Monday, October 11, 2010


The nurse surprised Nicole last week by asking what race our baby is. She wasn't sure what to say, so she checked "white," "Asian," and for good measure, "other."

When I was a kid, I checked "other" because it was pretty obvious to me and the rest of the kids in school that I wasn't white, but I also wasn't "Asian." When I got older, they added "mixed" and I'd pick it instead--to this day, that seems like the best description to me. About the time I finished high school, they were allowing you to check multiple boxes and I was checking "white" and "Asian." On the one hand, I like the idea of being able to check more than one box, because it suggests that races are more like Venn diagrams than completely separate and distinct units. On the other hand, checking "Asian" on the 2000 census was funny, because it counted only India eastward as Asian, suggesting that being part-Punjabi is more like being Japanese than like being Iranian.

By 2000 census standards, I am 3/4 white, because white includes eastern European Jews and light-skinned people who emigrated to Mexico for two or three generations. That six out of eight of my great-grandparents came from other places doesn't change my race, which has to do with skin color/complexion, right? (It probably has more to do with ethnicity...although "race/ethnicity" has become more common on forms, making that distinction difficult to apply.)

So what is race? If it's about color, then my brother and I, though equally white by descent and equally "mixed" or "other" in memory and tradition, are different levels of white by race: with my black hair and more olive-toned skin, do I belong in a whole different set of race boxes than he does with brown hair and lighter skin? Can we still share the same ethnicity? And which should he think about--race or ethnicity--when he checks the race/ethnicity box?

My son, Elijah, is only one-eighth Punjabi. That's 7/8 white.

So far, though, the boy looks a lot like me. So is white going to be his racial experience? If there are still anti-Muslim signs up on the freeway (Nicole and I saw one yesterday: pretty scary, but that's another post for another day), my bet is that he'll understand quite clearly that he's different. Different ethnic experience at home, different racial experience if people call him some of the things they called me in high school and college.

Whatever the check box says, those kinds of experiences will racialize him.

That said, I don't think counting him as Asian will give doctors better data on which diseases Japanese and Chinese babies in America seem more or less prone to.

For purpose of medical statistics, then, my son should be counted as white--maybe mixed if you want to be thorough. For social experience, he might pass for Italian, but he'll probably look some sort of Middle Eastern, and politically, that's definitely brown now and probably for another decade or two. Ethnically, of course, he'll be Caucajewmexdian on his dad's side and Wilkes (a fairly complicated category in its own right) on his mom's.

I understand, of course, that the United States has some vested interest in trying to sort out races it accentuated long ago to see whether we're progressing toward a reality in which we can say (without any fingers crossed behind our backs) that there's meaningful equality between broad groups like Native and European, White and Black. But since he doesn't fit into any of those groups, why can't we just say, for statistical purposes, that our baby comes from the moon?

1 comment:

  1. Hi there, saw your blog on and wanted to say that I have enjoyed reading some of your posts. My father, who is Punjabi (but have never had any dealings with him), and my Mom who is Caucasian(from British decent hence the last name Goldsmith), makes me 1/2 Punjabi. So I can relate with your race and ethnicity comments.
    Best, Stephan Goldsmith


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