I have a problem when filling out forms. It isn’t merely the low-level contempt many of us have for bureaucratic rubber-stamping, hoop jumping and red-taping. I understand the need for a paper trail on lots of things. This is all done in an attempt to draw conclusions when necessary. If you want to track a person’s purchases, determine their risk for cancer or see how their resume has changed with time, one could do far worse than a detailed history of such facts maintained by our bureaucratic gatekeepers.
My problem comes in the form of a single question: “What is your race?” This question has been asked for countless instances from job applications to scholarship forms, including nearly every governmental questionnaire starting from the original 1790 U.S. Census — it asked for total number of “white” men and women, “other” free persons, and “slaves.”
Today, the federally mandated question on race and origin of ethnicity gives seven total choices: Hispanic/Latino, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, and White. The census also gives the option of checking two or more races. What will no doubt strike some readers is a lack of some categories altogether. Where do people from the Middle East, India or the Basque Country lie along these categories? There’s also a lack of descriptive force. Does “black” describe Aborigines, Haitians and Ethiopians in equal measure? What I find particularly distasteful is the notion that such categories even exist.
Try for a moment to formulate what “race” could even mean. A myriad of factors are likely to spring to mind such as skin color, geographical origin and physiology. Some may even try to be a bit more scientific in their reasoning and say it’s ultimately a shorthand notation intended to stand in for underlying genetic factors. But there’s clear scientific evidence to suggest that the genetic variation within “races” far exceeds that seen between races. Physical traits such as skin color, hair type and bone structure show just as wide a range within geographical areas and racial bounds as they do across the whole spectrum of humanity. To suggest that there is some number of biological demarcations one could draw across humankind along ethnic and racial lines is to be mistaken at best and outright deceptive at worst.
Race is, at most, a social construct. It has no basis in reality aside from the one we impart on each other. Only by pretending that such a thing as race describes us do we give it any credence or manifestation. This is not to say that race has not had very real consequences in our world but rather to lay the blame squarely at the feet of those who trod along this evanescent landscape. Furthermore, that anyone would wish to divide us any further than ideologies, predilections and actions already do is abhorrent.
Some even go so far as to have pride in racial divisions. Numerous organizations, institutions and groups exist to emphasize “us-and-them” mentalities and to deepen those lines in the sand over which we dare not cross. Even worse than the mistake of separating yourself based on race is taking pride in yourself based on it. Esteem in one’s self should stem from one’s actions, one’s behavior and one’s way of life. There is nothing to be intrinsically proud of in bearing the human condition. What matters is how one comports oneself while bearing it.
Let us forget the lack of scientific evidence favoring a distinction amongst the races. Let’s do as many others do and pretend for this paragraph that there are races of people that have differing qualities and aspects. Let’s pretend further that these differences confer benefits and deficiencies of their respective races. Let’s pretend that race matters. Where in this state of affairs is pride to be found? Where is shame to be had? The circumstances of one’s genetic origin (millions of sperm assaulting an egg with a single winner) is as irrelevant to our characters as whether we were born during the day or at night. There is nothing about us to which race can add.
That is, until other people say there is. Once enough people pretend that something is true, it becomes exceedingly hard to convince them it’s false. It becomes even harder to convince them that the questions they are asking are pointless. And yet there are forms asking us to divide ourselves, to state to which category we belong, to account for the happenstance of our lives. These forms would have us place ourselves in boxes. I will not do so. There is only one such box about our race that I would agree to check: human.
Barry Belmont is an Engineering graduate student.