My heritage: culture, not designated race.

Kat Bronwë,
Ithaca, NY.

In the LGBTQ community (the queer community), specifically in the transgender community, we have a phrase we like to use to describe the concept of gender identity, versus the gender we’re assumed to be, particularly at birth. We use the phrases “assigned male/female at birth” or “designated male/female at birth” in order to describe an experience of how we were raised and how we were perceived, as opposed to the gender we actually identify as. So, for instance, someone like Laverne Cox would be DMAB, but identify as and present as a woman. This kind of language helps people to express that gender is a construct, that is associated with some physiological features in our culture. It is ultimately not based in biology, but rather, the psyche, and internal sense of self within the context of what we’ve internalized in our culture. I think this kind of terminology could be useful when we talk about race.

We need to understand that race is a social construct, that is different for each culture, and is ultimately based in various colonial systems, caste systems, and ancient systems of classification that were used to justify slavery and conquest. These constructs, like gender constructs, have changed with time. In different moments in history and in many cultures, men wore make up and dressed in very ornamental clothes, and this was considered masculine. My father was swaddled in pink blankets and wore a gown for his baptism photos, which was standard for male children at that point in time. The Romans conquered the lands of brown-pigmented people and pale-pigmented people alike. The Celts, the British, the Gauls, and the many non-Roman ethnic groups nowadays associated with Italy and Greece, as well as many Northern folk were considered heathens and barbarians, a different race altogether to the Romans during the time of the empire– in fact, the Romans saw the Celts and Northerners as more barbaric than many of the Indian peoples and Egyptian peoples. Nowadays, pink is feminine, and anyone with pale skin is considered to be part of the white race, as long as they don’t know of any immediate non-white family members, such as parents or even great grandparents. Or at least, this is true in my culture today.

This notion of race based kinship (purity of whiteness vs. people of color), just reinforces the old colonial concept of gradients of whiteness, just in reverse with gradients of color, and in fact also reinforces the notion of white purity, A.K.A. “aryan purity” and “racial hygiene” that was propagated by the Nazis. James Baldwin, an African-American novelist, essayist, poet, and social critic, who made poignant remarks on class, race, sexuality, and gender, once said, “If you think you are white, there is no hope for you.” Likewise, many others since then, including Touré, who wrote “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?”, and Prince Ea, a youtuber who made a video titled “I Am NOT Black, You are NOT White” have argued that, while appreciation of and continuing on positive aspects of one’s heritage is admirable, it is problematic to think of ourselves in categories based on phenotype (genetic expression). We are not different races. We all share human DNA. At one point in history, race was just another word for species. We are one human race. We live in a society where we are designated a certain “race” at birth based on the color of our skin, and sometimes other features such as our shape or eye color (such as in Haiti) or any other number of genetic expressions, depending on where we live.

Sometimes race is determined by something as simple as the clothes you wear and the language you speak, what is considered ethnicity by academics. While not the same thing as race, ethnicity, nationality, and tribal identity have been used to determine so-called racial groups in many cultures throughout history, and in some still to this day. In addition, the concept of race whitewashes each person’s cultural heritage and upbringing. We know that a person can be dark in pigmentation, and identify as African-American, Swazi, Haitian, Creole, Latina/o/x, or Jamaican, or another Caribbean group. We know that Latina/o/x people come in all sorts of pigmentations, including “white” pigmentation, and can identify in many additional ways, such as Chicano/a/x or Mestizo. We know that a light brown pigmented person might be Latino, might be African-American, or might be Indian, Pakistani, or Israeli. We know that a person pale in pigmentation can identify as Irish, Anglo-Saxon, French-Canadian, Russian, Siberian, Hindi, Romani, Haitian, Creole, Latina, Israeli or Afrikaans. We know that a person who looks “Asian” can identify as a Pacific Islander, Hawaiian native, a Local (Islander), Chinese, Korean, Russian, Siberian, Australian Aborigine, or Japanese-American. We know that people with parents of more than one skin tone can consider themselves Coloured, Khoi, Malay, Mestizo, half-Jew, Hapa, or Latino. There are many other identities not even mentioned here. We know that race is not concrete or biologically based, from our own experiences with people who don’t meet our expectations, or not meeting other people’s expectations ourselves. So, why do we so willingly buy into this notion of race? Perhaps because of old lingering familially inherited resentments, or perhaps because systemic racism, prejudice, and the ideology of separatism which leads to segregation based on many demographics (race, religion, language, gender, etc.) still exist to this day. Why are we so protective of this paradigm, on all sides, rather than trying to challenge it, or even abolish it?

As an exercise, let me describe myself, and you can think about what race I would be considered in my culture, and then what race I would be considered in a different culture, perhaps your culture if you are not from the United States, or if you are Indigenous American or a First Nation. I am a transgender androgyne (third gender) person. I have curly hair, and green/grey eyes. My mother and I are the only two in my family who have this combination of darker, curly hair, pale skin, darker (not blue) eyes, and in my mother, freckles, which I’m starting to get on my body. My father’s side of the family, the ones I am related to “by blood” instead of through marriages, mostly have straight, platinum blonde hair and bright blue eyes. The main exception is my paternal grandfather, who had straight black hair and bright blue eyes (he might have been considered “black Irish” at one point in history). In some cultures today, my mother and I, my grandfather, and my blonde family members, including my siblings, would all be considered different racial groups. All of the people I’ve mentioned so far are pale.

Now, I also have two half-aunts from my maternal grandmother who are African-American, who do not pass as biracial, but look simply “black” to most people. Because my mother was a foster child, I also have an Afro-Latino Puerto Rican aunt (my Titi) and a cousin who is biracial, Italian and Puerto Rican. That is on my mother’s side. On my father’s side, I have Filipino cousins, and I have cousins who were raised in Okinawa, Japan. I speak fluent Spanish, because of the community I was raised in as a young child in New Jersey. I’ve lived near Ontario, Canada for the past 13 years, and as such, I also speak French. I’m in the process of learning Japanese and German, because I want to visit these countries, maybe even live in one of them someday. I know quite a number of phrases and words in Icelandic, Swedish, Sápmi, and Latin for religious purposes, though I am not conversational in any of those languages (yet!). I was raised in a mixed faith family, I’m Catholic and Pagan. My known blood ancestors are Irish, Welsh, German, Swedish (and Sami), Arapaho, Mohawk, French-Canadian, French (from Normandy, France), Polish, Romani (which means that my ancestors further back in history are likely from India), Spanish, and English. While my family has no record of our ancestry going back far enough, it’s not at all unlikely that my Irish and English ancestors were mixed with Roman soldiers and settlers who converted them to Christianity. All human beings can trace their ancestry back to Africa, where the first humans are from.

I identify as an Appalachian Folk, Irish-American, Polish-American, German-American, a Spaniard, a Celt, Nordic, French-Canadian, a Laker, a New Yorker, a New Jerseyan, an American, and a Global Citizen. I was designated white at birth (DWAB), a label that does not begin to tell my whole story. Who are you?

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