Friday, August 10, 2012

A Little More Confusion

Just to add to the confusion over the definitions of race and ethnicity that I wrote about in my last post, here's an update from the U.S. Census Bureau:

First, they are proposing to drop the word "Negro" in favor of "black" or "African American." Now there's another question -- which is it? Do they mean the same thing? Is one term more acceptable than the other? During some recent research I found that for some people (and not all of them were white) there was confusion over racial descriptors. Some people thought "black" was actually a racial slur, and that they'd be accused of racism if they said it. They thought it was unfair that African Americans get to use the term "white," but whites, in their view, don't get to use the term "black." They saw this as just one indication of the way that whites are now victimized by "some people" who are "just too sensitive" and are using past racism as an excuse to advance unfairly. Funny what's under the surface - all we were talking about was the word "black," and a whole lot of anger bubbled up.

Anyway, back to the Census Bureau. They also want to add Hispanic as a category separate from black or white. This would make it the equivalent of a race. Is it? Or is it an ethnicity? That would mean that anyone who comes from a Spanish speaking country (because that's what "Hispanic" means) would not be considered white or black, no matter what they look like. Very messy stuff here.

Lastly, they want to add an opportunity for people to write in a racial category in order, they say, to "allow Middle Easterners and Arabs to specifically identify themselves." Hmm. So people who were, up until this point, considered white, would no longer be considered white. Not sure what's behind that.

All of this points to the fluidity of racial categories. With the stroke of a pen, someone's race can be changed. Weird, right? Does this mean that race doesn't matter? If racial categories can be changed so easily, what is the point of having them? Maybe we should just stop keeping track. Well, the problem with that is that in the U.S. race has always mattered and it still matters. Sadly, race has been a way to exclude people and we are still living with the legacy of that discrimination. Ignoring race is not the answer.

Perhaps the changes in the census give an opportunity for some to claim their national heritage with pride, and not to be lumped in with a group that they do not identify with. No problem there. But does it also means that fewer and fewer people are being allowed into the "white" category? And will this be cause for panic for some members of the historical majority as they see themselves slip into minority position? If these changes are made, will there be backlash of some kind? Time will tell, but I hope it doesn't tell with a bang.

FYI -- here's how another governmental agency, The National Center for Education Statistics, categorizes race:

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Just Can't Say the Word

Like most teachers, at this time of year I'm watching the calendar with growing trepidation.  Soon and very soon it will be time to head back to school.  So, as I usually do in the beginning of August, I'm preparing my courses for the start of fall classes, and for the last several days I've been deeply immersed in the newest edition of my educational technology textbook. The authors (all five are white and four of the five are male) include a section on the importance of knowing who your students are in terms of gender, SES, culture and "ethnicity."  They define ethnicity as "the way individuals identify themselves with the nation from which they or their ancestors came" (72).* So far, so good,  Then they go on to list the following as "ethnic" groups that exist in the U.S.: "African American, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American, and various immigrant groups, including Italian, Polish, Israeli, Indian, and many others."

Huh? Do you notice something missing here?  What about the category of race? It's gone from the list, and in its place is a conflation of race and ethnicity.  So both Asian American and Indian are listed as ethnicities, even though Indians are from South Asia.  Hispanic is listed as an ethnicity, even though the term "Hispanic" means Spanish-speaking, and comprises people from many different nations (i.e., different ethnicities). And is African American a race, or an ethnicity, or both? And if you're white but no longer identify with a past European ethnicity, well, sorry, you didn't make the list at all.

What's going on here?  By ignoring the category of race, are these authors saying that it does not exist? Or are they somehow afraid to use the word?

This is not the first time I've witnessed this kind of confusion and avoidance by whites.  I've heard the term "ethnicity" used when the speaker meant "race" lots of times (just as I've witnessed whites of varying ages afraid to use the word "black," thinking that it's a racial slur).  For some reason the word ethnicity has a softer connotation for some.  Do these folks subliminally think that pointing out race in any way makes one racist? Do they think that the only way to ensure racial equity, or to avoid being called "the R word" is to be colorblind?

Granted, the authors are not race scholars, but they are scholars and their text will be used in many teacher prep courses. By failing to see race as a category different from ethnicity they reinforce to their readers that it's not okay to notice race.  If we can't notice race, we can't notice racism, especially on the structural or institutional levels.  If we can't notice racism, we can't do anything about it.

*Newby, T.J., Stepich, D.A., Lehman, J.D., & Russell, J.D. (2011).  Educational
              technology  for teaching and learning (4th ed.).  Upper Saddle River, NJ: