Wednesday, December 3, 2014

To Ask "What Are You, Anyway?" Only In America, Never In Sweden!

Takes you to:
What Are You, Anyway?

By Amy DuBois Barnett '91  

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 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.


  1. In the US I keep coming up against questionnaires which ask for my ethnicity, but it is clear from the choices provided that they mean 'race'. My ethnicity is Ashkenazi Jewish, but I am supposed to say 'Caucasian', so generally I answer 'Other'. It might be that Ashkenazi Jewish is a 'race', but 'Caucasian' is not an ethnicity, and certainly not mine. 'Caucasian' is a term that used to mean 'white', but I guess we're not suppose to say we are 'white' these days.

  2. Too many elite Americans who claim to be ever so anti-racism actually promote the myth of white racial purity.

  3. Unfortunately, there are legitimate circumstances that make race an important variable. Check the genetic susceptibilities common in some populations: Jews and irritable bowel and Crohn's; Africans and sickle cell anemia; Gaels and hemochromatosis. There may be legitimate uses of racial data in some surveys and censuses--poverty distribution; delivery of health services etc. May be...

  4. I have to fix this blog or get it fixed so I am notified of replies. Paul Easton that is interesting that you run into questionnaires where ethnicity is the first choice even though USCB uses race/ethnicity in such strange ways. I recommend Richard Lewontin's essay "Is there a Jewish Gene" in New York Review of Books.

    Sorry anonymous but your examples illustrate why "race" is not very useful. A good place to start to understand this is the book I often cite in the Times. That book is "Fatal Invention-How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century" by Dorothy Roberts, black but not African American. I contacted a leading genetics researcher a while back and he replied "You are right, "race" as defined by the USCB are too large and too ill defined to be of use." As for your last point, "race" is all too often used by US researchers as a stand in for real data that is not available to them.

  5. A detail: any country with a mixed population--and Sweden is going that way, even Ireland--should collect ethnicity data in medical questionnaires. Africans and sickle cell; Gaels and hemochromatosis; Jews and various forms of colon disease and breast cancer, Mediterranean peoples and thalassemia...

    My hemochromatosis was discovered because my doctor had just read an article about and saw a chance to test the hypothesis--glad she did.

  6. It's 100% true that Americans ask each other "What are you?" particularly when someone looks "mixed" in some way we consider significant. Ethnicity and ethnic identity is an important part of being American -- most of us spend at least some time in grade school tracing our family trees and most people know where their ancestors immigrated from.

    There are Americans who would say "race doesn't matter" but very few people who are not seen as "white" would say those words because being perceived as not-white has real implications in their lives. Those same Americans who claim "race doesn't matter" will often make much of their Irish, Italian or Cherokee heritage.

    Asking about race / background is an American pastime and does not mean that you see the other person as less "human" or "American". All of us are the descendants of immigrants and being able to trace one's ancestry to various countries is a point of pride. Generally, even for those who have been here for 3 or 4 generations, one or more ethnic identities has more influence in the home than others, so we speak of having an "Irish temper" or of being a "warn Italian" or of having "a Jewish sense of humor". Blacks from the Caribbean have different cultural norms than those who are the descendants of American slaves and people from the American South -- both white and black -- have different cultural norms than Northerners. Where you are from means something and having a minority or specific culture does not mean that you are not also human.

    We have the same diversity within our country that you have within Europe and certainly, I can't imagine that you or any other European would be offended by being asked what country you are from. Your Swedish heritage, language, cultural norms, government are (I imagine) a point of pride and a part of who you are -- none of these things make you less human. When we speak of race and ethnicity, most of the time, we are speaking of these same things. Race is a short-hand for ethnicity and shared experiences, not an attempt to commit racism.

    This is not to say that race is a perfect short-hand -- it fails regularly. Every person is themselves (a unique individual), a human, a member of their culture, a citizen of our country, etc. Each human being is a mix of all of those things and because America is fairly open, for some people race and ethnicity and cultural background are important parts of their personal identity while for others, less so or not at all.

    In our country, *defining* other people *solely* by race and assigning negative characteristics to them because of skin color or background is considered racism. Simple curiosity about race or cultural background is not.

    That said, people who cannot be quickly and easily identified with their cultural background do have to answer a lot of questions in America and that is incredibly tiring and annoying to most of them.

    I think your failure to understand this may be due to your own identity as one thing -- a Swede. If you were the grandson of Somali immigrants to Sweden, your relationship to Swedish culture would be more conflicted and more complex than it is now. Most people in America are not one thing -- we are American + our unique backgrounds and history. We consider this a positive.

    The attempt to erase race, culture, and ethnicity and to have everyone identify as "just human" -- at least here -- usually means that you want everyone to identify as "just white" -- taking WASP cultural norms as the definition of "human" rather than an ethnicity in and of itself. Those who don't believe that WASP culture is better than any other culture obviously dislike that intellectual fiction.