What is race? – Part 1

Ellie looks back on The Kickback in October when we were talking all about the Concept of Race.

The most recent Kickback on the 15th October saw those at Project B talking about race, which was such an insightful conversation, I’ve had to split the write up into two parts. Shaniqua set the conversation off by asking the overarching question: What is race?

What followed were a few moments of silence as we realised how hard it is to answer something so superficially obvious. Funnily enough, as a group of young writers, Zhanai and Elisha approached this question syntactically. A (paraphrased) dictionary definition states that race means a ‘group of persons related by common descent or heredity, sometimes based on a combination of physical traits including facial form, eye shape, skin colour and blood groups.’ Zhanai noticed that an academic definition doesn’t limit race to the colour of the skin.

‘We’re a human race. We could be a spoken word race!’ she laughed. Looked at linguistically, our society’s preoccupation with race seems disproportionate to its size. It is, at its core, a word to group people of different ancestry. A way to define and differentiate. Elisha pointed out that this definition bypasses human nature: he hopes that there is different side to the grouping of human beings which takes into regard our personalities.

The next question was about the notion of ‘acting Black or White’. Zhanai spoke about a recent discussion she had with her friends, a group composed of many different races. They talked about how weird it is to ‘act’ a colour: ‘If I gave you a colour in the rainbow, you couldn’t act ‘pink’’. She described the ‘White girl’ stereotype: a vision of Starbucks and sushi. But how can you stereotype a whole race based on clothing, food and drink?

Elisha noted that this is an insidious part of our world: “Stereotyping all the little things people do. It happens a lot and we just don’t see it.” It illustrates the ways we begin to see humans not as people, but as lists of contrived attributes we have stored in our heads.

Destini pointed out that you’re not really acting a colour: you’re acting a stereotype. She told us that when she was little, she was chided by her schoolmates for ‘speaking White’. This meant pronouncing her T’s, among other things. She said that she stopped doing this so she could speak “more Black”, but looking back on this, she now knows that pronouncing her T’s doesn’t mean she isn’t black anymore.

Shaniqua pointed out that she finds a lot of slang stupid, and has always spoken well, but would sometimes be pigeonholed as sounding “White” and snobbish. She and Destini made the incredibly astute point that it’s derogatory to think black people should have to sound a certain way. It’s become so ingrained that people of certain colours should speak or sound certain ways, that black people are belittling themselves to conform to the parameters of speech relative to our society.

We talked about the waves of social pressure and conditioning that exist: memes, media, and celebrities trying to darken or lighten their skin. Elisha pointed out that if this is what you see and how you’re told to think, it will become much harder to think differently or imagine otherwise.

There’s a social pressure for people of different colours not to mix. Shaniqua says that ‘her people’ are her friends and family, church group and those she meets through her creative outlets, not just anyone who looks vaguely like her. Destini likens this pressure not to disassociate from your racial group to the feeling of being in a foreign country: if you find someone who speaks English, you’re automatically friends. Sometimes it can seem like this metaphor is spread across all of existence: an assumption that black people are likely to have had the same experiences (though she points out that in one area this is horribly accurate: every black person is likely to have experienced racism), but not every black person has had the same life, the same story.

We then spoke about being mixed race. Zhanai has had some very strange experiences with people assuming things about her: “I’ve had a very multicultural growing-up. People find out that my mum’s mixed race and decide certain things about me. When I speak out, people say ‘You’re not black, you have to pick who you are.’” Her experience has been that people disregard parts of her heritage, finding it easier to see her as either black or white.

Destini described how frustrating it is to have to explain that while she’s black, she’s also from two different places. “I grew up here, but I’ve also been to Jamaica lots of times and it doesn’t make me less Nigerian. People get comfortable thinking that because I’m from the same island, I tick the same box on a list, that this is who I am.”

We also talked about how negative it feels to be forced to describe yourself as ‘Other’ on any form that demands you state your race. Destini pointed out that by choosing just one of the races, you’re officially ignoring all the other parts of yourself. No single part of your heritage is less important or valid when asserting who you are.

Look out for Part 2 when we’ll look more into what it means to be white or black, and also delve a little more into other races.

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