People in conversation

Narratives and Numbers: Increasingly Complex Definitions of Race

Jessica Weaver

“I don’t understand the question.” In her now infamous interview, Rachel Dolezal is unable to answer a question about her racial identity. She stutters, and quickly walks away. There’s little doubt at this point that hers was an act of willful deceit. The swirl of media attention about her lies, her family history, or her mental health, however, sublimated an important conversation about how we define race in this country – for ourselves and for other people.

We’re grappling with a history of deep racism, once again baldly exposed in Charleston. There surfaced once again our country's struggle to address untreated wounds of white supremacy, racism, and historic violence against African-Americans. And yet, as John Powell, Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California at Berkeley articulated in a recent conversation on On Being with Krista Tippett, the deeply needed conversation about race isn’t just an examination of slavery, or an interrogation of what it means to be black in America, then or today. It's about relationality across differences, “as much about whiteness as about color,” he says, something we must understand in terms of nuance, connection, belonging, and the shifting lines we draw among ourselves.

But as unthinkable violence has once again surfaced calls for a national dialogue about race, the parameters of that conversation seem murkier than ever. The definition of racial identity, its relationality and its borders, in the language of Dr. Powell, is becoming increasingly complex. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center about the changing demographics of the American landscape, the country is becoming increasingly multiracial, with more (and younger) people identifying as belonging to more than one race. Among this increasing population, racial identity can be fluid, extending beyond skin color or country of origin: “It is a mix of biology, family upbringing and the perceptions that others have about them.” To that last point, many reported racial identity shifting significantly over the span of a lifetime, and presenting their identity differently, depending on their environment and the community around them. But shifting identity, over a lifetime or from moment to moment, does not a shared experience make. Multiracial identity itself is no monolith; according to the study, "shared multiracial backgrounds do not necessarily translate into shared identity." Rather, we see two circles simultaneously expanding and contracting: a widening understanding of identity in the midst of perhaps a narrowing sense of shared experiences.

While painful debates rage about race, and we grapple with ideas of history, appearance, culture, and community, the U.S. Census announced their plan to remove the term “race” from its questionnaire entirely (opting instead for “origin”). “We recognize that race and ethnicity are not quantifiable values,” the Census Bureau said, acknowledging that the pre-set categories around this highly fluid concept are losing their significance.

This is a shift with ripples deep into our troubled past, our problematic present, and our uncertain future. Historically, measurement and categorization are embedded practices of subjugation (think of the British census in 18th century India, which laid the groundwork for Hindu-Muslim conflicts that persist today, or more relevantly the 3/5 rule in America during slavery). As the U.S. becomes more and more multiracial, classification in such stark terms seems to make less and less categorical sense, in addition to the moral question of prescribing identity in the first place.

At the same time, how will we know what progress against the tides of structural racism looks like? How can we make space for emerging layers of identity without denying a past and present indelibly marked by the shadows of racism? How can we make sense of how we're born, how we identify, what we inherit, and what we experience - all while figuring out what box to check on a form? As one academic put it, “We desperately want to be post-racial, post-gender, indeed, post-difference. Yet we fail to teach the next generation to exorcise the ghosts of what we tell ourselves is our past.”

Not to play the pun too hard, but it’s not so black and white anymore. Who gets to define identity and how is perhaps the most pressing question of our time. Changing the categories doesn't eliminate the need for conversation - it deepens it.

Dialogue has never been more important as these issues become more complex. Through careful listening and intentional communication, we can create a space for nuance and multiplicity in the exploration of identity, and for personal narratives to shed light onto worldviews, beliefs, and values. It’s about supporting people in deeply understanding their lived experiences, and the experiences of people who are different from them.