03 December 2011

Trace amounts

Interesting article today: Some Asians' college strategy: Don't check 'Asian'.

The line that everyone was fed when I was a child was that everyone is created equal. This came in the wake of the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s, and I was happy to believe it. I never thought any differently of the kids with whom I went to school based on their skin color, religion, whatever, and my friends were of all different colors and beliefs. People who weren't my friends were those who had personal qualities that I didn't like: the bullies, the mean, and the intentionally stupid. While my parents were largely wise enough to keep their mouths shut about how they might have felt about this, in the early 1970s, the only thing that was really a big deal was the woman who was divorced and raising her son on her own. Everyone whispered about that.

(I only met her a few times because her son was in my class for a couple of years. What struck me first was that she was tall and pretty in her blonde bouffant. The second was the air of sadness in her smile but I always put that down to the fact that her son was a creep. Other reasons didn't occur to me until I was much older.)

In any event, relations amongst the races and religions was peaceful in our neighborhood, and pretty much everyone was represented on the teams and in the classrooms. Again, while I've no idea what the adults were thinking, the kids clearly didn't think much about it. Interracial dating at my high school? You bet. Crossing religious lines? Yup. My high school boyfriend came from a conservative Jewish family, which didn't sit especially well with either set of parents, given my conservative Catholic background.

When did they start asking the race question on forms? I don't know. But I remember the first time I didn't answer the question: my PSAT test. And I remember the process by which I chose not to answer it: everyone says race doesn't matter. Well, then it doesn't matter.

It still doesn't matter. Ladies and gentleman, you can not have it both ways. Either race and ethnicity always count, if you can even accurately define either, or they never count.

(You can read here how I cheerfully made hash out of one HR manager's attempt to pigeonhole me.)

I raised my kids not to fill in those boxes either, and there was a memorable day when the daughter was in junior kindergarten when race and ethnicity happened to come up in classroom conversation. The daughter politely declined to claim any particular label and a boy (Caucasian, different ethnicity) said derisively to the daughter, "You're WHITE!" And the daughter jumped to her feet, drawing herself up to her full 4-year-old height, and yelled, "I am NOT. I am PINK!"

And I still cry with laughter when I tell this story. And pride because no one puts the daughter in a box.

So, as the son is filling out his college applications, he hums and sighs and skips the race box.

"No worries," I tell him soothingly. "They don't list Mossacubian as a choice anyway."

Go listen to some music: "Trace Amounts" from the album Halo: The Soundtrack by Martin O'Donnell & Michael Salvatori. Consider this: most people don't know the difference between race and ethnicity anyway. Given my Heinz 57 ethnicity, racially I could be anything regardless of what I might appear to be visually. And doesn't that pretty much apply to EVERYONE? So sorry, I don't play that game.

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