If you think I am going to talk about race in this post, you are right. I am. I'm not going to try to rock any worlds and make anyone a different person. I'm just going to say a few things that have been on my mind since Tere broached this topic on BlogRhet. The subsequent discussion felt like a lot of different things to different people, and I'm going to say that's because we are all different races and cultures.
So I am going to say that race matters, but not in the way people usually think it does.
I'll tell you how and why it matters to me, and then I'll tell you how and why I think it matters, anyway, on the Internet.
First, let's get this out of the way. You've seen my photo and my kids. You look at me and think, "Caucasian. That girl is one long loaf of white bread."
And you'd be right. Mostly. But not completely.
When I was going through the diagnosis for my Dread Disease, the specialist did the usual extremely in-depth H&P (that's history and physical for those of you not deep into the medical community on either side of the treatment fence). After a few pointed questions about physical characteristics (of my body) he said, "Ahh, I see, well this changes things. You aren't exclusively white, are you?"
"No," I answered, surprised. Who ever guesses this brunette with red and blonde highlights, blue eyes, and skin so fair it only freckles and burns could be anything other than white?
But apparently my racial markers made my genetic history identifiable to this physician, although no other doctor had ever guessed much less asked. However, to this physician, my racial make-up was relevant because it's a race often associated with this disease.
Doctors are trained to consider race. They are taught that it can be a factor in disease, as Richard S. Garcia, MD explains in his article, "The Misuse of Race in Medical Diagnosis"
The textbooks say that a patient’s race can, and should, influence the doctor’s thinking about possible diagnoses. An Ashkenazic Jewish infant might have Tay-Sachs disease. A black boy might have sickle cell anemia. A Southeast Asian girl might have thalassemia.
However, race can be misused and misapplied, in medicine and beyond. Like doctors, we too are trained---advertently and inadvertently---to consider race, and like doctors, we can misuse and misapply this consideration. It comes out through both good and bad intentions, and consciously and unconsciously.
Dr. Garcia explains how it can be misused in medicine
My childhood friend Lela wasn’t diagnosed with cystic fibrosis until she was 8 years old. Over the years, her doctors had described her as a "2-year-old black female with fever and cough...4-year-old black girl with another pneumonia. Lela is back." Had she been a white child, or had no visible "race" at all, she would probably have gotten the correct diagnosis and treatment much earlier. Only when she was 8 did a radiologist, who had never seen her face to face, notice her chest radiograph and ask, "Who’s the kid with CF?"
An emergency room physician referred a patient to me with this history: "A 14-year-old black male from South Central Los Angeles with a positive tox screen presents with headache. He’s probably in a gang." I ordered a computed tomography scan of the patient’s head and discovered a large cyst that had blocked the normal flow of cerebral spinal fluid until the fluid had backed up and squashed his brain against his skull. Yes, he had a headache, and he had smoked a joint before going to the hospital.
Those are just two examples of incorrect diagnoses caused by doctors who use racial assumptions to arrive at incorrect medical conclusions. As a physician, such misdiagnoses disturb me. I am also concerned as a father. I am Mexican from California, and my wife is black from Los Angeles. Our daughter is blonde with green eyes and pale skin. I have no known white ancestors, and that kind of heritage—even if it is just a legend—would not be left out of my family’s stories. In my wife’s case, her mother is now tracing their family’s roots back through American history; as of 1843, she has not found a single white ancestor. But my wife’s relatives generally have fair skin, and I suspect that my mother-in-law will eventually find a slave owner or overseer or some other white man who is responsible for that, and for my daughter’s appearance.
What concerns me is that many years from now, when she is old enough to see a doctor with neither me nor my wife present, the doctor will use what he assumes is her race to misdiagnose her: "A 19-year-old white female presents with irritability."
Here is the crux of the problem: My daughter’s race can never be known. Her genetic risk for this or that disease is necessarily imprecise because she is a person, not a race.
What if I hadn't had the racial background that I have? Would my doctor have so quickly settled comfortably into the diagnosis? Or would he have kept rooting around? Have we settled too quickly into a diagnosis because of my racial background?
A friend of mine kept showing markers for a disease strongly associated with Hispanics. But because she wasn't of any Hispanic origin, the doctor kept seeking another explanation.
You might call this being thorough, and I do believe in being thorough when it comes to health. But she also might have been spared months of additional testing and medical costs if the doctor had not so strongly associated the one thing with race.
And I believe this is the exact racism we experience in society. It's dangerous to give too much weight to race, and to assume that the outside is in any way reflective of the inside.
Dr. Garcia discusses this very eloquently in his article
...when "race" cannot possibly matter, let us omit it. What difference does it make if it is an African American or an Asian who has an earache or ingrown toenail?
Medical school professors must teach students that a Hispanic is not real. That an Asian American doesn’t exist. That whites exist only in America: They are Irish in Ireland, Italian in Italy, Spaniards in Spain. That harm—real, physical harm—can come from calling a child with cystic fibrosis an African American.
Race does exist in America, alas. It’s why my daughter’s history here starts in slavery. It’s why my Mexican face identifies me to strangers before they know I’m an educated member of the middle class. It’s why nobody dares to ask for details about anybody else’s identity.
There's that PC issue. Kim at After the Ball touched on this topic in her post, "White people say the damndest things." She wrote
...I told him that I had no idea what the "right" thing to say was, but that it was more that you stopped thinking about a person in terms of race. You have to ask yourself is this information pertinent to what I'm trying to communicate? If the principal had been white would you have said "Is he the caucasian gentleman? Would you have mentioned race at all?
