I was reading over this morning’s post and I realized there’s one last thing that I’m not looking forward to, and it deserves it own post. Readers who have followed me here from the old blog will have heard me discuss this issue a million times, but new readers may not have thought about it.
I am not all black people.
I realize this statement is so obvious as to be nearly ridiculous, but I will explain what I mean. My experience has been that people are really shy when it comes to discussing race, regardless of their background. This is understandable – racism has left a psychological scar on our society for generations and is an ongoing source of strife. When someone is willing to talk about it, people are uncomfortable at first. Once the initial reluctance wears off, people then launch into a long list of questions that they didn’t realize they’d always had.
I’m sure you are familiar with this phenomenon if you are the only atheist in your social circle. Making your faithlessness plain to your friends shocked them a bit at first, but eventually you had to start fielding questions. Some of them were out of genuine, benign curiosity (“so are you at least spiritual?”), while others were a bit more hostile (“so what, you think I’m just a piece of soulless meat?”). If you were the only atheist they knew, you started getting confessions about how they had doubts, or attempts to proselytize to draw you back in, or unsolicited opinions about how much they hate Richard Dawkins, or whatever. You became the one-stop shop for questions about atheism.
In the same way, the first person to poke their head out and talk about the taboo of race gets that kind of attention.It is par for the course, and I don’t mind. However, what I am cautious of is that people consider my responses as ‘authoritative’. As I have repeatedly and explicitly pointed out in the past, I am far from being an ‘expert’ in any meaningful sense on the topic of race. My education on the matter comes, like my education on theology or politics or law, from a deep interest in the subject matter and a lot of free time to explore. My interest, which is tied to my perspective, comes from my own background and experiences with race and racism. Yes, I have done some reading and learned the language, but that’s pretty much it.
It would be more accurate to say that I’m not even most black people. I grew up in a little mountain town in British Columbia before moving to a suburb of Toronto. I’ve spent most of my life in social groups that are mostly white. I didn’t grow up in a U.S. city where I was deeply immersed in African-American culture, or even places like Ottawa and Toronto with strong ties to the Caribbean community (my own national heritage). As a result, I’m quite out of step when it comes to understanding ‘the black experience’. That being said, my own experience is just one other facet of ‘the black experience’, and insofar as that is the case, I can talk about it. Where there are overlaps, I can extrapolate my own experiences to those of my ethnic brethren, but those occasions are rare.
I guess the point of this little ramble is to specifically caution you that mine is one voice among many that articulates a position based on personal experience and a bit of knowledge gleaned from book learnin’. If I say something is a certain way, there’s a chance that I’m wrong. I try my best not to be, but my own (in)experience handicaps me in that regard sometimes. Just as you wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking on behalf of all atheists, or all women, or all peg-legged accordion players (yeah that’s right Craig, I know you’re reading this), I am not emblematic of every minority, or every black person, or (most likely) most black people.
That being said, I am happy to answer any and all questions you may have about the issues. Most often I try to answer them in the form of “some people think this, some people think that”, because many topics are disputed, even within the anti-racist community (does that remind you of anything?). Just please don’t confuse anything I say with ‘the answer’.
Thanks, and I hope you keep reading. Tomorrow will be way less heavy, I promise 😛
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Just skimmed this post, gotta get back to work, so apologies if you addressed this more thouroughly.
I always liked (and I use like in the most sarcastic way possible here…) the ‘you’re so good at X for a Y’. In theory, it’s a compliment, but if you think about it for more than half a second, it makes one realize just how deeply ingrained stereotypes even in the well meaning and less racist part of the population. (It happens just as often, if not more so, with sexism as well.)
A couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation at work. Many people came up to me afterward to tell me how “well-spoken” I was. I flinched just a little bit every time, because I knew that they didn’t mean “well-spoken for a black guy” but those two phrases have become inseparably wedded in my mind. It was a weird experience for me.
That totally sucks, and is really illustrative of the way that longstanding systemic bias can continue to have pernicious effects even if nobody is doing anything wrong in the present. Who knows if any of the people saying that meant “for a black guy”? I’m as white as they come, and I’ve had people make comments like that to me — and I don’t have to wonder if they are secretly thinking “for a white guy”. It’s easy to take that for granted…
I have worked with these people for a while now, and I am as sure as I can be that they weren’t making any comment, oblique or otherwise, about my race. It was more likely a comment about my youth, or the fact that I am relatively junior in the organization (or, the fact that I actually am a good public speaker). I just got a funny twinge every time someone said it.
