In this racially charged period in American history, many people will suggest that “we need to stop thinking about skin color.” I call these folks individualists.
For individualists, skin color is a proxy for ethnic or racial (ethnoracial) identity. It is not that the person is saying that a Chinese American person should stop thinking about their yellow skin. They are saying that person should stop identifying (or at the least de-emphasize) their identification with the group “Chinese-American.”
When that person says “we,” he is talking about the individual and society as a whole. Our institutions and our social policies need to stop imposing an identity onto someone based on their skin color, they say. Just because you have a particular skin color does not mean you must belong to any coherent group called black or Asian and share any connection with others who share that color.
On the surface, there is nothing wrong with this view. It speaks to a society where other, more fluid differences matter more than skin color (identity). This line of reasoning is a net positive for sure for people who do not have an articulated ethnoracial identity.
The problem lies in what racial and ethnic minorities lose in this line of argumentation. I suggest that many racial and ethnic minorities’ identities are tied up in specific historical and cultural dynamics. Asking them to de-emphasize or erase their identities is the functional equivalent of asking them to be less themselves and more white. This essay will develop these ideas further.
Identity Grounded in History and Culture
Identity is not merely an intellectual exercise. It is built upon and bound up in real experiences. I will illustrate what identity entails using American Descendants of Slaves (ADOS) — black Americans. It is the group I know best, as I identify as black American. Below is a list of ten attributes. I invest the time in listing them because establishing the empirical reality on which identity is grounded is integral to my argument. If you are aware of this history and culture, you can skip to the next section.
1. My ancestors were slaves. This is the defining feature of black American history in the United States.
2. My ancestors were sharecroppers. Black people, set free after the Civil War, settled for sharecropping as no compensation was given for being enslaved. Whites in the South may have been sharecroppers as well. But they had far more options. They may have decided to purchase land from former plantation owners, kept the land they originally had before the war, or took advantage of the Homestead Act and settled free lands to the West.
3. My ancestors experienced the most sustained and intense form of racism of any nonwhite people in the United States. A part of this is living disproportionately in the South under Jim Crow. A portion of this can be attributed to merely being black. Forms of racism have impacted all nonwhite peoples in the United States, but most social scientists would argue that blackness has been the most vilified. Robin DiAngelo has generated much controversy for her bestseller White Fragility. However, her chapter on “Anti-Blackness” describes this phenomenon very well.
4. My kin networks are characterized by a severe lack of wealth and a low number of people with high-status occupations. This is a legacy of the history above. We are disproportionately working-class and wealth deprived. The data on wealth can be absurd. According to Duke economist and reparations advocate Dr. William Darity, black heads of household with a college degree have $10,000 less in median worth than a white head of household who never completed high school. Or single white parents have more than two times the wealth ($35,000) as do married black parents ($16,000). It does not take much sociological imagination to link these differences in wealth to differences in life chances.
5. I have bimodal kin networks clustered in the South and the North. Judging by the outsized influence of black cultural centers such as New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta, most people will think of black Americans as urban people. This is true insofar as black Americans gravitated to larger cities in both the North and South. But in 2010, the majority of black Americans still lived in the South. Many black Americans remember fondly the summers where a cousin travels from “up north” to spend time with their relatives “down south.” Family reunions are a big deal in black families and are occasions where families that moved during the great migration reconnect with families that remained in the South.
6. My family is very religious. Black people exhibit higher levels of religiosity than other racial groups in American society. For example, 83% of black Americans are “absolutely certain” of their belief in God, followed by 61% of white Americans, 59% of Hispanics, and 44% of Asians. My relatives are all Christian, and most identify as Southern Baptists. And thus, everyday life experiences are bracketed by Christian rituals and beliefs. Special events may begin and with prayer. Trials and tribulations are understood through a Christian lens.
7. Music. The black American musical tradition cannot be overstated. Black Americans have had been the prime movers in many genres, including Gospel, Jazz, Soul, R&B, and Hip-Hop. These genres, of course, are not exclusive to black people. I can imagine a white person saying — “I listened to R&B and Hip-Hop sometimes, so this can’t really be about blackness, can it?” For many black Americans, especially my generation, black music was not seen as just one type of music among many. It was the only music played in the home. Our most important memories as humans are often linked to the music we listened to at that time, especially when we were young. For black Americans, the seminal moments in life are powered by a soundtrack of black music.
8. Soul Food. Soul food is as tightly connected with the black experience in America as music. This includes fried meats — chicken and pork chops were the most prominent in my youth, greens of all types (collards, turnips, mustard), legumes of all kinds (lima beans, black-eyed peas, sweet peas), corn, and candied yams. Like music, food is tightly interwoven with memory creation. For me, Thanksgiving is not really Thanksgiving without fried chicken.
9. Movies and Television. With the media fragmentation of the early ’80s, black Americans had the option of routinely choosing content that reflected their lives. This began most notably with Black Entertainment Television in 1980. Since that time, there are movies, television series, and podcasts primarily for black Americans. Some black entertainers, such as Tyler Perry, have become some of the most influential people in Hollywood by producing content almost exclusively for black audiences.
10. Familial expectations. A simplistic understanding of black families is to say they are “single-parent homes.” A more in-depth reading of sociological work on the family allows one to get at more complicated family dynamics. Black American families are characterized by their extended kin networks and matriarchal authority structure. It is common for cousins, grandparents, and other relatives to be in the household and share in household responsibilities. Moreover, the home is often led by the oldest female in the house. This is often the grandmother if she is in the home. Black Americans are also characterized by a strong sense of reciprocity, making it difficult for family members to place the elderly in retirement homes and people with mental illnesses in institutions. I know intellectually that “success” in America is a two-parent home, with two kids living alone in the suburbs. But emotionally, a thriving home environment is one of many relatives around sharing in household activities and experiences.
