Updated: Feb 28, 2019
Philosopher and novelist Kwame Anthony Appiah defines an identity as a label which meets three core criteria: the label must hold a shared meaning in society, individuals who fall under the label must internalize this categorization, and classification under label must lead to a pattern of behavior towards an individual or group. (Appiah, 66-68) A social label which fails to satisfy any one of these three components would not qualify as an identity, according to Appiah. My race has always operated in a nebulous grey-area of my sense of identity. I recognize that, for many, racial identification (both internal and external) is dictated by physical appearances, and heritage. On the one hand, an individual chooses which aspects of their ethnic heritage they consider most important. On the other hand, society at large often determines how an individual should classify their race based on their physical traits. My experiences with race are the product of neither party (myself nor society at large) reaching a definitive conclusion.
My mother is African American, Cuban, and Asian. My father is white. Both of my parents have a firm sense of racial and ethnic identity. However, my twin sister and I never developed such a strong relationship with our heritage. We both appear racially ambiguous, which often thwarts the efforts of society to lump us into a racial category with any degree of certainty. I also have a fairly light-toned skin. This has allowed me to escape the debilitating ramifications of colorism, which might have cemented at least the impression of being ‘non-white’ or ‘other’ in my young mind. In addition, neither of my parents ever instilled a sense of racial or ethnic belonging in our household. As a result, I never incorporated any sense of race into my own self-identity.
However, conversations regarding my race swirled around me often enough to draw my attention. I first became aware of the frequency with which strangers and acquaintances inquired about my race in elementary school. “What are they?” Asked acquaintances, coworkers, friends from school, neighbors, and strangers alike. This question, or a variant of it, was always slipped into small talk and my parents always seemed happy enough to answer it. By middle school, people began to direct this question towards me. At this point, I understood that for many, race is fixed and inherent. However, I drew that line of powerlessness when it came to myself. I adopted what I would later describe, to the amusement of my friends, as the ‘yes policy’. In order to deal with strangers and acquaintances asking about my race on a semi-regular basis, I decided to simply answer any ‘Are you (insert race here)?’ with a simple; ‘Yes’. This was by no means some bold declaration on the socially constructed nature of race. I was not indignant, I was uninterested. Race did not factor into how I saw myself, so I did not care which race others saw in me.
At the beginning of this course, I realized that an interesting parallel between my relationship to race and white peoples’ relationship to ethnicity exists. White individuals can choose which ethnicity to adopt, at which time, with little or no social consequences. (Waters) For a long time, I saw myself as having this power over my own race and in many ways, I still retain that power. This power of choice granted me control over others’ perceptions of my race but also held me back from fully understanding the meaning of race to those who do not have a choice. In other words; “Surely, an identity that is optional in a number of ways ... cannot be that same as an identity that results from and is nurtured by societal exclusion and rejection.” (Waters, 142) Because of my racial ambiguity, I often found myself unable to grasp the point of view of people of color, despite being a person of color myself. While members of racial minorities decried American society’s use of stereotypes to define people of color, I had complete control over how I chose to identify my race to others. I have answered the question of my race with a wide array of answers (many of them technically false). Inquirers have always met my answers with immediate acceptance. My belief in my own power to manipulate and mold the societal perception of my race made it difficult for me to comprehend the anger caused by racial stereotyping and misrecognition.
As Charles Taylor explains; “The thesis that our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others, and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves” (25) Many communities of color and activists fighting for racial equality share Taylor’s views on the dehumanizing nature of misrecognition. This claim eluded my understanding, precisely because I lacked the internal sense of racial identity necessary for distortion to occur. Furthermore, I thought, my racial illegibility to external forces placed the power of recognition in my hands. I determined that I was safe from the threat of misrecognition and made little attempt to understand the plight of those who were not.
“Why would you care what race people think you are?” I remember asking my mother over the dinner table one night during my sophomore year of high school. I had just finished telling her about the yes policy for the first time and she was less than pleased.
“It’s important. It’s who I am, and I don’t like that you lie about it.” She answered. I promptly rolled my eyes with all the ferocity of a typical teenage girl and proceeded to ignore her advice.
While my own views regarding the irrelevance of my ‘true’ racial heritage have not wavered in the years since that conversation, several experiences in my life have given me insight into the reality of the immobility of racial identification in the lives of others. Very few people have been bold enough to assume my race without so much as a lilt of uncertainty. Those who have managed both to annoy me and to open my mind to the experiences of others. The most striking of such experiences that I can pull from my memory occurred during my junior year of high school. I had gotten my first ever job a few months prior and decided to spend a portion of my new income on my nails. I went to the nail salon with a close friend from high school. As we sat at the drying station, with our newly decorated fingers placed inches below a UV light, a woman entered the nail salon. She looked around for an employee at the front desk and, finding no one, her eyes landed on me.
She said to me, with an air of utmost certainty; “I made an appointment for later, but I want to move it up since I’m here now.”
I blinked. I stared. Then, eternally eloquent, I offered a soft; “Cool?” My friend snorted and the woman, realizing her mistake, sat down in one of the chairs by the front desk to wait for an employee.
I laughed it off at the time, but the experience has proven a thought-provoking one for me in the years since. To be clear: I’m not claiming to have suffered any kind of meaningful discrimination at her hands or the hands of anyone who has assumed my race. But the situation has inspired some irritation on my part. I realized that she had assumed I was Asian and therefore assumed I worked at the nail salon, which predominantly employed Asian women. I have no problem with anyone thinking that I am Asian. However, I had a problem with her assumption. Her certainty took the power of ambiguity out of my hands. She had determined my background by herself and had confined me to a stereotype based on her idea of my race. After some reflection I realized; my irritation stemmed, not from the idea of identifying as Asian, but from the narrowness of those confines and her refusal to place the power of my racial identity in my own hands.
Experiences like the one above occurred infrequently throughout my life. However, the instances in which my ability to utilize the yes policy was obstructed by external forces assuming my racial identity have allowed me to see race through the eyes of others, for whom it is a less malleable concept. Confrontations with people who stripped me of the power of ambiguity have not brought me closer to an internal sense of racial identity. I will likely continue to utilize the yes policy; both because it makes social situations easier to navigate and because race will never factor into my own sense of internal identification. However, I have come to realize that racial ambiguity does not insulate me against the dehumanizing forces of racial stereotyping and misrecognition. I occupy a position in American society which enables me to see race both as optional and oppressive. Usually, I can define how others identify me. On the other hand, much like Mohanty’s experiences with racism in America allowed her to view social and political events through the lens of racism, my own limited experiences with the powerlessness of having my identity determined by external forces have instilled in me a sensitivity to the dehumanizing impacts of misrecognition. (Mohanty, 128) After some reflection I realized that my position in the grey-area of race has allowed me to grasp, on occasion, the power over identity which should belong to all individuals in America.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Demands of Identity” in The Ethics of Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005
Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “Genealogies of Community, Home, and Nation” in Feminism Without Boders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
Angela, Onwuachi-Willig. “How Fluid Is Race?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Sept. 2016, www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/06/16/how-fluid-is-racial-identity/race-and-racial-identity-are-social-constructs.
Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition” in Multiculturalism, ed. Amy Gutmann. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Mary C. Waters, “Optional Ethnicities: For Whites Only?” in Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives, ed. Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013.