But yes, not having to represent your entire demographic group every time you do something – positive or negative – is one facet of privilege that I can’t really claim. Not a HUGE deal most of the time, but I know for others it can be quite onerous.
Either going to love this blog or hate. So far I’m thinking love.
I’m a Dominican kid from Brooklyn who doesn’t ‘act’ Dominican, sure as hell doesn’t talk like he’s from Brooklyn and can’t stand most things he’s ‘supposed’ to like.
Looking forward to the discussions on race. Will probably spend some tending digging through your past discussions. Despite every incentive to, I’ve never given the topic of race to much though. Constantly being told I talk like a white person probably made me indifferent while I was younger. Hoping to make up for that!
I think it’s something that many of us don’t devote a great deal of time to thinking about. Because I struggled for years with my racial identity, I didn’t really have any other choice. I think it’s an important conversation to have though, regardless of your background/experiences.
Thanks for the comment!
Talk like a white boy, act like a white boy. Lol yeah I’ve heard all of that myself too. I can definitely sympathize and just want to know since when is speaking correctly simply attributed to Caucasians?
Glad to see that statement made. Out here on the freakin’ prairie I’m still sometimes surprised at how many people think I’m representative of all black women and girls. Me of all people. Me who can’t stand the “normal” black music, can’t dance, has no ass and doen’t…oh blah, blah, blah, the list goes on and on and on.
BTW, great to see you here, Crom! Maybe now I have a chance in hell of keeping caught up!
If I may, I would like to start with an honest question, that with your background I think you will understand.
You said “my own national heritage”. Do you mean ethnic heritage? Or national heritage? I have always considered them to be two separate things. While my “ethnic heritage” is Western European, it seems (so far, we are in the process of tracing genealogy) to be at least the mid-1800’s for the most recent immigrant to North America, and some branches of the family have been in NA since the 1500s. So while I may be as pale as they come, the only “national heritage” I ever identify with is “Canadian”.
Part of that national heritage is my European ancestors, part is the aboriginal groups that lived in North America pre-1492, and part is the recent immigrants and their children/grandchildren (to which, I assume, you belong, based on your statements). All are part of the national heritage, which to me is infinitely more important than your ethnic heritage. A new Canadian, by contrast, has two or more national heritages to identify with.
Which, in a roundabout way, leads to my question. Do you still identify with the Caribbean “national heritage” (as opposed to ethnic, i.e. the colour of your skin, and where your distant ancestors happen to have been born) as a large portion of your identity? How many generations before that would fade? Or would it? Am I the odd one in essentially disregarding the distant (and in my mind, irrelevant) national and ethnic heritage of my ancestors? Or can I only do so because my skin colour happens to be the most common one?
PS Having previously lived in the Caribbean for 6ish months, I was given a very clear education that there is no monolithic Caribbean identity. Would the exact details even matter in this question?
By “irrelevant” I don’t mean colour-blindness. Yes, I have perused the FAQs. I mean to say that it shouldn’t matter (but unfortunately often does). To paraphrase you, sticking your fingers in your ears doesn’t make the stupid comments the other person is making go away, but they are still stupid and he/she should stop making them.
Perhaps “cultural heritage” would have been a better descriptor. Without wanting to go into too many irrelevant details, I was raised primarily by my father who is a Guyanese immigrant to Canada. I myself was born here. In the absence of a strong Canadian cultural distinctiveness (I explore this statement in much greater detail here), I have been drawn to elements of my father’s culture. The Caribbean community in the Toronto area is quite strong, but does not necessarily break down along national lines. When you are in the Caribbean, it’s a different story entirely; however, within Canada we do tend to identify as a group for the sake of convenience.
Like anyone, I have a number of identities that I swap based on the situation in which I find myself. While I am a proud Canadian (and, when left to my own consideration, I do not consider myself a hyphenated Canadian), it is often useful to me to describe myself as an Afro-Canadian, although not in those exact words, or a Caribbean-Canadian. In the specific case of this post, I was attempting to contrast my experience from one that may be more ‘typical’ for black folks in Canada – many of whom grow up in strong culturally-defined communities. I think any kids that I have (assuming I do not have them with a woman who strongly self-identifies as Caribbean) would grow up even further removed from that community than I would, and would likely not consider themselves to be strongly tied to that group.
To contrast, if you look at Irish people in Boston, or Italians in New York, who have been there for generations – many still strongly identify with their country of ancestral origin. I think the persistence of national identities is dependent more on the circumstances and dynamics of the community at large than it does with any passage of time or generations of progeny.
So far I’m thrilled with the content, and glad that you’re here at FTB since I’d never read your work before. And we’re all heavy hitters around here, as far as I can tell. Keep the good stuff comin!
enjoying your blogging and hoping to learn. One thing I’m hoping you could cover (or point me to, if you’ve done so already) is the apparent exact substitution of “ethnicity” for “race” in government measures, based on statistical classifications of ethnicity. I’m a social scientist too, and trying to understand exactly what is meant by “ethnicity” is making me rip my hair out when trying to design/use demographic questions in surveys. I hope it’s okay I put this request into a post, I couldn’t find an email address to do this offline.
First off – please don’t confuse me with a social scientist. My education is in epidemiology and biostatistics, not sociology/demography/etc. I only say this because I don’t want you to confuse any answer I might give you with something authoritative. You’d be better off consulting the sources I go to when I need a precise definition. Cliff’s Notes has a pretty good one.
Ethnicity refers generally to ancestral heritage. When I talk about ‘race’, I am referring to the intersection between actual ethnicity and the way that society labels and defines that ethnicity. There are, for example, several different distinct ethnic groups that all fit within the category “Asian” (Lao, Chinese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai, the list goes on…), which is usually used as a descriptor of race. While these groups have different histories, they share some social commonalities, insofar as they are not usually considered distinct groups by the casual outsider.
I don’t like the use of ‘race’ in surveys, because it is a sociological construct. Ethnicity is at least a term that has much less baggage, although usually the two terms are used to describe the same construct.
Hope that was helpful.
Hi there, and thanks for replying so fast. 🙂
I apologise for confusing you with a social scientist, I’m not sure why I did that.
The part where you say although usually the two terms are used to describe the same construct is the usage I am interested in, as this is my experience, even though ethnicity is socially constructed and race (when used by government, at least) is based strictly on lineage. Which is how ethnicity can change over time, e.g. by formal or informal adoption, marriage.
I was wondering if you had any thoughts on why ethnicity is being used as a substitute for race. I am uncomfortable about measuring race, and that makes me also uncomfortable about measuring ethnicity when that latter measure is assumed to equate to race. I suppose my question is, can the focus on “ethnicity” rather than “race” mask racism? Will we end up with ethnicism as well?
I don’t know that I am expressing myself very well, and I apologise for that.
I’d imagine it has to do with the fact that ‘race’ is an extremely touchy issue. Ethnicity is, for now, a mostly neutral term that people understand to mean lineage. It’s also a recognition of the fact that the races we are familiar with are mostly fictional groupings – lumping Russians in with Italians really doesn’t make any sense at all if you consider all of the relevant facts.
I think your confusion is warranted – we’re still learning how to talk about these things. It’s an issue that depends, in many ways, on the research question you’re trying to answer. Many of the sociology papers I’ve read that deal explicitly with racism still use race as a variable. It depends on what you’re trying to measure, I suppose.
Thank you for your response. I clearly need to read more sociology.
As a fellow person of African descent I will do my very best to follow your blog. I definitely like what I’ve read so far and I can’t wait to see some more of your writing.
The one comment that I do have is that I share your pain/joy/issue, however you want to look at it, on not being the “typical black guy”. And while admittedly I don’t have any idea what it was like for you growing up in Canada I’m pretty sure that I can sympathize with you. I grew up and am currently still living below the Mason-Dixon line in the US and yeah in some places it’s still as bad if not worse than it was in the 60s, but that’s enough about that. The crux of what I really want to get into is the “I am not all black people” comment.
Why do you think that we, as Africans on this continent, seem to have to deal with that more so than any other race (at least in my experience)?
It’s a really thorny issue, and I am sure there are people who have vast amounts more information than I do on the subject. The United States was built on the backs of slaves, and became monumentally successful doing so. Emancipating itself from Europe certainly gave the young nation the feeling that it was free to do as it liked. I’m sure manifest destiny played a major role – God had given this land to the colonizers and the slaves were being “rescued” from a life of savage heathenry.
Since the abolition of slavery, there has been a reluctance in the American psyche to grant Africans the status of human beings. We saw this reflected in Jim Crow, in segregated schools, in poll taxes and “literacy tests”. We saw it in the fight against civil rights, against interracial marriage, against anti-lynching laws. It has been a slow process, but at every turn there have been Americans, both African and non, who have fought for equality under the law, and we have gained ground.
Because of the long history of discrimination, and our tendency to forget our own history, many of us find it easier to blame marginalized groups for their problems. This comes from the still-pervasive myth that we can gain meaningful information about people by looking at their skin colour/physiology. My hope is that by learning to see the strands of the spiderweb of racism, we can begin to find a way to extricate ourselves from it.
