In 2012, I visited the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. There I learned that race is a social construct. There are no significant scientific distinctions between people of differing pigmentations. To be more precise, human DNA varies no more than .01% between people of different “races” or skin tone. (For more information, check out this archived NYT story and this National Geographic book review.)
For a long time, race was something I took for granted. Like every other American, I have filled out forms that included questions about my race, ethnicity, gender, and religious affiliation. And, based on my understanding of race and ethnicity, I have filled always my forms out as follows:
- Race- White
- Ethnicity- Hispanic/Latino- Yes
In 2017, my husband purchased for me an ancestry kit. Through that process, I learned that I was 44.7% European descent and 41.5% Native American descent. Yet, throughout my entire life, I had only identified myself as racially White. I always understood that my Mexican-ness was an ethnicity, not a race. I now believe that by identifying only one aspect of my lineage, I missed out on an important part of my family’s history.
Why does it matter?
I have pondered this question since I learned about my ancestral history. I have begun to put more thought into it as I contemplate how to answer the census questionnaire that will be hitting my mailbox this year. What is the longterm impact in my life on thinking of myself as a White Hispanic? I am not sure.
But, I do think that it has some impact.
You see, I now believe that it is important to see myself as all the above- Mexican-born, Native American and white, US citizen. In the past year, I found an article on PBS about the shifting nature of the definition of whiteness. And, I came to recognize that many of the same people who now disparage the incoming immigrants, were, at one time, seen in those same terms by “Real Americans.” However, once they got scooped up into the definition of whiteness, they forgot what it meant to be immigrant. They became the haters that their ancestors once faced.
I don’t want to be that way. And, I want to help others not to be that way. By reminding myself of the ties I have to other people that inhabit the land around me, I can encourage others to consider how they see themselves. I think it is worth it to try to relate to everyone. I think that when we see more of ourselves in others, we are able to see the humanity in everyone.
In the time that I have been contemplating this, I have slowly begun to include Native American as part of my self identify on various questionnaires. I have tried to be careful that I do it in a way that is not misleading or distracting from those individuals who have been raised in largely native or indigenous communities. And, I have decided that I will be checking both Native and White in the 2020 census along with Latina and Mexican.
Are there boxes you should not check?
The same ancestry test told me that I have 3% Subsaharan African and 1% Western Asian and North African descent and that 1% of my European descent derived from an Ashkenazi Jewish ancestor. I am excited to learn a little more about these connections. Nonetheless, I do not plan on including black or African American as a box that I check.
I think that in order to identify with a race or ethnic identity one must have had experiences or awareness of that identity in youth.
I grew up speaking Spanish, brought up by Mexican parents in a community that included large numbers of Central Americans. My parents tethered me to that world.
At the same time, I grew up in a primarily white school. All of my friends were of European descent. I went to college in Topeka, Kansas and was in a sorority. I tethered myself to Anglo America.
When I think of those two things- the world I came from and the world I created for myself, I do not believe that my lived experiences enable me to check the box for Black or African American. In other words, I have not lived the experiences of a black person.