Monday, March 31, 2008

Racial Identity: Unknown

This is a post which I have been trying to write, or to give up on writing for a year.

Every now and then someone will ask me what, meaning what race, Carl is. Usually the questions come from the side. Once someone asked where he got that amazing skin tone. I have been asked several times about his hair. It grows out and starts falling in Shirley Temple curls -- except of course for the color. I tell them that his mother had naturally curly hair. They are uncomfortable, because that wasn't really what they wanted. They already know that his mother was white. They want to know "what his father is."

But I side-step the question. I tell people that is father is from Belize and that the people in Belize are generally multi-racial. I change the subject.

Of course, I do so because none of us should care, right? It isn't supposed to matter.

And it doesn't. It doesn't have anything to do with our relationship. He is Carl, dear to my heart in ways no one else could be. He is the boy who changed my life. The gift I did not seek. I can bring myself to tears just thinking about how easily I could have missed him. What if I hadn't been in church that day? What if I hadn't followed through on that insane impulse to call a social worker and become a foster parent so that I could parent him?

And then again, it does matter. I know it matters to him. I know he would like to know. Everyone else can tell their story. Though it may be impolite to ask, we expect that people do know the answer. Barak Obama knows. So does Tiger Woods.

Everywhere I turn I see articles about race. In The New York Times I read about new discussion about what it is to be multi-racial. I read an interesting column in which a mother tries to explain to her daughter that she is Puerto Rican and Filipino all the time; she is not one first and the other second. Everyone knows "what" they are. The discussion is about what it means.

What does it mean to be a transracial adoptee? Harlow's Monkey can help you get thinking about that. Her posts are all about being a Korean adopted by a white family. She does not know her family tree, didn't even eat Korean foods until she was 30. Recently she wrote about parents responsibility to educate children about race.

But Carl does not have even that. He cannot ask what it means to have his heritage, because he doesn't really know what his heritage is. Not in terms that makes sense to us, anyway.

His father is from Belize which in turn is home to several distinct ethnic groups. There are Creole/Kriols; Garifunas; Mestizos; Mayans; people from Eastern India, Mennonites, and more. His mother told him that his father was an east Indian. She might have meant "from Eastern Indian," but she probably meant "from the East Indies." If the later, does that mean that his father migrated to Belize from the Caribbean, or was Garifuna, or did she just think of Belize as being part of the Caribbean? The photograph of his father is not much help. Perhaps the people in Belize could hazard a guess as to his father's ethnicity from his photograph, but I cannot. I imagine that most people in the United States would have the same reaction to his father that they have to Carl: how did he get that skin and that hair? It's unusual. Maybe Carl really did get his curls from his mother.

Things get more confusing when you look at other photographs. Carl's half sister appears to be unquestionably of African descent, as do his father's band-mates. Does that mean anything about Carl's dad? Probably not. In the US he had a child with a white woman. In Belize he had a child with a woman we would classify as Black, although she probably identified as Kriol or Garifuna.

When he first moved in I wanted to help him learn about and celebrate his heritage. Then I found out how complicated it was. I let it go and concentrated on helping him find his identity as a gay man while finding my own identity as the mother of a gay man.

What is race anyway? It is nothing. It is a social construct. Carl did not seem to worry about it, not much anyway. He was sixteen then and twenty-four now. It is not my job to figure this out for him. It is just my job to love him. He will have to construct his own identity, as he has always done. But I am surrounded by talk about race it makes me want to help him again. I want to find out for him. I want to give him the information as a present. I can't imagine it does not matter to him.

Because though it is rude to ask someone about their racial identity, everyone knows, right?


  1. Hmm... you could point him in the direction of genetic analysis. It's still a bit expensive but the prices are coming down. There are lots of companies out there that do it now, and many people that are interested in their heritage but don't have official genealogical records are getting the tests done. is one I have heard a lot about.

    You could simply introduce it as something cool, but very low key. "Hey, this sounds really interesting, I've heard lots of people are doing it, I might get it done for myself, and if you're interested, I'll (pay for it/help you pay for it) as a present." If he's not interested, no biggie.

  2. Thanks for the idea Atlasien. It's a good one. I will seriously consider offering that to him.

    Low key, of course.

  3. Not something I've really thought about. Never occurred to me that Mayan could be considered a racial identity. I just find it cool that my little man is descended from the Mayans.

  4. To play the Devil's advocate: Aren't you just buying into the notion that ethnicity/racial characteristics matter? Would you do the same thing for a white/Caucasian son who didn't know exactly what ethnicity background they had? If you wouldn't do it for one, why the other?

