What are you? A line oft-repeated. May I ask what your ethnicity is? I got that one from a customer a few days ago. She motioned at my curly hair, as if that justified the question. Where are you from? I get that one all the time. What is your background? I’ve been mumbling a similar response each time. I always lead with well, my father’s from Kenya.
This will then get layered depending on the person, or my mood. Sometimes I’ll mention that he’s from the coast in Kenya, Mombasa specifically. And that he’s light skinned. And that Kenyans from Mombasa are ethnically and culturally similar to Mozambicans and Tanzanians from the coast. If I have the time, I’ll quickly allude to the colonial legacy, and the arbitrary arrangement of states in Africa, and how they don’t reflect ethnicity or culture. In a country of 41 million people, there are about 100,000 of my father’s tribe. The Swahili. One of the smallest ethnic groups in the country. If I’m really in the mood, I’ll mention the funny irony that Yugoslavia was allowed to break apart into little states based around ethnic affiliation, whilst no country in Africa has been able to do the same. At least without universal international recognition. I mean, it’s really hard for a country to be universally recognized as such in the modern age. Provided you’re non-European of course. No such problems for Kosovo or Montenegro.
So that’s my father. Then it becomes much more complicated, and this is where I always struggle with my self-definition. By all accounts, my mother is a mutt. Some combination of German, English, Welsh, Scottish and even Cherokee ancestry. Born in America. Sometimes I’ll say my mum’s American, and I’m Obama. Half-joking. More often though, I’ll just say my mum’s from here; or my mum’s Canadian; or even sometimes my mum’s white. Given the time, I’ll break down my mum’s ethnicity on the fly as well, German-this, English-that. But here’s the composite:
Where are you from? Well, my father’s from Kenya, and my mum’s Canadian. That didn’t answer the question did it? But it’s the response I keep giving. When I have long-winded discussions with my friends about the topic, naturally I end up as Canadian. Because, well, I am Canadian. I was born in Ottawa. I’ve spent 19 of my 24 years on this planet in Canada. I have a Canadian passport. My birth certificate confirms it all. Take that American Republicans. So why is it, that when a stranger asks me where I’m from, I always answer in the binary?
I think it’s because race is complicated. Hell, the word race is complicated. We prefer ethnicity these days.
Race: a group of people who share similar and distinct physical characteristics. According to UNESCO and some Western Anthropology texts, via Wikipedia.
Ethnicity: a social group of people who identify with each other based on a common ancestral, social, cultural or national experience. According to the Oxford Dictionary and some Western Anthropology texts, via Wikipedia.
What have we established so far? The definition of ethnicity is far more nuanced than that of race. But both aim to categorise humanity. However, ethnicity holds far more sway today than race. Race is far too simplistic, and we as a culture and society have realised that. Race should no longer be on the table for a discussion of this nature. Ethnicity.
And yes, I meant to include the source. Because the source of the definition fascinates me more than the definition itself. The main sources for each definition come from Anthropology texts. Without delving too much into the history of Anthropology, it’s fairly clear that the progenitors of the discipline were of European descent. Travelling around the world in the 19th century, observing “primitive tribes”. Writing about their customs, trying to understand their traditions, their humanity, but also in many cases foisting Christianity and European cultural values on them. At the very least, the early anthropologists only understood difference through comparison. Comparison to European norms. To white skin. Why all this vague history?
Because language. Because we use language to navigate the world. Explain the world. Understand the world. Because today we have words like the term ethnic. I read an article a few days ago about a famous actor using the term coloured to refer to non-white actors. The author took exception of course, and trotted out this wonderful line “(it) has led to the misused term “ethnic” to describe black and brown people, as if white people are somehow above ethnicity.” (Harker) But of course they are. They defined ethnicity. They classified the world in the 19th century. It started with chemistry, biology, but soon moved into humanity as well. Take the example of a high school textbook published in 1967. It’s called Human Variation and Origins, and each chapter is a published thesis from Scientific American. And here’s the classification system with their corresponding geographic location:
|White||All of Europe, the middle east, north Africa, stretching all the way to India|
|Early Mongoloid||North and South America|
|Late Mongoloid||Asia, but only specifically west of India|
|Negro||Sub-saharan Africa and New Guinea and surrounding islands|
|Pygmy||Spots in central Africa, India, Indonesia and New Guinea|
(Laughlin & Osborne)
What does this all mean? Well it means that North American students were taught those classifications as fact for generations. It also means we were firmly in the racial camp of human classification. Where physical characteristics such as skull size and early genetic testing were used to compare and contrast. Which is why Indians and Germans were classified as white whilst Japanese and Indonesians were classified as mongoloid.
And remember, this ultimately frames both the perceptions and understanding of human diversity and difference. Africans were Negroes. East Asians were “mongoloid”. And, most importantly, one group was “white” while the others were either mongoloid, negro or bushman. Does that not immediately implicitly assume superiority? That’s the power of language, in the hands of the creators of our language. What do I mean by that?
I’m writing this in English. I’m limited by the words in the English language. They’re the only tools in my arsenal to attempt to explicate. But they’re also the words of power, and the words of classification. The word negro today is not culturally acceptable. Nor is mongoloid, or bushman. But they were. Today we have ethnic. The implication has been the same the whole time: classification of other. A classification borne out of comparison with European norms.
