Morgan Jerkins of New Jersey wrote an op-ed piece entitled “Why Do You Say You’re Black?” in the New York Times, Sunday, January 28, 2018 in which she argues against “we’re all just human beings after all.”
“If a white person asks a black woman why she cannot just be a human, he or she is asking, Why can’t you be like me? Why can’t you participate in the fiction that there is such a thing as being “human,” and that race and gender combined negate the former label? The problem with this seemingly harmless question is that such an interrogation demonstrates how white people can understand or digest people of color only through their own criteria.”
Her experience is that being Black is real, as being a woman is real, and she is indisputably and indissolubly both – it’s who she is. She has extracted from that experience that there is no such thing as being a human being without those contributing identity factors. The assertion that race and gender combined, negate the label “human” is a fiction, she argues. This is a problem that white people have because they are showing how they understand people of color through their own criteria [and not, therefore, through the criteria of the people they are talking about].
Let us assume that there is such a thing as a person of a pure black race. Such a person might be Nigerian and trace ancestry back through countless generations. And there is a white person whose skin and ancestry are Anglo-white all the way back to the Ice Age. If they meet and produce a child, is that child black or white? Who decides? Can the child decide? Do people in the child’s social context have the deciding voice? Let’s consider some examples.
Tiger Woods is an African American whose father was a Black US citizen and whose mother was born and raised in Thailand. Tiger is a Black American because he says so. He is saying, “I am American because my father was an American, and so I am Black because he was.” He could say he is an Asian-American or that he is Thai-American, but he identifies with his father. He does not need to repeatedly reaffirm his racial background because he conforms to the concept that Black Americans are racially mixed at some point(s) in their heritage. His sex and gender are also not in question. His Thai racial background is largely discounted.
Tammy Duckworth is Thai American whose father is a white US citizen and whose mother is Thai. Legal citizenship aside, she is Thai American because she says so. She identifies with her father (who was a soldier as was she) as well as with her mother. I have not heard that she has to debate her sex and gender even though she is a female combat veteran. She has to continually defend her American identity because she has entered arenas that are reserved for “real Americans” by becoming a successful politician and member of the elite US Senate. Furthermore, she is a vocal opponent of the current Trump-Republican “Make America Great” camp. Her Thai racial background is never ignored.
Barack Obama, as we all know, is African American whose father was Kenyan and whose mother was a white American woman from Kansas. Barack was born in Hawaii. He is African American because he says so. He has had virtually nothing to do with his father since childhood, but he has lived and thrived in the African-American subculture in Chicago, and as an African-American outside that culture (in Harvard University, for example). His Black racial ancestry is never questioned, but his white racial ancestry is largely discounted. His conformity to a cisgender role as male is uncontroversial and even noteworthy.
Morgan Jenkins’ argument is that it is wrong for white people to ignore important identity factors even when they do so attempting to be inclusive and accepting. Reality is that race and gender contribute to who one is.
I respectfully suggest that there is a third factor that cannot be separated from race and gender in considering one’s identity. That factor is ethnicity. Tiger, Tammy and Barack as well as Morgan are as impacted by ethnicity as they are by race and gender. In fact, whatever it means to be Black, or male, or American is a matter of agreement with a cultural consensus. It is, in effect, only within an ethnic-cultural context that one can know what one’s race and gender are. Outside that context they might not be what they are within that particular socio-cultural environment.
If Tiger or Tammy had been born, raised, and stayed in Thailand not one iota of their gender or racial composition would be necessarily different but their identity would be different. There are a large number of Thai boys and girls who have Black American or White American parents. But if they are born and raised in Thailand, and if they conform and identify with Thai culture, they will be Thai. However, in Thailand as a Thai person, if Tiger had found his sexuality not in conformity with the sexuality he was assigned at birth he could be a kathoey, which is not possible in America (at least not in a way remotely comparable to the “third gender” in Thailand). The idea that there are 2 or 3 genders is a cultural agreement. Some cultures have identified 5 genders.
The idea that there is such a thing as a Black race is also a cultural decision. What Morgan meant by Black is a combination of race and ethnicity. A native of Papua New Guinea is as black as a native of Nigeria but neither of them has as much in common with the Jenkins clan in New Jersey USA as the Jerkinses would surely have with the Irish-American O’Brien clan in New Jersey. It would be as much a violation of reality to overlook the ethnic component of one’s identity in behalf of “all of us being human beings”, as it would be to ignore one’s racial element. Similarly, in the USA just what constitutes a member of the Black race is a cultural matter. One does not have to have 100% black ancestors to be Black. Hardly any African-Americans do have.
Is Chinese a race? I have heard people of Chinese ancestry argue heatedly that it is. A Chinese matron, born and raised in Bangkok Thailand, told me confidently that any non-Chinese ancestor compromises all descendants. One is either all Chinese or not really Chinese. That is how one can be Chinese with very scant ability to speak Chinese and important connections to Thailand’s hierarchy going back several generations. Being Chinese in Thailand is an ethnic subset but a racial reality. Nevertheless, even though conservative Chinese in Thailand insist on their racial stock being definitive, there are many who have passed into Thai identities. Choice is a factor.
Choice, of course, is not the only factor. Tiger Woods could not just choose to be Chinese or Nigerian. He has racial and ethnic characteristics that would make that complicated. Society would have a say. But society can be arbitrary and unjust. Those who advocate doing away with racial identities are largely reacting against that sort of tyranny. They might mean well, Morgan Jerkins implies, but they are not looking at MY world through MY eyes, nor are they looking at me as I know myself. Idealism that is out of touch with reality is on the way to tyranny.
Note: Photo of Morgan Jenkins from http://www.morgan-jerkins.com
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.