Monday, August 06, 2007

Is the Internet the Rainbow Connection?


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.

How?

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

26 comments:

Lawyer Mama said...

Fabulous post, Julie. This is such a great topic and we could all debate it for months, couldn't we?

Sometimes I think its easy for those of us who are white (or at least appear to be) to say that race doesn't or shouldn't matter. But you point out quite aptly, that sometimes it should. I tend to think that we should embrace our similarities and our differences because *that* is what will make this world interesting, whether in the "real" world or the blogosphere.

It's funny that you mention your racial history because I have a very similar one. And I'm not surprised we have that in common given where our ancestors both came from and how long they've been here. I've got a bit of everything. I like to call myself a mutt. And my kids will be even more so. My husband's family is predominantly Norwegian, but all you have to do is look at their cheek bones to see the Native American history.

Momish said...

Great post Julie, and I have to reiterate what Lawyer Mama said, in that it is easy for anyone in the majority to say things don't matter.

While sometimes (like the PR stuff) it is a negative thing that race matters, other times it is a positive thing. I often consider race in conjunction with culture. While I fall under the "white" race, being Italian often sets me apart (at least in my mind). I make that distiction a lot because it is part of my background and my culture, a unique and very different background and culture from many other white race cultures. I often write about things that even other white people would read and say, "WTF? I can't relate".

But if we could all relate to everything other people write about, it would be boring. Just like I love to read about bloggers in Alaska or living on a farm because it is so far removed from my own urban expriences and "I just can't relate". If I could, then it would get dull after a while.

However, the entire issue regarding the PR and marketing is disturbing. It is a great thing that others are bringing it into the open and raising some hell over it.

I am rambling (and not making a hell of a lot of sense either)! Sorry!

slouching mom said...

Damn straight, lady. This post should be required reading.

For all members of the human race.

Jen M. said...

This is a fabulous, meaty post. I have nothing of value to add, other than to agree with Slouching Mom that this should be required reading. GREAT job.

Jeff said...

I love the fact that I can read bloggers of every race. I love reading about their cultures and traditions as well as their pains and injustices. The blogsphere is truly a rainbow of diversity, and it's all the colors that make it complete.

halfmama said...

Thank you for writing this. This is a great post, and I had to quote you in my comment over on Daddy in a Strange Land. I hope you don't mind.

la dra said...

Hi, I followed you over from DISL. You have articulated so many of the issues which complicate the "is race important?" question so clearly here. Well done. Many of your points resonate with me. It is all about the tricky business of dismantaling racism without invalidating cultural identity. In my mind, race (ie. what you check or what someone else checks for you on a questionnaire) cannot be used as a valid scientific category. This, as you point out, conflicts with the historical traditions of medical research and teaching. However, we cannot ignore an individual's genetics which, in this global village of intermarried ancestors, cannot be misinterpreted as someone's "race" but rather should only be analyzed in the context of an individual's family history.

I hope to talk with you more. And I hope more people find their way here to your words.

Her Bad Mother said...

Handled beautifully, Julie, really. I have too much to say to say here - and at at Tere's post - having talked myself out at DISL's - but I want to reiterate this question (which you imply): where race *is* unseen (and on mnay, many blogs it is - case in point with your complicated family history, case in bigger point with bloggers like Stefania who only very rarely reference race on their primary blogs), is it important that it be made *unseen*? Do bloggers have an obligation to write their racial/ethnic/cultural (not to mention sexual, etc.) identities into their texts? Do *readers* have an obligation to seek that information out? How do we navigate this issue in a community that allows - even encourages - certain degrees of invisibility?

That's not for you answer, of course. Just want to keep it on the table.

Snoskred said...

You're inspiring me to make a post on this - which reminds me, we don't have a hump day hmm topic yet?

I liked last week where you gave us a couple of choices, maybe this week one of them could be this one?

Australians have a unique perspective on this, is all I'll say before writing my post on the topic. :)

Snoskred
http://www.snoskred.org/

Christine said...

Thanks for this Julie. So much of it needed to be said.I really could take this as an opportunity to discuss my personal experiences with race, but that would be a LONG comment. It would, in many ways, be a post on its own that at some point I would like to tackle at my place.

One thing that Dr. Garcia discussed was mixed race and medicine. But issues of mixed race extend far and wide, and there is still very little discussion of it out there. One question I would pose to you and anyone who really identifies themselves as mixed race is how does identifying as mixed race affect your writing, if at all? Can one be considered mixed race in an adoptive situation? How does outward appearance affect people who identify themselves as mixed race? How has being a racial minority or of mixed blood drawn people to you--both negatively and positively? How and when has being "white" made a person the minority in a group?

OK I'll stop! And like HBM I have no real answers and the thoughts i have are long and detailed. I just wanted to really just put that all out there as food for thought.

jen said...

this is a humpday topic, friend. you carried this so eloquently and there is so much more to say. it demands a new Julie Question.

