Race is so deeply felt in this country comparatively as a form of identity, and many find solace in their roots or become defensive over misrepresentation. As Americans, we believe it to be our greatest divisor or our only hope at integration. In this melting pot of a country, why do we find it so important? At the end of the day, identity is what everyone finds the most important. Being able to be uniquely you regardless of your story, ethnicity, nationality, or race and still find acceptance is the ultimate goal.
When speaking about race, many people can give you a multifaceted answer that involves one of three usual rebuttals. The first is usually a brief explanation of their racial or ethnic background. Something along the lines of being “Black,” “white,” or “Native American.” The second answer is usually discomfort with the topic. Some people grow up with backgrounds confusing them or that make the subject of race uncomfortable and, therefore, not central to their identity.
The third explanation would be along the lines of their nationality. You see this example often with individuals of Asian descent, as it becomes simpler for most to identify with their country of origin. For example, when asking senior Mung Siam about how he identifies racially, he said, “If I was asked, I would tell people I am Asian, but as per my ethnicity, it would be Burmese.”
When asking fellow senior Braylon Sims, what was most important, Ethnicity, Nationality, or Race, he told me, “That really is a tough question.” In an attempt to be fully understood and characterized correctly. Race and its intertwined nature with identity are imperative to connect with another person. It is the first step to bringing culture into the play of relationships with others and figuring out why and how we think and act the way we do. When asking Chris Wright, a member of the Black community and fellow MSJ senior, which of his identities were the most important? He said being Black was “integral to his identity.”Embed from Getty Images
After that, I spoke to cross country runner and senior student Christopher “CJ” Johnson Jr on being light skinned seen as mixed, and how it affects his life and identity. Being light-skinned can cause confusion with people less acclimated, as many will try to make someone choose a side, not realizing they’re asking someone to deny a part of their whole selves. When asked whether he internalized his encounters and whether they made him approach situations or conversations differently, he said, “yeah.” I also asked how much race means to his total identity he said, “around 60%,” and it is “not the end all be all” to who he is.
I had asked CJ if race had played a role and, if so, how important. He said it “played a considerable role in figuring out who I am. Having a predominantly white and predominantly Black side of my family led to me having to balance the two. Leading to me more so leaning to the Black side.” I asked if anything led to him leaning to either side, and he said, “family and environment.” The environment seems to be the leading determinant of what makes you in many cases. It is not news that children are products of their environments in many cases, and support and nurturing, will determine their roles as mentors and adults later in life.Embed from Getty Images
When speaking to these students, it is easy to see that even though race plays a massive part in their total identity, it seems to be the culture behind it that means the most to them. Analyzing the importance of their family structure and memories made. I am in no way saying that race is not important or that it defines a person in their entirety, but I am saying that it isn’t always the way things look but the way they are behind the veil.
Up to this point, I had been able to connect with and speak to other students my age, but I needed the perspective of someone with more profound knowledge about how race affects life. Knowing this, I looked to Mr. Shawn Turner for insight into race as it pertains to one’s identity and what he has noticed; being a Black man impacts someone’s upbringing, thought process, and interactions. My first question was how do you identify racially. Asking this question to a Black American is almost the same as allowing someone to differentiate themselves with their nationality. Being born and shaped by America completely converts the lived experience and, therefore, denomination by which you associate as a Black person. As a Black young man, I consider myself strictly Black/Black American. I do this because I cannot comfortably call myself African American since I have no lived experience in or from Africa.Embed from Getty Images
This allowed Mr. Turner to present the idea that, with being Black, in particular, things have context. Mr. Turner said, “I feel like, In professional settings, there is a tendency to want to say African American to identify a place where you came from and then the American piece.” He also said, “I learned to like Black more than African American.” He says this in comparison to white people and how someone whose family came from other countries would not have to be called an “Australian American” or otherwise because they’re being white, would just make them American as soon as they got here. Mr. Turner says, “I feel like as much as African American is used to dignify the Black population, it also feels kind of like a dig in a sense because I have to link you to where you came from and remind you of that but not necessarily do that in the other sense.”
I had asked Mr. Turner if there is any possibility to separate race and identity because many people have the question, ‘why is everything about race?’ or ‘how does it always go back to race?’ As people, we cannot remove any aspect of life and lived experience because it is at the expense of someone’s comfort, especially with race. Because of this, my question was not separate to remove, but separate from having varying levels of importance regarding what gets brought up or how we handle the two. Mr. Turner said, “When you talk about identity, you’re really talking about fractions…that part of my identity adds up to the whole me.”
He proceeds to also bring up the point that, “Race is the one identity of all of them that you can see. And you can’t look at me and see Christian or look at me and see those other things, but I think that’s where race has the most importance in terms of the consequences of your identity.” Mr. Turner says that you could see someone and see they are male or female but could not see that they are Christian. This is to say, a person could be seen as their race and judged as such, but it should not define them because everyone is made of the sum of their parts.Embed from Getty Images
Race can often dictate encounters and one’s portrayed image. Although the image always correlates with lived experience. How do you react to things because of where you came from? What caused your thought process? When analyzing race, the meaningful drawback almost everyone seems to find in some way, shape, or form, is heritage through the culture surrounding race. Knowing where you came from to order the steps in your direction. Race brings community and signifies growth. A person I do not look like, and they do not look like me, are inherently different for that fact. We can not live the same life from that factor alone on top of the difference in the family, area lived in, etc.
Race is one of those genetic factors that tie you to your person. Race is family, history, community, and individuality all at once. I find that better understanding yourself improves your quality of thinking and pulls specific ideas out of the dark. The next time race is brought up in conversation, make it thoughtful; understanding it is one step closer to finding out what it means to you.