Friday, February 27, 2009

A white woman of color (by Suzie)

          I’m talking about one of my sisters, and I don’t mean that in some sort of all-women-are-my-sisters way.
         Our white parents adopted her a few hours after her birth. We heard that her birth mother was a blue-eyed blonde, but we know nothing about her biological father. Because my sister has a café-au-lait complexion and dark curly hair, people speculate on her background. She finds it rude. Why should she have to detail her family history for strangers?
         When she lived in a smaller town, she could tell people that her family was Jewish, and that seemed to satisfy them. Many of them had never known a Jew before, and our Jewish father did have tanned skin and curly black hair.
          Now she lives in a city with a large Mexican-American population, and people often assume she's Hispanic. She thinks it’s likely that her biological father was Hispanic. On official forms, she checks off white, the race listed on her birth certificate, but informally, she has come to consider herself a person of color.
          As I’ve mentioned before, the U.S. Census and other government institutions consider Hispanic, Latino, Chicano, etc., to be an ethnicity, not a race. There are a number of people who see themselves as both white and Hispanic or black and Latino or other combinations. (You may want to read the comments on the previous post.)
         The Census doesn’t recognize Arabs as a separate race although they were once grouped with Jews as Semitic people. (Of course, liberals don’t view Jews as a separate race, although some others do, most notably white supremacists.)
         But the term “people of color” is commonly applied to Hispanics and Arabs. Thus, my sister is not the only one who thinks of herself, at different times perhaps, as both white and a person of color. There are other people who were adopted who can only guess at their ethnic background. I’ve written about my mother, who heard that her biological father was American Indian but knew few details.
         No one knows her complete genetic ancestry. People who trace their genealogy can go back only so far, and even then, the official record is no proof of biology. 
         No matter how my sister identifies, some people will view her as a person of color, while people often saw the Irish in my mother, because she had red hair and green eyes, but not the Native American.
       These perceptions influence the identity that some choose for themselves. A biracial person like Obama may call himself black because he knows that he will be seen that way. Others of us choose our ethnic identity based on what we know about our ancestry. Thus, a biracial person who appears white may still identify as black. If the same person identified as white, she could expect grief from all sides for trying to deny her heritage.
"Person of color" is a synonym for "non-white" only in the sense of racial classification, not actual color. An albino can be a person of color, depending on his parentage.
         Nor is it the same as "minority," because there are other ethnic minorities in the United States, such as immigrants from Eastern Europe, who are white but face discrimination.
          Just as white feminists have been criticized for speaking of “women” without considering all the world’s women, those who refer to “people of color” must remember that there are many (millions of?) people of color around the world who have never heard the term and who don’t think of themselves in solidarity with everyone else of color. 
          Geoffrey K. Pullum writes:
[I]t seems like an unwholesome capitulation to the old apartheid idea that there really is some meaningful division between people who are white and people who are not — it seems to presuppose and endorse the stupid idea that there really is some way of determining whether some random Armenian or Azerbaijani or Albanian or Afghan or Argentinian or Ainu or part-Aboriginal Australian is or is not a legitimate claimant to the label "person of color".
          Despite all this, I sometimes use the term “people of color” because I try to call people by the labels they choose. But I hope the day comes when we can talk about culture and ethnicity without putting people into the false categories of race.
         My thanks to the reader known as "dude" for our long conversation on these issues.