Takes you to:
What Are You, Anyway?
I read ADB's essay and responded by sending a Letter to the Editor, which appears in the December issue, and a Point of View manuscript, which was not accepted. Therefore, just for the record, I post that manuscript as submitted below.
“What Are You, Anyway? Thoughts on that question-Never In Sweden
Only in my America is there a need to put people in “race” boxes. Ms. Barnett provides examples of this. These tribal rites are not, however, what interest me here. I am interested in 21st Century American beliefs about “race” for reasons explained below, beliefs I have now been studying for about four years.
My need to learn has two roots: The first is that I now to know 100s of refugees from Sub-saharan Africa and the Middle East, some of them my closest friends. The second is that working as translator for Swedish epidemiologists introduced me to medical research where “race” is never a variable in contrast with American practice.
Ms. Barnett’s essay has opened a pandora’s box raising many questions only two of which I raise here. My goal is to elicit replies from Brown Alumni of every age and ethnicity (to Gmail at Only-NeverInSweden.blogspot.com) for reasons I can reveal there.
1) Is it really true that people say to you, Amy DuBois Barnett, exactly “What are you?
2) Is it really true that most Americans feel a need to determine the “race” of every “other” whom they meet?
The context from which those questions arise is my “bible” “Fatal Invention-How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in America” by Dorothy Roberts, black but not African American. She writes (p. 3): “Race is the main characteristic most Americans use to classify each other. It is the first or second thing we notice about a stranger we pass on the street or a new acquaintance approaching to shake our hand”
This assertion does not apply to me or to any American whom I have asked in the past two years, but Ms. Barnett’s essay and my contacts with American sociologists suggest that there is at least some truth in Professor Roberts’ generalization.
Ms. Barnett tells us she has always dreaded the question “What are you?” a question I cannot imagine posing to anyone. In other words since she is (self -described as) bi-racial, people cannot race-place her. She also tells us that to be acknowledged as a true, card-carrying member of the African-American “race” – at Brown - it is not enough to show that you have a slave probably brought from West Africa in your family tree; you must present your credentials. This tells me that in the eyes of the Americans who ask “What are you?” it is not enough to be able to show a genetic link to some group (“race”) to be a member of that group. It appears to me that the question “What are you?” is really a question about ethnicity, not “race” or genetics.
Yes, putting people in “race boxes” is accepted practice in America and at all levels, a practice I do not accept. Why? I close by providing a few reasons based on living for almost 20 years in Sweden.
In Sweden, we are classified by country of birth and in terms of SES data. The census does not assign people to “races” but there are two political parties that do this to some degree, Svenskarnas parti (SP) and Sverigedemokraterna (SD) (see Wiki for English). They have their roots in Nazi thinking and one of them (SD) is now in parliament. Sweden as nation was once close to assigning people to “races” when in 1922 the National Institute of Race Biology was created; the institute did not survive World War II.
Here in Linköping, I have come to know 100s of people who have something in common with Ms. Barnett’s friend, cryptically designated as black/Swedish. Here is what I have learned from them as concerns the question, ”What Are You?” presented in story form.
We sit around a table at the Red Cross, 10 born in many different countries, and I tell them about Ms. Barnett’s dreaded question. They offer opinions in Swedish: Terrible, racist, who would ever ask such a question. A man, Abdi and old friend born in Somalia, walks into the room. Big smile. I ask him in Swedish, “Abdi what are you?” He answers in Swedish “Människa” a human being. Not one single person – Eritrean, Mexican American, Somali etc with whom I have discussed this question has said anything other than to ask that question would be rude at best, racist at worst.
Ms. Barnett, I hope your Swedish friend has the last laugh. Until then, thank you for writing the most fascinating text I have read in many years in BAM.