And of course we can’t forget to add the hypothetical Willie Lynch letter. Yes I know that it has been debunked, but at the same time you cannot disregard the pure psychological damage that 400 years or so of slavery and at least another 100 years of basically slavery just under the name of Jim Crow can do to a people. I have been personally told to not be the first Black/African American to do anything unless I was ready for the weight of my race in this country to be on my shoulders. The sad thing about the whole deal is that we may not think that we are representatives for our country, but if we were to be put into any position of power (political, entertainment, etc…) then our people, or rather at least the African Americans because as I’ve said I know absolutely nothing about Blacks in Canada (I’m not going to lie I was ready to believe that there weren’t any there lol), would put us into that position. And then the rest of the races would follow suit. In my opinion that’s the real reason why Black celebrities and athletes getting into trouble is always such big news. Unless you’re one of my uncles and then it’s just a part of the Caucasian suppression of the African race movement
A comment not at all related to the topic at hand…
I am not all photographers, but I do notice severe jpeg compression artifacts when I see them and unfortunately your banner has a bad case of ’em. Yeah, that’s the kind of thing I notice on a new blog. Anyways, since I assume you have infinite time to deal with such irrelevancies, I thought I’d bring it to your attention.
For that matter, I could make a similar banner quickly & easily, but don’t know what font is used (if that even matters too much… the font is pretty -close- to Calisto MT, but does not appear to be one I’m familiar with).
If you want to make me a new banner, I will be more than happy to use it. I was planning on making a general request once I got myself established, because that thing is an eyesore. I have skills – graphic design is NOT among them.
Well, I’m not feeling just incredibly creative at the moment, but here’s something that’s basically your current banner without the jpeg artifacts:
Hopefully you can get a more exciting banner as time goes by, but if you want to use this in the interim feel free…
Looking forward to reading posts on the various subjects you’ll be covering. In regards to race in particular, it is excellent to see an atheist blogger more willing to address this complex issue. I’m hoping to see more coverage of lesser-attended-to social, political & gender issues by the atheist, skeptic and freethinker communities. By the looks of the lineup at this blogging community, I won’t be disappointed. Take care and see you around.
It’s an oldie, but goodie:
That is hilarious.
Where I grew up in British Columbia (smaller towns) there were few black people. There were none in my schools until I was 17. I had met more in person by then from BC Lions’ tours around the province than personal daily experience. It’s cool to hear our blogger is from BC. But why the move to hogtown? (Then again, Alex Lifeson wouldn’t have met Geddy Lee without doing the same….)
“Familiarity breeds contempt” is sometimes true, sometimes not. Seeing an identified group of people every day can make one both familiar with them and see them as just folks, but seeing them regularly can also reinforce stereotypes. Growing up with no black people around but being aware of their existence meant I saw them, and our blogger, as just folks. Most of my experience came from seeing Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte on TV or my parents’ music, hardly the worst influence to have.
Where I grew up there were many First Nations people, in the towns and in my schools, and I heard bigotry towards them on a regular basis, and it did get ingrained and has stuck with me for a long time until I grew up, in some ways even now unfortunately. Having lived in Asia for the past decade, I’ve also experienced a fair amount of anti-white bigotry so it has tempered my attitudes a fair amount.
Our blogger being black is unimportant to me except for him being a rarity. There are scant numbers of blacks who are atheist or gay (I doubt he’s the latter). Maybe it’s just what I read in the media, but my perception has been there is a disproportionately low number amongst blacks who are “out” either way, and many are intolerant of both. And those whom I’ve met both in Canada and Americans while living in Seoul, Korea, fit that perception.
As much as the atheist movement needs women to speak up, we need blacks and other non-white groups to speak both to show they exist and to get others to speak or listen. Have you ever read how Iran and some countries say “Homosexuality is a western/white problem”? I’ve heard non-white people say “Atheism is a western/white problem”, and they won’t listen to whites talk on these issues. Many societies and ethnic groups won’t listen unless they hear it from one of their own.
Aaaah, tokenism! *shudder*
I was aware of the concept, of course. However, I was at a gathering with some friends and we were discussing the funeral of the hostess’ father that had happened recently. The friends were from various backgrounds and were comparing funereal traditions from different cultures. One of them turned to me and asked, “What do white people do at funerals?” I was genuinely flabbergasted by the question, and it made me much more aware of the issue you mention.
On a slightly different note, I had not noticed before that point that I was the only white person in the room. How luxurious for me that I don’t have to be constantly aware of my race – also made me a bit more conscious of white privilege…