Friday, June 20, 2014

What Defines You?

Monday I sat in the ninth circle of hell, waiting for my number to be called so I could get the process of changing my name on my license over with. When my number was called I was ready to deal with the stereotypical right to business, monotone worker. Instead, I was greeted by a bubbly college student with long braids and an infectious smile. I sat down, and we started to go through the rigmarole of the process.

Then we got to the part where I had to confirm my personal information, including my race. The girl asked what I was and the screen gave me a list of options. I chose white and she asked the next question to clarify: was I white, Latino, or other?

“Well I guess white applies most in this situation even though I’m a mixture of Norwegian and Irish,” I stated.

She replied with a comment that is forever ingrained in my head, “You know I like that answer. It actually makes me uncomfortable when people answer ‘just white.’ No one is ‘just white,’ you know? I’m not ‘just black,’ I’m Jamaican.”

We sat there for a few minutes discussing the concept of race in general and how in actuality the questions that were posed really have no merit. Turned out this girl was actually studying sociology and was working here over the summer for some extra cash. She went on to talk about how working here was actually a great way to understand more about people and how they interact with each other and how they define themselves. She turned what is normally a teeth grinding experience into a thought-provoking one. A few days later I got into a similar discussion about race and how it really has no weight is defining a person.

I’ve talked before about how in the anthropological world, the world “race” isn’t used. Ethnic backgrounds and regional boundaries are used instead to group people. The discussion the other day was about how the color of your skin defines who you are and what your future generations will become. This of course is not true. Grouping people by the color of their skin is purely a social construct, mostly used by western culture (and adopted in some other cultures as well). The only thing that the color of your skin dictates is where your ancestors came from, even then there are varying skin tones within each ethnicity. Facial and body features are the same way; it’s all adaptation (as shown in the image above). We humans are made to evolve and adapt to our environment. I use my ancestor’s example since I have that perspective.

My skin is pale because my ancestors come from Norway and Ireland; both places are far from the equator and don’t get a lot of direct sunlight year round. My nose is long and pointy because both places have lower temperatures. The long, pointy nose filters cold air better. Point is neither of these things define me as a person; they are biological traits that were used to adapt to my ancestor’s environment that I inherited.

Problem with this logic is many people in western society don’t see people this way. They see a person and put them into a category based on their skin color because that’s the first thing they see. It is unfair, and in reality illogical. Calling all people with dark skin “African American” makes no sense since there are many people that have darker skin who are from the Islands, or even South America.

What really defines people is their heritage and who they have become in the present, not simple make up of melatonin or lack thereof. Still, we see that racism is rampant still today which is appalling to me. Of course it’s hard for me to grasp what it really feels like because unfortunately the color of my skin has entitled me to privileges that someone with darker skin never had. It’s a sad but true fact that we as a society need to understand but also try to educate people to move past and focus on what we all are: human with different backgrounds, appearances, and qualities that define who we are as people, not race.

Image Courtesy of


Magaly Guerrero said...

I like your answer, too. We are never "just this" or "just that." We are too complex to be defined by so little information.

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