Cultural Spectra

Race is a topic that crops up every now and then. Some people have very strong views; others use it for their brand of jokes; still others, like me, try to avoid the issue as much as possible. I’m not so comfortable with the issues of race; the fact that many of them are real and not imagined makes the problem worse.

I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t like to describe people as “Asian” or “Hispanic”, who can’t tell anyone’s ethnicity, and who says he speaks a bit of “Mandarin” (not “Chinese”). I don’t like thinking in these terms, but I’ll admit both that I go too far and that I have been known to tell a few racist jokes. If relatively innocuous ones.

Recently, though, one of my friends was complaining about other friends speaking in “Asian”. And that offends me; it’s just a statement of willful ignorance. The appellation “Asian” for people is at least partially valid (even though it usually means “East Asian”), because there are common traits. But the languages of East Asia aren’t even all related, and are certainly not mutually intelligible. (At least the different Chinese languages share a writing system and are somewhat related. But Japanese and Vietnamese, for example, share almost nothing.)

I’m a linguist (or at least an intented linguistics minor, but anyway…) so maybe it offends me more than most people. But still. So much is lumped into race that it’s a touchy subject no matter what the topic is.

Being “white” doesn’t help. I don’t like that term either.

So I’m going to try to separate it into four parts. This is a preliminary classification system, so comments are, cautiously, welcome.

The simplest classification, which is the one that ends up encompassing the others, is ethnicity. This is your genetic descent, no more, no less. It depends on your parents’ ethnicities and influences such superficial characteristics as face shape, skin color, and the magic ability to avoid sunburn (grrr). My ethnicity is Jewish, for several generations. (Not Israeli, though…which isn’t exactly an ethnicity. Anyway.)

Second classification is the culture you grew up with. This is mostly created by your family but could include your childhood (probably pre-high-school, maybe pre-middle-school as well). It’s here that we get a lot of the Asian-American stereotypes, such as the so-called “Asian Fail” (getting a B instead of an A). And yes, I know plenty of Asian friends who don’t have family like that. In addition to family values, this is also the category into which religion falls (unless you grew up in a completely religious community, in which case it would fall into the next category as well). As for me, I grew up in an upper-middle class mostly-agnostic-atheist household with, yes, reasonably Jewish values (emphasis on education, wise management of money, etc.)

Third is where you grew up. On the one hand this is more important as you begin to take stock of and establish yourself in your surroundings, i.e. middle or high school and on. On the other hand there are certain assumptions you get just from growing up in a certain place. A completely useless example is the crosswalk; Cupertino has buttons to push if you want to cross, Berkeley doesn’t. And it still bothers me. In general, it’s possible for people to have more than one such place, or a childhood of travel. I grew up very much in Cupertino, Silicon Valley / Bay Area, California, America; I suppose “Bay Arean” describes my locational culture pretty strongly.

The last classification is language, and language does affect the way you think. I would like to think learning Japanese (and even a little Chinese) has changed the way I think; there are definitely untranslatable concepts I’ve come across. This is a less-mentioned concept, but there is a difference between people who speak solely English, people who prefer to drop back into, say, Korean (when they can), and people who switch back and forth, often within the same sentence. Oh right, plus people who aren’t comfortable in English, ever. I’m stuck in English, for the most part, but I know people from all groups. What language do you think in? What language do you dream in?

Remember that all of these categories are multidimensional spectra; people can have multiple ethnicities, conflicting cultures, moving homes or changing schools, and multiple first languages (and degrees of comprehension in second or third languages). But even with all of these factors, the labels are still only a small part of someone’s personality.

So. Now you know why I don’t like to use these labels: in our culture, they imply more than one of these categories. And not all of these categories are useful; despite usually correlating with at least one of the other categories, ethnicity is itself indicative of very little. And yet that’s what we see first.

Last, remember that all of these are influences on a person, but none of them say anything about what kind of person (s)he is. Whether they’re worth being friends with. What they can contribute to society.

Signing off, a Silicon Valley ethnically Jewish English-speaking atheist. And a human being with a million more facets than just those four coincidental facts. Everyone has something to contribute.