Now I’ve reached a challenging point in this reflection. I want to say “white people did this”. I want to do the classic thing and rail against the white man. Blame him, get angry at him. But that doesn’t change the past. All we can really hope to do today is talk and reflect. Reflect on the implications of skin tone. Reflect on the fact that if you have brown skin, you are more likely to be stopped at an airport than if you have white skin. That if you have brown or black skin, you’re more likely to be stopped at the side of the road by the police than if you have white skin. And that frankly, we’re so limited by describing and comparing ourselves along a colour spectrum. What does this make Koreans or Japanese? Yellow? Really? But then black is okay? I’m confused. And I’m sure you are too. But maybe that’s the point.
But back to the topic at hand.
What are you? Where do you come from?
Well, I’m Canadian for sure. But that’s a nationality. Not necessarily an ethnicity. Not in our fractured Canadian culture. I mean, we know an ethnicity is a social group of people who identify with each other based on a common ancestral, social, cultural or national experience.
So ethnically, I’m Canadian?
But does that ethnicity preclude colonialism?
It does seem to tie itself to some concept of “national origin” which is rooted in a very Western view of history. As a species we’ve been moving around the planet for millennia. And according to science, we evolved into Homo Sapiens Sapiens in East Africa. So are we all theoretically from Africa? Or do we just arbitrarily decide, that since some Europeans drew up a map of the world, fought over the map, and finally acceded their territorial control, that everyone must be from a “country”. Even if Kenya as a concept didn’t exist 100 years ago. Just British East Africa. The name of the country comes from Jomo Kenyatta, the first president. If that’s not a pure fabrication, then what is? But again, I end up with more questions than answers. I’m no closer to the solution here. Either we accept one arbitrary conclusion, or another. But what are you? Where do you come from? It’s such an important question. It helps the inquisitor better understand the world, and it helps the respondent better understand their place in the world. Because, hell, the only world we know is the one that exists. The one that is simply a product of history. Kenya exists. Kenya exists because history. Arbitrary or not, it fucking exists.
And really, I think ethnicity has more to do with safety and socialization. Safety especially in the historical context. And especially considering resource scarcity. A necessary evolution when a species has to survive in an environment with a dearth of resources. Competition ensues. Historically you can look at things like: I’m Assyrian and you’re Babylonian, and the Tigris river is mine. I will kill you and the rest of the Babylonians so we can use the Tigris River. It’s the only river around, and we both want it. But today you can look at it like: I’m Ethiopian and you’re Eritrean. You have access to the ocean, we need that for trade. We’re going to take it from you because we need it. Hell, there’s even a question of power in there. But that’s for another day. The point here is, dividing ourselves into groups, so we can ensure safety and survival. It’s why we had fiefdoms and serfdom in Europe. At the end of the day, we’re just animals trying to survive with scarce resources around. And when we’re socialized in a tribe, we’re loyal to the tribe.
And this socialization is key. It’s a common consensus on who we are. Gives us meaning, and purpose. Mutual existential understanding. Helps rationalize the obviously chaotic world. An eminently necessary and important thing. Has precluded the development of countless “cultures”. Which are fascinatingly differentiated perspectives on life and living, borne out of differentiated social, environmental and historical contexts.
And when these identities and perspectives are thrust into each other, as they have been in the hyper-globalized 21st century? You end up with either incredible beauty or incredible inhumanity. The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris exemplifies this perfectly. One of the police officers was Algerian, but was a Frenchman, living in French society. Balancing his French and Algerian identities. The terrorists were Algerians as well, but not Frenchmen, living in French society. They were incapable of balancing their identities. The old clash of civilisations thesis rings strangely true.
So is it possible to have multiple ethnicities? And how do we reconcile ethnicity with colonialism? I mean, today still, you ask a “white” Canadian where they’re from and/or who they are, you end up with this rambling tale about Irish this, German this, Italian this, Polish this. All of this old world business.
So does it take a few generations for ethnicity based on birth to properly resonate?
How long will it be?
How much “shared national experience” is necessary?
Most national experiences in the old world are shaped by war, strife and conflict. Europe? Check. Africa? Check. Middle-East? Check. South Asia? Check. South-East Asia/China? Check. Eastern Europe/Russia? Check. Okay wow. How about Canada? Errrrrrrm, the FLQ?
Let’s not forget that Canada is one of the rare places on earth where the original inhabitants of the land have been largely exterminated. Only Canada, New Zealand, Australia and America fall into this category. Settler colonies. Requiring the creation of national histories and identities, attempting to reconcile the absence of an obvious explanation of who we are and why we’re here.
So really, this whole reflection is less about who I am, and more about who we are. Canadian identity is as fractious as my own ethnic identity.
Or maybe it says plenty about our limited human ability to reconcile obvious physical differences.
Or maybe, and this is the camp where I’ll always plant my flagpole: We’re all members of the human tribe.
Our differences are largely social creations. We all eat, sleep, shit and fuck. We all love. We all get angry. We all get sad. As someone who has always been other, always outside the looking glass, I can’t help but see us all as the same. It’s the only way I can reconcile my fractured identity with the language and cultural legacy available to me. Hominem est.
Joseph Harker, “Cumberbatch’s ‘coloured’ gaffe reveals just how white the film industry is”, The Guardian, January 27th 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/27/cumberbatch-coloured-gaffe-white-film-industry-black-actors
W.S. Laughlin & R.H. Osborne, “Human Variation and Origins”, San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1967.
Wikipedia. All of it.
My brain, and my undergraduate education. International development and Political Science came in handy eh?