And an august just post.

Miguelina. said...

Beautifully said. Thank you.

Ali said...

As snoskred has commented we Aussies have a whole other perspective on race. I'd write a hump-day hmmm on that too!

Ali

Slackermommy said...

Brilliantly written!

I love the diversity of the blogosphere and was saddened to hear at BlogHer that women of color weren't being pitched to by PR people. There is still so much we all need to learn in regards to the topic of race.

thailandchani said...

This is a very good post and you have addressed the issues clearly.

My personal belief is that race has become a factor because of an underlying belief that there is a lack of resources. Race is just another way to "Other" and demonize a group so that they (in the view of dominant culture) are not as deserving to share resources.

IOW, it's competition for resources.

I don't believe racism will ever stop being an issue until that's addressed and viewed for what it is.

Otherwise we can go round and round about race forever and end up exactly where we are.

As for race in Blogistan, truly.. I don't know. I don't care about race in that context. I just care about the ideas.

Good post. Thanks for writing it.


~Chani

Mad Hatter said...

Well put, Julie. I have found that the seeming invisibility provided by the blogosphere is non-existent. Because we don't see each other, hear each other's accents, get a chance to look at each others' clothing and shoes, issues of race, class, ethnicity, regionalism start to matter all the more. I find that my blog screams identity politics-that I need to be forthright about my subject position at all times. Identity does matter. Identity is significant. But cultural, racial, class and regional issues should not be ALL there is in determining the worth or the character of an individual voice.

Blech. What a blathering comment.

Mad Hatter said...

Oh and shit, the problem with not being able to read EVERYTHING by EVERYBODY all the time is that I missed your diagnosis post. Having struggled with relearning to walk lately and all the chronic injuries and resultant weight fluctuations that has created, I felt your post acutely. I hope the Dr is finally on to the right answer.

Bon said...

i'm late to this party, Julie, but i wanted to commend you. articulate and thoughtful, as you usually are anyway, but on a subject that can be so messy as to be silencing, in a sense.

i'm glad you're going the humpday hmmm route. i'll look forward to the rest of the conversation.

Kyla said...

Great post. I think that race, even just limited to the context of blogging is tricky ground. This post was great. It was discussed to some extent in the "The Politics of Inclusion and Exclusion in Online Communities" at BlogHer. I don't think session really quite did it justice, but you can only fit so much into a couple hours. I think there is so many different facets and angles to this subject, it is difficult to cover them all. HBM raised some excellent questions here in the comments, as well as in that session.

Again, great post. Well-said.

Julie Pippert said...

You guys knock my socks off, if I wore any. Which I do not, not here anyway. Don't work well with flip flops. ;)

All levity aside, these are awesome comments, points and questions.

If you think I've bypassed them (which I am sure you know me well enough to know It Is Not Possible for Me to Do That!) I have not.

These points and questions you pose will be my own Hump Day Hmm post...and more excitement about next week announced soon. Keep your eyes open.

Thanks again!!!

Julie

Magpie said...

Fascinating post.

Though, your doctor's comment: "You aren't exclusively white, are you?" was so peculiarly phrased.

But thanks.

Mocha said...

It's time I left a commet here, isn't it? We keep dancing around the same places and, well, my dance card is empty at the moment so, "Shall we dance?"

You write this all so well and remind me to post something about my own fair-haired son (yeah, when you look at the two of us it's safe to say the word ADOPTED springs to mind).

Another important point to make, however, is where these discussions of race are taking place. Marrying the diversity world online is some tricky shit, but I think we're making headway.

Want to cha cha next?

kim said...

This post was excellent Julie.

Stacey York in Roots and Wings states that people confuse race(a person's skin color, hair color) with culture(inside of a person) and ethnicity(someone's geographic origin). She says that when a society categorizes people superficially by skin color , skin color becomes the most important factor in determining a person's value and worth.

Race matters in a way that it shouldn't, but by teaching both appreciation and empathy we learn to value diversity.

Emily said...

Wow. You said a lot. But the best part was:

"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"

Perfect.

Julie Pippert said...

Magpie, he is an odd man. Older. And I admit, has first caused me inhale on sex (as in female) and then on race (as in not white). He offered no overt opinion/judgment but it smelt a little odd to me.

The female thing was old style man of that generation I think. It just takes me off guard because I'm not used to it, but TBH, is not cool by me completely.

No, don't put your hand on the small of my back to usher me to your office.

It's not CREEPY, don't misunderstand. Just not comfortable.

Also? If you are Dr. Soandso? Then I am Mrs. Pippert. If I am Julie? You are Name.

****

Mocha...where? Oooh do elaborate.

****

Kim, wow, that is an awesome quote. I have to use it next week, too. Okay?

****

Emily, thanks. I think maybe that will be my Famous Quote. :)

Gunfighter said...

Interesting.

I suspect I shall have to blog on this, now.

Cheers,

GF