the BLOG of stuart mcdonald

My Racial & Ethnic Identity… And Then Some.
February 10, 2010, 1:22 pm
Filed under: My Life..., race
Headed into Boston

In Race and Ethnic Relations Sociology class, we were given an assignment to write a paper (of 2-3 pages — I wrote 5) in order to answer 3 questions: 1) How do you identify racially and ethnically? Who are you? Who are your people? 2) How do you explain the origin and emergence of racial and ethnic diversity and stratification? 3) How do you explain the continuation of racial and ethnic diversity and stratification? When I mentioned the essay initially, I had quote a few people who wanted me to share it, so behold, below is my response:

Check The Top Box, Or Something Like That: A White Man’s Racial and Ethnic Identity and Ideas on the Origins of Race and Ethnicity

Identifying my race  has never been complex or difficult; it’s actually rather easy. I’ve always been able to check a single box — usually the one at the top — and keep things moving.

To look at me, you’d quickly assume that, because of my pale skin which, even in Summer, rarely tans, my blue-ish/green-ish/grey-ish eyes, and my straight, brown hair, that I am a White American man. And you’d be right. No secrets here. Nothing ambiguous to discern, discover, and detect.  Only the obvious. But how I identify myself ethnically is another story.

I am undoubtedly American if for no other reason than the fact that both my parents are natural born U.S. citizens, and this is where I was born, and have always lived. Yet I wonder, what is an American? Is it a person laden with self indulgence and ignorance? Is one with an inherent superiority complex and a desire to force — excuse me, persuade — others in to believing what they believe? Or is it a bunch of English speaking, Christian, hamburger lovers who created rock and roll music? Certainly it is so much more! The fact is that American culture and heritage is nothing more than a mutt — a hodgepodge of other cultures, customs, and ancestries — which, over time, has developed into it’s own mongrel breed. A breed which believe itself to be better than others for no real reason. They are the self proclaimed “alpha male.”

Although, yes, I am an American citizen, I tend to only take pride in it when it is beneficial.  This is a prime example of what Mary Waters means when she refers to the ability Whites have to adopt “optional ethnicities” as they please. Case in point: when I travel abroad, the last thing I want to be labeled is “American.” We tend to look awkward, goofy and out of place; also because Americans are not always, in fact, very rarely, spoken highly of outside of the US. And sometimes — most times — for decent and understandable reasons. I’d prefer to not be labeled an American outside of the US, until I may need to use my United States passport to get me something which I could obtain by no other means. But as long as I’m at home in the US, there’s no denying my American-ness. Inside our borders, it, in fact, behooves you to claim that you’re an American because (most of) our views of foreigners and immigrants since a large portion of our citizen population looks upon them in a negative light. Funny how quickly we forget where we once came from, isn’t it?

With my dad.

Obviously, as with all White Americans, my roots extend far past the continent of North America and the country that began in 1776. I know only the history of one side, my father’s side, of my family. They are from Scotland — the land of whisky, kilts, castles, bagpipes, and notoriously hairy men, the most famous of which being William Wallace (the man from whom one of every man’s favorite movies, Braveheart, is based). That heritage, that ancestry, that ethnicity, I am proud of; definitely moreso than the American part.

And while ethnicity is based off one’s ancestral heritage, spoken language, and country of origin, it encompasses so much more. I’m also an English speaking, Protestant Christian, which serves to further my status as a “typical” White American male. It would seem only natural that the question of who “my people” are would be an easy one to answer. However, it is not.

I’ve always thought of “my people” as being more expansive and encompassing than just my immediate family and blood relatives. “My people” are all of those whom I consider friends. They say that friends are the family you choose for yourself, don’t they? And the family I choose is as diverse and varied as their sizes and shapes. Yes, my people are White. But they are also Black. And they are Brown. They are natural born American citizens, naturalized citizens, and they are immigrants — some legal, some illegal. They have roots in Haiti, England, the Dominican Republic, Poland, Nigeria, Brazil, and Zimbabwe. While they span the globe in heritage and origin, they are, to me, no less “my people” than my own aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Where did they come from? How did they, and our world at large, become so different, diverse, and distinct? Racial and ethnic diversity has, contrary to some beliefs, not been around since the beginning of time. If you believe, like I do, in a creator God, who made Adam and Eve, the first humans, from the dust of the Earth, you can understand there wouldn’t be instant diversity. Even among their children, they were likely of similar complexion and, obviously, heritage — there weren’t yet 100 people inhabiting the Earth at this point.

