Jefferson M Fish Ph.D.

Looking in the Cultural Mirror

What Are You?

Some people have a racially ambiguous appearance.

Posted Jan 19, 2010

American tourists in Norway may occasionally come across Sami (they prefer not to be called Lapps) or have locals call attention to them and their brightly colored clothes. If there is an opportunity for small talk, one of the first questions would probably be "How many reindeer do you have?" The question might be a way of showing interest by referring to a well-known fact, as in "Brazil-Carnival," "Sami-reindeer." It is an innocent question, perhaps stemming from the Golden Rule-Do unto others as you would have others do unto you-since, if the tourists owned any reindeer, they would be glad to tell you how many. To the Sami, however, the question is impertinent. It is like asking Americans how much money they have in the bank.

In every culture there is certain information that people feel they need in order to interact with one another, and other information that is accepted as private. In the US, probably because of our history of complex and often tense race relations, Americans feel they need to know one another's race in order to modulate their behavior. Most Americans are easy to label-they look "white," "black," or (East) "Asian," and speak a recognizable dialect of American English. But a large (and growing) number of individuals do not fit easily into one of these categories. Ambiguity arises because in the US we classify people racially, based on ancestry (or "blood"), and not merely by first impressions of their appearance.

Like the US, Brazil also has a long history of slavery, discrimination, and complex race relations; but Brazilians don't share our need to categorize ambiguous looking people. The reason is that their racial classifications in terms of tipos are based on what people look like, not their ancestry. For example, a family in Salvador, Bahia, of two parents and six children might be eight different tipos. When you know someone's tipo, you know more or less what they look like (but not their ancestors' tipos)-so there is no ambiguity to be clarified.

Here is a possible condensed conversation between a white American man and an accent-free American woman with light tan skin, black wavy hair, brown eyes, a nose that is neither narrow nor broad, and lips that are neither thin nor thick:
"What is your name?"
"Jennifer Smith."
"What is your mother's name?"
"Mary Jones."
"Where were your parents born?"
"What language did you speak at home?"

What is going on in this interaction?

He wants to know her race, and believes he is entitled to that information. He has probably ruled out Asian and South Asian, but is still trying to decide among white, black, Latino, or in some parts of the country, Native American. He may be feeling frustrated or wonder why she hasn't caught his drift.

She knows what she looks like, what her ancestry and cultural background are, and understands the question he really wants answered: "What are you?" That is, "Do you have any black or Latino ancestry?" But she finds the interaction intrusive--a bit like a Sami man being asked "How many reindeer do you have?"

Is it really essential to know other people's race? Maybe we should reformulate the Golden Rule to take cultural differences into account-Do unto others as they would have done unto them.

Image Source: Mats Andersson

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