Race? Do we actually mean skin-color?

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It is worth reflecting for a moment on the term “race” as used in the
United States and in “The Race Card Project”. This is especially important as the US uses “race” as a data-collection term on the US Census forms and both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice use “race” when collecting data about reported and investigated crimes.

The term is used inconsistently. It often means “skin-color” but a
closer look also reveals its use in the US as “ethnicity”, “culture”,
“geographic location”, “primary language”, “country of origin” and

I wonder to what extent reporters and other media-investigators are
themselves confused as to how to approach and properly use the term “race” and the extent to which this confusion is passed down to their readers. Not to mention the public at large.

This makes the overall dialogue difficult because we all bring a
different sense of the term “race” as well as different set of experiences as a result of how we define “race” or how we are defined by “race”. Is Latino/a or Hispanic a “race”? Is black a “race”? Is “person of color” a race? Native American? White? Italian-American? African-Latina-American? Asian? Arab? Other?

This classic hodge-podge of “race” as ethnicity, culture, geographic
location, country of origin and nationality as used in the US is not
only confusing. It also appears at the same time to be an over
simplification of a topic that, because of its seriousness, generated-sensitivities and impacts, requires a certain level of necessary complexity.

If an honest, on-going and change-oriented dialogue is what we are
actually searching for, we may want to reflect on how we define and
use the term “race” for ourselves but also in our discussions and
official governmental classifications. The African-American experience is diverse, complex and unique to African-Americans that is rooted in and partially defined by the human trafficking and brutal forced labor system of the 16th to 19th centuries and legalized and tolerated racism of the 19th and 20th centuries (It has been effectively argued that the different European-American, Asian-American, Arab-American, Pacific Islander-American and Caribbean-Latino-American experiences are also diverse, complex and unique in their own ways) .
Yet some of this African-American experience is shared with other “people of color” and others who become part of that experience in some way.

How should we identify immigrants from Jamaica in the 1930s, Haiti in the 1970s and 1980s or Ghana in the 1990s? They are not African-Americans in the strictest sense yet they certainly experienced many of the same things that African-American experienced.

And yet they are not African-American.

What about non-African-Americans who marry African-Americans and have children?

There might be another, slightly more complex but ultimately less confusing approach to the term “race” as it is often used in the US that is worth exploring. It comes from the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention. This Convention introduced the term “social group”, in
addition to using race, religion, nationality and political opinion as
grounds for someone who has a reasonable fear of persecution to apply for asylum and protection in a country that has signed the Convention.

Social Group was considered a last minute add on to the grounds as a catch-all for any groups or peoples who are persecuted for a reason other than their race, religion, nationality or political belief. It
has to do with specific and generally unique factors, experiences or traits that give a certain group of people a characteristic(s) that give them an identity and they are persecuted (or have a reasonable fear of persecution) because of this identity. People fearing persecution for having a certain physical or developmental handicap would not fall under race, religion, nationality or political belief but they are a specific “social group” by virtue of who they are and what makes them part of that group.

Based on this definition, what most Americans seem to be talking about when they use “race” is in fact social group, as defined by this UN Convention.

The social group definition allows those in the discussion to explore the diversities and complexities of the identity being discussed in order to find the real similarities and commonalities that we need to continue to bind us together. It is no-longer the generic Latino/a.
It is the Guatemalan community in Denver Colorado that was established in the 1980s with little in common with the Cuban community in Miami that was established in the 1930s or the Puerto Rican community in New York that was established in the 1960s.

Once we recognize that these are social groups that can be defined by their common experiences, we can begin the dialogue process. And then this complex discussion can begin.

An African-American doctor who lives in the suburbs of Los Angeles and votes Republican is just as African-American as the African-American bio-farmer in rural New Jersey who votes Democrat. They are bound by a certain set of experiences that makes them a part of a larger social group and they are equally defined by a set of unique experiences that makes them part of different, competing social groups.

This is the complexity and diversity that is at the root of many of the challenges facing the US. We should meet these challenges with the thoughtfulness and pace of dialogue and action they deserve.

Given the discussions generated by “The Race Card Project”, using social group rather than “race” to say what we mean might be a better way forward.


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