Sunday, July 31, 2011

Black, brown, and beige are only colors

Thinking about/responding to human difference (One in a series-maybe)
Lite svenska här så jag kan göra detta mer begripligt för mina vänner som kommit till Sverige och först måste lära sig svenska innan de kan också ta an engelska. Idag, 5 september 2011, förkortar jag den engelska texten och lägger in lite svenska här och var. 

Where I write in the past tense "wrote" instead of "write" och på svenska skrev you can be sure that this is where I have changed the original text.
Today on July 31 2011, I have just discovered that I started my blog exactly two years ago to the day. My primary interest then, as now, was to learn and write about the way human difference is “met” (thought about etc)  in the region of my birth, New England, USA and in Sweden the home country of “farfar and farmor” and of “mormors far och mor”, where I have lived since 1996.

I wrote the original version to provide a background for asking friends about Human Difference or perhaps better about identity. Who am I? 

In the original I wrote that I would make contributions to organizations like Doctors Without Borders if friends read this and perhaps wrote about their individual identities. I made contributions to Somali Relief Funds, and will make more in the future so that is taken care of.

Osman and me-Red Cross, Linkoeping

Abdi-Winooski, Vermont

Iman (left) and friend-Linkoeping

Jean Luc and me-Mount Philo, S of Burlington, Vermont
Här kan Ni se fyra vänner till mig. Alla fyra har rötter i Afrika. Detaljerna följer på engelska.

Here are four friends of mine, two of them standing next to me, another next to another friend of hers, and one alone. Osman, a friend of mine who has lived in Sweden and in Taunton, MA next to my birthplace Attleboro MA. Abdi another friend of mine who runs Halal Market and Banadir Store in Winooski, Vermont. Iman, a Medical Doctor who has lived all of her adult life in Sweden. And to the left, Jean Luc and me up on Mount Philo in June 2011.

Here I simplify from the original. Jag förenklar.

I just wondered how you the reader think when you meet someone who is different from you. American sociologists seem to believe that the first thing we do is ask what "race" is this person?

Jag bara undrade hur du som läser detta tänker då du träffar någon som inte liknar dig. Amerikanska sociologer verkar tro att det första vi gör är ställa frågan - vilken "ras" tillhör denna person?

Jag säger helt enkelt så tänker inte jag och inte de flesta. Jag är bara nyfiken - berätta om dig själv. Vad vill du berätta för mig?

Just idag skulle jag säga, t ex - jag talar två språk (svenska och engelska), jag älskar att läsa och skriva i dessa två språk, jag är alltid nyfiken och måste lära mig något nytt varje dag. Musik, böcker, människor som visar respekt för andra, och att vara i skogen (springa eller bara lyssna) är alla viktiga delar av mitt liv nästan varje dag. Jag hoppas då och då lyckas med att göra vad jag kallar Acts of Simple Kindness och Rödakorset i Linköping, Sverige har gjort det möjligt för mig och det är jag tacksam för.

I originally wrote this contribution because I had just read and reviewed a new book The Nature of Race-How Scientists Think and Teach About Human Difference by Ann Morning, Assistant Professor of Sociology at New York University. The two different reviews are at and

I have read the entire book twice, and to say it simply: I do not understand why so many American sociologists, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the New York Times all think that the best way to think and talk about human difference is to place people in little boxes with a "race" name. 

I cannot accept this practice at all and felt that way long before I moved to Sweden in 1996. Geneticall distinct races do not exist and even the socially constructed "races" that Professor Morning and others employ all are thought of in part in terms of some fundamental genetically based differences. This kind of thinking turns up in the USA in noteworthy form when admission to a hospital requires telling the hospital what "race" you belong to.

I believe that scientists can say everything that needs to be said about human difference without ever even mentioning “race” and in this I am strongly influenced by the research of Swedish-born scientist Svante Pääbo. Yet it appears to me from reading Professor Morning’s book (even the questionnaires as noted above) that her mode of thought almost requires that she place every individual she encounters in a particular “race” box or that she expects every individual to be able to place himself or herself in a “race” box.(The box phrasing comes from the nature of the forms in the 2010 United States census and forms given at some hospitals in America.)

I have removed much of what I originall wrote here, but retain anecdotes from her book.

The first part is from the chapter Introduction, the second from the chapter Conclusion):

Ann Morning In America-“When I was twelve weeks pregnant, my doctor ordered a blood test…Before drawing my blood, a nurse asked me to state my race. Usually I describe myself as African American, but on that day, piqued by my curiosity about what race had to do with my unborn child’s health, I gave the full version of my  ancestry: African, European, American Indian, and Asian. ‘Oh’ the nurse replied as she noted my answer on the form, ‘So you go in the “other” box’.”

In Italy-“The second time I was pregnant, I had the good fortune to be living in Italy…in Milan, no one ever asked me what my race (or ethnicity) was. …yet it seemed that doctors and technicians were perfectly able to care for me without that element of information that had seemed so indispensable back in the United States….If race were an important constituent of our physical constitution, why wouldn’t Italian doctors take it into account as assiduously as their counterparts in the United States?”

Professor Morning seems to have a touching belief that telling a doctor that she belongs to the African-American "race" is of great medical value. Perhaps this would be true if this "race" were pure and genetically distinct from other "races". Her story shows just how strange her own "social construction" is. Apparently an African-American can have just about any lineage you can think of as long as that "African-American" wants to think of himself or herself as belonging to a "race".

Question to End All Questions-And finally, what about this man, whose father was born in Kenya and in Professor Morning's terminology would be described as belonging to the "black" race and whose mother was born of parents whom she presumably would assign to the "white" race.

In the 2010 United States Census he checked one "race box", the one named  "black" but as you may know, he grew up with his mother and his maternal grandparents. How useful then is his self-described assignment of "race" in a medical context?

Clearly, among some members of the American medical establishment, information about human difference is regarded as important, but the question is: How scientific must that information be? I do not think "Black" is sufficient, and that is why I used Duke Ellington's terminology Black, Brown, and Beige as my title. The Duke wanted to make the point when he composed B, B, and B that the American people who were called "Negro" or "Blacks" in the highly racist America he grew up in were really a much more diverse people than the designatin "Black" allowed. .  

All thoughts welcome! My afterthought is this. I know where the parents of each of my friends were born, but I would love to see the family tree of Ann Morning, given that she writes that her ancestors have three different geographic origins and one named ethnic origin.

To place myself and each of my friends in a "race" box is for me the most absurd kind of thinking I can imagine. I am just me. Iman is Iman - beyond category. Each person is important for their many qualities. When will people in America, especially sociologists, begin to accept that?

Revision 5 September 2011

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Soon to be revived

Here in Burlington, Vermont (and for 10 days in Westport, Massachusetts) there is too much to do to even consider blogging. But back in the empty squares (torg) of Linköping, Sweden, there will be plenty of time, so stay tuned.

Tomorrow is the 4th of July which will begin with a 5 km race in South Hero, Vermont. The dynamic duo Annika and Larry will be there at the beginning but not together at the finish.