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Racial Identity in America
Can't we just be ourselves?

This text, by Yasmine Bahrani, was published in the International Herald Tribune on 20 February, 1998

WASHINGTON - When I lived in England, I was black. That's how the system there regards all former colonials like myself. We were all generically black.

But my blackness was only temporary. When I arrived in the United States I continued to think of myself as black until my college friends in Indiana started laughing at me. They convinced me I wasn't black at all; I was white, they said. I believed them, but that didn't last long either.

A few years later, I discovered that my American employer had classified me as yet something else. To my surprise, I turned out to be one of his Asian employees.

By now, the primary benefit of racial classification is apparent to me: entertainment. The primary drawback is equally apparent: It has made my identity available for distortion by others who claim an interest in it.

In case you're wondering, I'm from Iraq, and my family tree includes Arabs, Persians and Turks. A lot of blood has been mixed in Mesopotamia - almost as much as has been bed them and I suppose that, "racially" speaking, I look like I might be from many places.

Some Indians have guessed that I come from their subcontinent; some Iranians have taken me for one of them; so have some South Americans. My father used to smile at my freckles, no doubt exported from Europe, and teasingly call me his own "Crusader."

But - so far at least - no Europeans haw mistaken me for one of their own. Indeed, one otherwise pleasant German woman I once met challenged even the American identity I sometimes choose to claim. She politely doubted that "real" Americans had black hair like mine.

Under such circumstances, it is difficult to find a voice of my own in America's ever intensifying racial dialogue. I suspect the same is true for many other Americans whose racial identities are subject to much quixotic shuffling as my own.

For example, I take affirmative action and the good it has done very seriously. But given my experience, I find it increasingly difficult to take seriously the premise of race from which such debates are proceeding.

There are many such debates going on. Take the government's decision that I, in the company of my fellow Americans, may choose from among an enriched list of racial categories in the year 2000 census.

This suggests a more democratic spirit than that shown by either Britain or my employers, all of whom categorized me without asking for my opinion on the matter. But my racialized experience has taught me that I am being offered a choice of social fictions, and I don't think the Census Bureau is doing me the favor it thinks it is.

The identities we accept are portentous because they will follow us around forever. For example, Americans have come to accept the term "Hispanic," which became a minority designation under the Nixon administration in 1973. "Latino," more popular in the Western states, will be offered as an alternative in the next census. Many who are labeled so today privately scorn the term, choosing instead to think of themselves as Mexicans, Bolivians, Dominicans and so on. But because the government says they are Hispanic or Latino, so must they.

Of course, the move to create more "officially" recognized classifications is supported by a number of people who want to escape the racial cage they find themselves in, and I appreciate the irony. Many of these people consider themselves to be of mixed race and resent being forced to choose between their parents' identities.

I have sympathy for this group. It is no more interested in an assigned identity than I am. But I do not see how an ever more refined listing of racial categories is the answer to such a problem. An end to official racial categories seems a much more appealing solution.

Now a whole national dialogue on race is. under way. What I have come to want from such an exchange - to be taken for who I am - is what I used to think every American wanted. I know that racism and other forms of prejudice have prevented this ideal from being realized, but it remains a respectable ideal nonetheless, and was, after all, best articulated by my sometime fellow Black, the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.

I should add that what I know about American ethnic hatred is not just intellectual. Among the myriad classifications I have been tagged with is a variation on the "N-word" intended for Arabs. The epithet was hurled at me on at least two occasions back home in Indiana, along with, the first time, eggs and the second time a putrid tomato. All hit their target, the epithet included.

Even so, I prefer to take my chances as an American among other Americans, and not to construct an alternative identity out of thy ethnic origins as a shield against hurt.

Don't misunderstand : I could not be more proud of those origins (despite troubles in my native land) and of the magnificent history and language that accompany them. But I'm in America now.

The author, a writer in Washington, contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.


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