Thoughts on the shifting boundaries of race and identity

“What are you?”

I’m sure every Asian-American has been asked that question at least once in their lifetime.  A question asked innocently by a (presumably) well-intentioned colleague, acquaintance, or even stranger.  In the mind of the asker, the question seems like nothing more than an easy way to start a conversation…something akin to talking about the weather, sports, or weekend activities.  However, if you’re like me, the question feels like some loaded accusation of “foreign-ness” and difference.  It usually takes every once of my self control not to smack the asker and instead semi-facetiously respond “I’m a New Yorker”. 

Humans like to catalogue and categorize.  It’s a trait route out of survival.  Given the millions of bits of information hurled at us throughout our waking day, we try to simply the world we live in – apply heuristics and catalogue information into neat boxes that help make the world seem a lot more manageable than it truly is.  Case in point, we generally catalogue expensive things into the “good quality” bucket even if this may or may not be true. 

So, when someone tries to learn what I am, its there way of starting the cataloguing/simplification process – which they probably already started when they looked at my decidedly asian face or read my decidedly asian name on my resume. 

But racial grouping has always carried with it a whole slew of baggage, bile, and resentment.  What purpose does racial grouping serve…and more importantly how should society even begin to define the boundaries of race?  That’s the question the WSJ attempts to address in their recent article Racial Identity’s Gray Area

When Barack Obama, whose mother was white, identifies himself as black, and when Bill Richardson, whose father was white, identifies himself as Hispanic, who is white?… The U.S. has never found it easy to assign race, although it certainly has tried. A century ago, the people who did the counting — demographers, sociologists, policy thinkers — divided whites into three strata. They considered Nordic whites, from England, Scandinavia and Germany, the most ethnically desirable and elite, followed by the Alpine whites, from eastern and central Europe, and finally the Mediterraneans. Everyone else was identified as black, red, yellow or brown, which included South Asians… Some minorities or multiracial Americans who were once counted as white are opting out of the category. The population calling itself Native American quadrupled when the Census Bureau began asking people to identify themselves by race rather than relying on its own enumerators to do the job.The number of Hawaiian dropped by half when the “two or more races” category was introduced.

Besides the articles interesting approach to this topic – from a white identity angle rather than a “colored person’s” perspective, but that’s a topic for another day – I appreciated the articles presentation of race as a social paradigm with nebulous boundaries that is frequently redefined based on shifts in culture and immigration patterns.  IMHO, race is discussed far to often as some sort of preordained condition that neither changes or evolves.  Too often, the language used to discuss who is white, black, Hispanic/Latino (although they aren’t technically a “racial” group) or asian falls into the category of absolutes.  To often we take for granted that the definition of white has shifted significantly since the turn of the last century.  As the WSJ article points out, in the early 1900s there was some serious debate about whether Southern Italians were technically white.  I doubt anyone driving through Staten Island or walking through the Bronx’s Arthur Ave. today would even think of confronting the areas’ Italian communities and proclaiming them black.  You might get beat up for that.   

So if we begin to accept the fact that race isn’t a rigid category and instead is amorphous and ever recalibrating, then what purpose does it serve?  In the days of Jim Crow, race meant a lot.  It meant the difference between owning land, voting, and being fully protected by the Constitution.  But in this day and age, what purpose does race serve?  Can it tell you about someone’s socio-economic status, educational background, religion, political leanings, personal habits, values?  Maybe, but less and less so every day.  Race has become such a distorting and misleading classification that you actually see groups who try to differentiate and distance themselves from being summarily lumped together.  You see it in the black community where blacks of Carribean and West Indian heritage hesitate to be grouped with African-Americans, and you see it in the Asian community where there is an on going battle to differentiate between groups that may have immigrated under vastly different circumstances (refugees vs. voluntary emigration, 1st generational vs. 2nd, 3rd, 4th generation).

So then, if racial grouping is nebulous and, dare I say, misleading and devisive, how does it continue to hold such sway in our perceptions of the world?  Maybe race is like religion in that it helps makes sense of the world – it creates an artificial boundary for community and defines rules for how things should be.   

Remember back a few years ago when Washington DC judge Roy Pearson sued a Korean dry cleaner for $65 Million over a pair of lost pants.  For months, no pictures were run of the judge – all we knew was his name.  Then, after months of legal battling, a picture of Roy Pearson emerged…and *OMG*  He’s black!  With this revelation, the whole landscape of the case change.  It was no longer the simple case of a crazy judge and some bad customer service.  The case became yet another manifestation of the on-going tensions between the black community and Korean merchants.  People recalled the Rodney King riots and gun toting Korean store owners, they recalled the Korean deli boycotts of the early 90s in Brooklyn, NY.  Was this a fair assessment of the case or was it simply a case of a crazy, lonely, angry man and the loss of a favorite pair of pants?  I guess we can never be fully sure.     

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About Bo

A 30something, 1.5 generation Korean-American/New Yorker who spends her day as an HR exec. specializing in corporate diversity & inclusion. I get to think about ways to make "The Man" less male, white, and straight. It's the best job in the world! When I'm not trying to change corporate America, I teach yoga and dabble in holistic health counseling. I have an MBA from New York University Stern School of Business and my undergraduate from the University of Michigan. Lesser known facts about me: I enjoy b&w film photography, training for endurance races, and making homemade jam. Other mindless observations can be found at
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