Because the creation of diversity is a rather progressive and gradual change that likely occurred over hundreds, even thousands, or years as people groups migrated and adapted to different climates, there is no one date and time where we can definitively say, “Diversity started here.” But due to the fact that language has much to do with ethnicity, in thinking about the beginnings of racial and ethnic diversity, it’s important to think about why we have different languages and their origins. For this, we can look at the story of the Tower of Babel — found in the Bible — to offer some guidance. The book of Genesis, says this:

The Tower of Babel

“At one time all the people of the world spoke the same language and used the same words… They said, ‘Come, let’s build a great city for ourselves with a tower that reaches into the sky. This will make us famous and keep us from being scattered all over the world.’

“But the Lord came down to look at the city and the tower the people were building. ‘Look!’ he said. ‘The people are united, and they all speak the same language. After this, nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them! Come, let’s go down and confuse the people with different languages. Then they won’t be able to understand each other.’

“In that way, the Lord scattered them all over the world, and they stopped building the city. That is why the city was called Babel, because that is where the Lord confused the people with different languages. In this way he scattered them all over the world.” (Genesis 11:1, 4, 5-9, New Living Translation)

We can see that, at this particular time, man’s desire was to remain together. We also see that it was because of man’s ability to effectively communicate with one another in order to accomplish a greater task — something rarely seen today — that caused God to confuse their language and effectively spread them throughout the world (v. 6, 7). However, racial and ethnic stratification — the hierarchical arrangement of individuals into divisions of power and wealth — didn’t come into play until there was a need for superiority, supremacy, and dominance.

Stratification, as well as the naturally accompanying conflicts, has been around as long as there has been a struggle and a greed for more money, greater power, and higher status. In a farming society, like the one that likely would have existed around the time of the Tower of Babel, as soon as one person had a surplus of any kind — be it gold, grain, or goats — the society was instantly divided into the “haves” and the “have-nots.” This, then gives birth to an inherent hierarchy, and, although it’s not built off race or ethnicity, the moment another group, an outside group, is introduced into the situation, that those things become a factor. When one group sees another, they immediately recognize the differences, and naturally tend to lean towards their own kind, thus separating themselves as inherently better than the other group. And now stratification has begun.

There’s no need to separate and divide unless you’re going to conquer. This is especially true when wealth and financial gains are involved. Money and greed were the original reason for the creation of racial and ethnic stratification, and they are the sole reason it continues to this day. Struggles, conflicts, and other gains are only a natural byproducts of a fight for wealth. In fact, power and status are not the primary motivation, but rather mere accessories to the greed that encompasses the hearts and minds of most, if not all, human beings. If you have money, you, in turn, have status and power. The three go hand-in-hand, with money leading the charge; for without wealth, you cannot have the others.

As long as there is money, the need for dominance and power, and the greed and desire to gain more, and subsequently, dominance and the upper hand, racial and ethnic stratification will continue. Certainly the group with the power would never willingly succeed it, nor would it be likely that the submissive group would be able to gain it for themselves — especially if it involved taking what the dominant group loves, cherishes and holds dear to them — money.

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4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Great blog with wonderful words

Comment by nigel

gosh I remember my race & ethnic class, for me it was always easy being that I can trace majority of my ancestry and im not mixed, for others it was a whole other ball game. There’s also the perception part, of how others see you versus what you identify with.

Comment by Bombchell - in Atlanta

I have always wondered what White Americans felt about their ethnicity, heritage, and many other things. I am just glad to have read this from a sound, educated, Christian point of view. Thank you for posting this work. I believe the only way to overpower ignorance is with knowledge and love… and in this paper, you have mentioned both. Continue on my brother in Christ!

Comment by Inner Beauty Queen

good writing, good story, I grade this an A for honesty and a fresh perspective. Well done descendant of a Scot, etc.

Comment by Nelson McDonald

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