Kim's quote and Dr. Garcia's last paragraph illustrate that race is still a factor, right or wrong, it is. People see it, think about it, consider it, and weigh it as a factor in the snap decisions we all make about people that we call "first impression."
However, as both of them conclude (and I agree), it shouldn't matter that way.
But it does create an effect in how we feel things and see things. If your culture or race is commonly the minority, it affects you. If your culture or race is commonly the majority, it affects you. We've all heard common racial stereotypes. Imagine how it feels from the majority and minority points of view---especially if you are the race being denigrated.
I hear people say, "Well I'm not racist. I only mention race as a description, like pointing out a person in the crowd."
What that really means is: pointing out the minority versus the white people. Because a person of minority status is easily culled from the group on the basis of their racial makeup. Dark skin stands out.
My grandmother taught me this.
"Stay out of the sun, and use protection if you go out into the sun," she cautioned me strongly, back in the days before skin cancer and SPF were the biggest PSAs after tobacco. Back then people soaked up sun and cigarettes with impunity.
"Keep your skin fair, like it is. It's better to be light," she told me, more than a little sadly, "Dark skin brings bad luck." She always told me my light skin was good luck, and I was fortunate to be so light. It was years before I really understood why fairness was such a prize to her. I don't know that I'll ever completely understand because she's never shared specific incidents or experiences. I only ever saw and heard the results.
And those results affected me deeply.
I saw how skin tone affected family politics. I paid attention because of that to how skin tone affects societal politics.
As Dr. Garcia points out, eliminate race if it isn't a factor. I understand that using it as a descriptor isn't necessarily indicative of inherent racism. It is, however, indicative of the societal politics of race. It is a descriptor when it doesn't need to be, therefore creating a wall where there doesn't need to be one.
Because we really only use it to describe minorities.
I don't need to say, "Hey see that girl? The Asian one?"
I can just as easily say, "Hey see that girl? Purple shirt, long black skirt? Hair in a pony tail? Standing at about 2 o'clock? Check those shoes...aren't they cute?"
There, race isn't relevant. In fact, on any kind of grouping basis, try eliminating using race as a factor. Bucketing by race usually does more harm than good.
However, when it comes to respecting an individual and the qualities and characteristics of that person and his or her views, interests, customs, and so forth, race just might be relevant.
In the United States we grow up affiliated with the past, present and future of our own culture combined with the other cultures that we come into contact with. First and foremost where we come from shapes who we are and the experiences we have. But, it is not the sum total of who we are. We have experiences outside of what we look like and where we came from, too. Those shape us, as well.
So what does it mean to consider the fact that how we look can be (if we don't show photos or mention it) invisible on the Internet?
On the one hand, we could argue that the unseen aspect of the blogosphere is the great equalizer. We can all talk with one another about our things in common (and not) and have it be about the situations and issues---not what we look like, our racial makeup and so forth---be what matters. I can only imagine the eye-opener it might be to a bigoted person to find out that Blogger A, who he/she just thinks is great, is a race he/she has never felt comfortable with before.
On the other hand, we can argue that sometimes race and culture are factors, and should matter, should be considered. For example, as Tere movingly wrote in her BlogRhet essay
Is this just me? Do any minorities who read MBs ever feel like, "WTF? I so can't relate"? Does anyone else feel sometimes that the mommy blog world is a microcosm of the United States, where white voices lead and prevail and there seems little room for minorities? And where these white voices seemingly have little to no experiences beyond their white world? The fact that parenting blog advertising dollars are spent entirely (or close enough) on blogs written by white people speaks volumes to me.
This is a point Stefania Pomponi-Butler of Kimchi Mamas brought up at BlogHer and in her post, "Putting PR People on Notice," it's a point that Jason (from Daddy in A Strange Land) explored well in his post, "What’s race got to do with it: some thoughts on parentblogging, community and identity," and its something I'm trying to explore here.
I don't claim to have all of the answers, or any of the solutions when it comes to the complex issue of race and culture.
But I do have an opinion, and that is that race can and should matter sometimes.
When Tere wrote, "The exclusion of the mom blog world of minorities is simply one based on ignorance. You cannot address, or include, that which you do not know. It is true of me in the reverse. But as the minority here, I can't help but see it as a disadvantage…."
Jason responded, "That’s what we’re talking about here, at the root, not advertising dollars or even readership stats, but acknowledged presence in this community we’ve already called our own, acknowledgment of our diversity and our issues, of our part in all of this."
I agree, and that's why I don't think the two hands I described above are mutually exclusive.
Because while I don't think another person's race ought to matter to me, in my assessment of them, it can matter to them in how they feel a part of the world and therefore I ought to respect that, especially if they ask me to consider it as part of my understanding of them as an individual. I ask the same. My racial experiences are a part of me, too, and have affected how I view race, racial issues, and culture. Where I come from, the place and the people, affect who I am and how I perceive things, as well as my beliefs. I think this rings true for all of us, regardless.
Therefore, I do think---to all of those who have asked recently in the blogosphere---that we should care that there is so much largely unseen diversity in the blogosphere (thank you Jason and Her Bad Mother for giving the wording there). It affects the makeup, the culture, of this community. It also allows us to miss the racism perpetuated---for example through the marketing, which acknowledges it deliberately ignores minorities out of ignorance; and through the white bias such as the "white PTA" scandal---within this microcosm of our larger culture.
I care about my background. I care about your background. I care how our backgrounds come together to form our cultural whole. But it doesn't matter to me where you come from, only that you did come. And that is how race does and does not matter, to me.
copyright 2007 Julie Pippert