Ethnicity and labeling


Ethnicity and labeling

I had an interesting interaction with a man with whom I work: I was walking, and he was making fun of the way I walk (we do this occasionally–pick on each other that way). So I switched to the way George Jefferson (from The Jeffersons–1970s TV show) sometimes walked, arms swaying and everything. He said I wasn’t even the right color to walk like that.


I consistently find it amazing that some folks don’t seem to identify me as black while others, once I tell them, identify me only as that. For those who wonder, I’m mixed–about 1/4-1/3 African (fittingly, that bit comes from Madagascar). I am convinced that, as a former professor of mine said, it’ll be 50-100 years before your “race” (meaning your color or your ethnic group) doesn’t matter. It may not matter to some now, but we’re really not there yet.

What I think does matter is being the beneficiary of supposed compliments like, “Well, he’s the whitest black guy you’ll ever meet” or “well, you’re not THAT black.” What this means is that I don’t exhibit stereotypical African-American-ness as much as those who “fit” this stereotype more, who exhibit these characteristics, actions and behaviors more than me. That’s concerning to me–as though I’m okay because I’m a black guy, but I’m not THAT black. As if to say I’m still okay because I don’t really fit the negative stereotype. Cue me being flummoxed.

It’s a bit of a quandary that I, as a mixed fellow, find myself in. How am I supposed to behave? And should that be a concern? To behave in a way that will allow people to easily label me? Methinks not. If, as is really the case, I am more Caucasian than African, then why should I be identified as one or the other?

I think this whole thing began with, as my former professor said, that decision by a court that if a person was one drop black, they were all black. That was back there in the early to mid-1800s. Pretty boneheaded decision if you ask me. If a bowl of ice cream has a tiny piece of hamburger in it, does that make the whole bowl a hamburger?

And, frankly, I don’t want to display the negative stereotypical behaviors of African-Americans who act stupidly. Who would? Then again, I don’t want to display any of the negative stereotypical behaviors of any of the ethnic groups in my bloodline, be they African, Caucasian or American Indian. Who wants to be pigeonholed that way?

The whole “race” thing is a case of lazy labeling anyway–we, humans, are, at least without getting into spiritual stuff, one race: human. End of story. A lot of ethnic groups are in there, but we. are. all. one. race. Get it?

All that said, one of the cool parts about being seemingly hard to identify ethnically is I can get away with stuff I perhaps shouldn’t. Like walking like George Jefferson. Or listening to any musical artist from Jethro Tull to Barry Manilow to Tupac to R. Carlos Nakai (if you don’t know his music, look it up).

A bit of advice: don’t label anybody based solely on their outward appearance. Don’t expect them to display any certain behavior based solely on that. Allow room for them to behave as they will. People are far too precious to constrict them based on nothing more than how they look.

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