food, music, religion, nationality, and ideological views.
After surveying several Cornell undergraduates on the topic of race, I collected a wide range of answers. Most people were taken aback by three straightforward questions: “How do you define race?”, “How many races do you believe there are?”, and “How do we know one racial group from another?”. One student responded: “To me, people of the same race share a large percent of similar genes, regardless of culture and environment. Over the course of human history, these genes have changed and adapted, hence different looks…for the most part, members of one racial group look different than those of another”. I found this response in line with some of the earlier views of race—that it is biologically determined. Another student replied: “I think race is an innate characteristic”, then chuckled, adding that groups were differentiated by “fine skin shade”.
Most of the reactions I observed were marked by uneasiness when discussing race. Some did not know how to address my questions but still tried, while others denied answering. It was surprising to find that the majority of people who did complete my survey leaned towards an antiquated view of race and did not share my own views. Only one student out of fifteen mentioned any distinction between race and ethnicity.
Based on the aforementioned view of race, I fall into the category of Latino/a or Hispanic; it is the tiny box on forms that I continue to check. Officially, I would call myself a Dominican-American because I continue to identify with my family’s cultural background, despite being born in the U.S. and having lived here my entire life.
I grew up in a neighborhood in New Jersey that was mostly comprised of minority groups, which has given me the opportunity to interact with a diversity of people. I have been witness to the cultural clashes and struggles of friends whose families had migrated from countries ranging from Latin America to the Middle East. It may seem like a cynical observation, but the people I met in my hometown who I deem the most successful are the ones who assimilated the most and broke away from most of their parents’ culture. Perhaps this is a product of my own assimilation.
My racial status influences my life in several key ways that often feel like a cultural tug of war. On one end I have my parents and family, who were raised in the Dominican Republic, and have had to work extra hard to make sure that I did not lose aspects of Dominican culture that they deemed important. At times, they have fought me for becoming “too American”. On the other end, I have encountered the pressures of unavoidable assimilation and often feeling not “American enough” within my own country. I seem to simultaneously belong and not belong to both of my cultural backgrounds. It seems that when I take a closer look at myself, my self-identity can be kaleidoscopic, and on some occasions, I am like the Other.
Kramnick, Isaac, and Theodore J. Lowi. American Political Thought. New York: W.W. Norton and Company„ 2009. Print.
Vedantam, Shankar. “Shades of Prejudice.” The New York Times 18 Jan. 2010: A31. Print.
“What is race?” Survey. 30 Jan. 2010.