    I think it is unfortunate that American is so big into ethnic background. Really, how Lithuanian am I just because all of my paternal great grandparents emigrated from there? My father isn't even a native English speaker, which puts us far closer than all the folks around here in WI who claim to be German or Norwegian and it goes back to the 1700s or 1800s. We have consciously chosen to not reveal our daughter's ethnic background and my husband doesn't remember what it is. (I do because I'm a paperwork person and I keep seeing it when I look at her papers for other stuff.) We are all Americans and that's all that should matter.

    On the other hand, I find it very interesting to know that I'm "half Lithuanian" and my daughter has a biological great-grandparent from ***. So I'm not completely sure I believe what I wrote above.

  5. It matters to some for different reasons but mostly because of perception and what that perception does to our self-identity. I'm Hispanic but very pale and this has afforded me certain (underserved) priviledges over my non-pale Hispanic family members. So for me it would be easy to say "well..I'm just an American and it doesn't matter" but they never could because in other people's eyes they are well...Hispanic...and that brings up all kinds of preconceived ideas in people's minds (usually negative).

    Racial segregation is a social construct for the most part and fluid (but it is those in power who has usually made the decision as to what is important and who is on top) but it does affect us today so ignoring it is usually a mistake (just my opinion...not an indictment) although in Carl's case it has to be something he, himself, wants to explore. (plus he's is "extra" complicated ;))

    I identify w/ my ethnic identity and not so much with my racial make-up (although it does affect me) yet my husband feels he has no deep ties to his ethnic group and sees himself as just an American but one that speaks Spanish!LOL Race and ethnic identity can get a bit tricky sometimes, but the problem (as it stands today) w/ "just" seeing ourselves (people of color/other ethnic groups) as Americans is that others sometimes don't so we still have to have/find strength in our identity as "other" if only just to survive. For example: I might respond to someone "I'm an American" and they might just nod and move on (if they don't pick up on my accent!LOL) but if my dad (who has a very thick accent) or my mom (who is darker) says it what they see is not "american" but "other" - so "perception" is what other matters.

    Ok...not sure that made sense...second day of giving up coffee (again!) so I'm a bit cloudy!LOL

  6. But...if we want children to be proud of their ethnicity, then why wouldn't it matter?

    Why would it be rude to ask if it's one way of identifying. I never could understand that.

  7. There's a line between 1) accepting your race/ethnicity and being proud of it 2) having your race/ethnicity be used to separate you out from everyone else. Number one is active/positive. Number two is passive/negative.

    I'm happy to say I'm Asian and Asian-American. But I'm also heartily sick of the stupid questions I get because of being Asian. It's socially acceptable to ask really personal questions about me in a way that it's not acceptable to ask them of a white person.

    Imagine if I kept asking annmarie multiple times "but where are you REALLY from?" everyone time she protests "but I'm an American". And then I would keep demanding that she say some words in Lithuanian. And when she said she didn't know any Lithuanian I would give her a suspicious look like she was lying.

    Because of my own experience I never press people to talk about their race or ethnicity. If they want to talk about it, great. But it's extremely uncomfortable to be singled out for the genealogical third-degree treatment when you know it's only happening because you're not white.

  8. Anonymous10:48 PM

    OMG I have so many responses to this. Why is it rude? Because people should have the right to share this information (or their lack of it) with acquaintances/friends/etc WHEN THEY WANT to, and not because they are confronted by someone's curiosity in a grocery store.

    I am adopted. I know 1/2 my racial/cultural background and not the other half. When people ask me "What are you?!" and this can happen every week, sometimes several times a week, I have to say (groan) "I don't know." This is PAINFUL, people. You don't know what kind of can of worms you are opening with your "innocent" questions. What if you think someone might be gay? Do you just walk up to them and say, "Are you a homosexual?" I think most people have the sense to not blurt this out. Believe me, race can be the same thing. If you get to know me, if we become friends, soon enough I will share this with you. But it's no business of strangers.

    I echo the person up top who suggests DNA testing for general information. What a gift that would be!

    Carl might not be curious now. But he may be later. I am biracial and adopted and in my late forties. Not knowing this information has plagued me for a long time and I think people who say "it shouldn't matter" are people who have the privilege of KNOWING what they are and where they come from.

    Whew. My two cents.

  9. Jumping in here, I think it is interesting to look at the question that Innocent thinks we should be able to ask and the one Altasien illustrates as rude.

    Context is important, of course. There are questions that we should not ask of strangers in line with us that we can ask of friends, but without worrying about is interesting to note the difference in the questions.

    Asking someone how they IDENTIFY indicates that we will accept what they tell us without question. If I ask and some says, "As American" then that's the answer.

    Asking someone what they ARE makes the question objective, subject to question. It is a different question.

    But I will work on saving enough money to offer Carl the testing. With the graduation expenses it will take me a while, but I'll get there. I think I can offer it to him in a way that is sufficiently casual.

    And knowing Carl there is a good chance he would say, "Well, could I spend the money on X instead?"

    We will see.


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