I’ve blogged about the role race plays in my work. Despite the fears of some, I didn’t explode, so I thought I would try it again.
They’re constantly on us to be more culturally competent in our work. Speak to people in their native language, address cultural differences in raising children and gender roles, talk to clients about their religion,
have the national anthem of their homeland cued up for when they walk in the office door…there are lots of ways to do this. But in order to address someone’s culture, we need to know what it is.
At Anonymous Agency, we’re supposed to have the basic information from the start. There is a question for race, ethnicity, and religion information on our intake forms. I mark it in the win column if I get the name of all household members on those forms, so that information is rarely actually there. It’s even more rarely accurate. Many times, I’ve been handed an intake that says a family is “Hispanic?” Awesome. Are question marks an option on the census?
This means that I have to ask people what they consider themselves to be, a pretty heady and personal question, within twenty minutes of meeting them. It’s a weird question to ask when you’re just getting to know someone, but if you don’t ask it then, it’s even stranger to ask three months down the line. Where is that coming from? I thought we were cool. Especially if they don’t give the answer you’re looking for. “Black? Anything else? Just because your last name is Lopez, so…what?”
It doesn’t help that many people don’t really know what I’m talking about. (I was once on a plane with a girl who wrote “caucasian” under “nationality” on her paperwork to be permitted to enter Ireland. She was an idiot. Customs was not amused.) I have a family that identifies as “Spanish.” I understand that to mean one is from Spain, but they’re actually Dominican. Sorry, let me correct you on your identity, ma’am.
Race and ethnicity are often conflated. I ask for race, people answer, “Puerto Rican.” A person can be Latino, but might also identify as black. This means that awkward questions follow. Often in terms that people aren’t accustomed to. Asking someone what their skin color is when you’re sitting across from them kind of makes you look crazy.
Technically, we all know race is a social construct. Knowing what we know now about human DNA and how mixed up we all are makes segregation sound not only morally repugnant, but also like a remarkably confusing waste of time.
The confusion of cultural terminology barriers was really driven home when I was called upon to help out with a phone survey of the elderly population receiving services at my first ever internship. On the first page, I had to ask three questions in a row: 1. What is your ethnicity? 2. What is your race? 3. Are you Hispanic?
An early one went like this.
BabySJ: What is your ethnicity?
ElderlyWoman: I’m Italian.
BabySJ: What is your race?
ElderlyWoman: My weight? You want my weight?
BabySJ: No, your race.
ElderlyWoman: My race? I just said I’m Italian!
BabySJ: OK…so white? Caucasian?
ElderlyWoman: I’m white, yes, put down white.
OK. I realize that at this point I should have just moved on. But I was 23, and the only thing they told me was how important it was that I ask each and every question. People could die, SJ! They didn’t quite say that, but just about. I hadn’t taken research methodology yet.
BabySJ: Are you Hispanic?
ElderlyWoman: Hispanic? What are you talking about? I’m white, white, I said I’m white.
All right, cool. And when was your last routine pap smear, woman who could be my nana?
This actually wasn’t my first time dealing with this. In order to get all important funding at Anonymous Youth Agency, we had to fill out endless Excel spreadsheets noting the ages, genders, incomes, and of course races (I mean ethnicities?!) of the children we served. It was particularly important to identify Latino kids. The more Latinos we served, the more money we got. Bring on those wonderful little bastards! Whitey, you get in line.
Now, hearts were fully in the right place with this regulation. Latino kids made up a majority of the neighborhood, but they were very much an underserved population. Groups giving us money wanted to make sure we were doing what actually needed to be done.
But when categorizing a child, we had to pick only one box. We asked on our information forms what ethnicity and race people identified as. Some people wrote Puerto Rican or Dominican. Some were more broad, writing black, Hispanic, Latino, African American, caucasian, white, Native American. Some were more than one race, so I had to pick the one that was most convenient for our funding needs.
If it sounds a little creepy and wrong, good. Because it felt that way.
One little girl’s mother had written down that the child was black, but I knew her family and that they were also Latino. We all have aspects of our cultural identities that are more salient than others. In spite of my firm belief in “choose your own identity” (not that I’m going to start spouting off my Pinay pride, however much I might like to) I nudged that kid into the Latina box. That was kind of the policy.
Apparently, it really pisses some people off.
the River Styx social work school, we had this discussion. (Of course.) One woman, who was white and had mixed-race children, was adamant about telling her children not to give any racial information. “I sent them off for their first day of school, and my last words to them were, ‘Don’t check the box!'” She said this with passion and distress I thought was reserved for actresses trying to win Academy Award by portraying a Jewish mother in 1940s Germany being separated from her children.
I am not diminishing the importance of race. Or the general pain in the ass that being multiracial can be. People are weird about it. They ask inappropriate and insensitive questions about something that shouldn’t matter and is none of their business. I had to ask my (remarkably, extraordinarily) white college roommate why she insisted on using the term “mulatto” to describe a mutual acquaintance. This was 2002, if you were thinking I must have attended university in the very early 20th century.
It seems that, sadly enough, we can’t really win. I know that this mother was trying to protect her children in telling them not to check the evil evil box. But I also know that the reasons behind requesting the information weren’t bad. We can’t judge that things are getting better, and that marginalized people are being given better access to services if we don’t ask. We can’t pretend that race doesn’t exist, and doesn’t matter, even if we think it isn’t important.
I don’t think having to check the box is the problem. It’s indicative of the problem, sure, but it’s an imperfect way of trying to address it. So until we live in a society where that information is truly irrelevant, please check (as many as apply) clearly. Some poor sap is paying for
a land called Honah Lee