I want to have a conversation about how race and racial difference are constructed in different cultural contexts. This will be a general opening post. In the next couple, I want to turn the lens on whiteness, that wily, often invisible beast that is nevertheless a highly constructed one!
Race is constructed radically differently across cultural contexts, and it’s often quite a shock to see how much. For example, we were having a conversation a couple of weeks ago about the case of Tarran Betterridge, an Aboriginal Australian woman who was denied a job because her skin tone was considered too light for her to be a proper Aboriginal representative. I realised that I would really have to go to some lengths to explain to you, a primarily US audience, how Indigenous Australian identities are constructed: a combination of ancestry, community acceptance and self-identification. From what I’ve gauged, in the United States, skin colour seems to figure a lot more dominantly in how race is constructed. And I’ve been thinking about how vital the particular history and cultural forms of a context are for constructing racial identity. There’s certainly an interesting conversation in comments on that post along those lines, if you care to check that out.
Race can be about community affiliation and ancestry, (perceptions around) physical features and skin colour, culture, identity, nationality, and doubtless much else. On that last, I know that there are a lot of European contexts in which racial difference tends to be constructed in terms of nationality (or national origin) rather than racial grouping. It’s a really complicated thing. Personally, my ethnicity is very important to me (as is my racial identity), so it’s a bit weird for race to take primacy largely to the exclusion of (my) ethnic identity in the dominant culture here. And sometimes ethnic and racial constructions can interact and clash because of the interactions of all these factors.
Something that’s been kind of weird for me in consuming as much US media as I do is seeing how race is constructed in terms of which races get recognised, used as examples. So, someone might use person of colour and black interchangeably, or might add Latino/a and Asian. Less commonly Native American. Even less commonly Arab. No one else, really. This is really strange for me because I live in a country in which most of the non-white population is Asian, and not immediately acknowledging indigenous peoples is something I find jarring because of the history of my context. I don’t think the whole listing thing ever really works, because I’ve never seen every racial group ever get listed, and they never really could be. That’s because racial identity, terminology and so forth differs depending on when and where you are. (For a terminology example, some folks in the UK will use ‘Asian’ to refer to people of South Asian descent, whereas here the dominant image called up by the term is of East Asians.)
Because racial identity shifts as cultures shift and form. For example, here in Australia, Italians and Greeks attained white status over the late 1980s and early 1990s (I can’t remember this happening, having been not alive for some of it, this is what I’m told!). It’s still a very new thing, and what Greek and Italian whiteness can mean is still evolving, still partial. On the other hand, in the United States, my understanding is that these groups have been understood as white for decades (I’ll have a post on shifts towards whiteness in particular shortly). So, even within the same racial group, a Greek person in the United States might experience whiteness in a drastically different way than they would in Australia.
Race, ethnicity, culture and identity are made and mixed in some really complex ways, differing across cultures, among communities, and in individual experiences. How have you experienced the figuring of race and racial difference?