I believe all individuals who have a group identity can complete this same exercise. This includes groups as disparate as Nigerian-Americans, Chinese Americans, Lakota, and Russian Americans. It is essential to delineate these attributes to show what is lost in environments where people cannot express and act upon their identity.
I have no desire to give up my black identity or deemphasize it. My identity provides meaning to my life. I need to link my present to the past of my ancestors. I cannot understand how I grew up in an environment devoid of wealth and people in high-status occupations without acknowledging the history of slavery, sharecropping, Jim Crow, and other forms of racism. I cannot think about my life’s seminal moments without some black music or food, providing texture to that memory.
Moreover, and maybe most importantly, I am a part of something bigger. I take pride in mentoring young black people, especially young men when I get the chance. The only way this focus makes sense is to place myself within a community where there is a shortage of successful male role models. I only saw one black male teacher — a band teacher, before I went off to college. When I act as a role model within this specific black American context, I feel I am a part of something bigger. I feel needed.
A de-emphasis or outright rejection of my black American identity in favor of individualism is detrimental to me and my being.
I suspect this is the case for other people who for whatever reason identify with an ethnoracial group.
Whiteness and Americanness
Most white folks will say they do not see color. However, it is apparent from data on voting patterns, residential patterns, dating practices, and other decisions grounded in individual choices that white Americans as a group are indeed making choices with race in mind. How does one explain the paradox of the individual white person proclaiming that they do not see race or act on race, yet when we look broadly at white people’s behavior, we see these clear patterns?
The straightforward answer is that white is the default racial identity in the United States and other multiracial European countries. Because it is the default identity, it is seen as neutral and non-racial. Meanwhile, people whose looks and actions deviate from this default are understood to be a race or to be acting racially.
Social scientists, in particular scholars of race, have developed this casual observation further. There is a vast amount of literature on what is called “whiteness.” I find historian Nell Irvin Painter’s thinking about whiteness most enlightening in this regard. However, a simple description of whiteness from the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is sufficient for our purposes:
“Whiteness and white racialized identity refer to the way that white people, their customs, culture, and beliefs operate as the standard by which all other groups of are compared. Whiteness is also at the core of understanding race in America. Whiteness and the normalization of white racial identity throughout America’s history have created a culture where nonwhite persons are seen as inferior or abnormal.
This white-dominant culture also operates as a social mechanism that grants advantages to white people, since they can navigate society both by feeling normal and being viewed as normal. Persons who identify as white rarely have to think about their racial identity because they live within a culture where whiteness has been normalized.”
For a fuller but concise description of whiteness and white privilege, I suggest this Oxford encyclopedia entry by Barbara Applebaum. If there is an interest in learning more about whiteness and how it is used in scholarship, I recommend reading works by David Roediger and Nell Irvin Painter. These two scholars have produced some of the most influential work on whiteness. Moreover, there are some common objections to whiteness that I have addressed in a prior essay.
Presently, I will make the argument that because white is the default racial identity, the norms we consider acceptable (or at the very least neutral) are associated with white Americans, America’s institutions are dominated by white Americans, and most of America’s leaders and authority figures are white Americans. Thus:
Whiteness = Americanness
Many would disagree with equating whiteness with Americanness. But ask yourself. When you think about what “an American is,” what comes into your mind? Is it a Southeast Asian taxi driver? Or a black postal worker? Probably not.
You may put these people together in a multi-hued poster to celebrate how diverse America is. But when asked for one image of America, I suspect the image may be a white male — 6 feet tall, square-jawed, black hair. This male may be carrying a briefcase and be in a suit — signaling the “the business of America is businesses” attitude that defines the country.
I floated a draft of this section to my Twitter followers — most of whom are white. Predictably, the responses were to reject the notion that if one had to pick America’s image, it would be a white male. The responses were ways of not acknowledging this somewhat obvious point. One person said their hero growing up was Muhammad Ali (lovely, but not necessarily the image of America, I suspect). Another said baseball players (a way of eliding race by focusing on profession). A rather creative response was to admit that they would likely choose a white male but that this was because white folks were more numerous.
But people of color in the United States, and I strongly suspect nonwhite foreigners, would have no trouble selecting a White American male as representative America. This makes sense because, as the logic of whiteness goes, if you are not the norm, it is easier for you to see what is the norm.
A scene from my graduate school days will always remain with me. I was working as a counselor at a community college in Queens, New York. This had to be around 2008 or so. One of my coworkers — a first-generation Colombian woman, mentioned that she was going on a date with an American. A real American, she then emphasized. In the context of our past conversations, I knew what she meant. She was not going out with the type of men she had dated in the past — first- or second-generation Hispanic. This man was white. And according to her, this white man represented America.
Tellingly, neither she nor I thought much of it! It was a statement of fact for us, no different than saying that Coca-Cola or McDonald’s represented America.
Here is another example that may be more familiar to people. In grade school, you may have been asked to write an essay entitled “What it means to be an American.” These assignments may be given in history, civics, or social studies classes.
In that essay, you may point to seminal moments in our history — the first Thanksgiving, George Washington crossing the Delaware River, Lincoln freeing the slaves, the bombing of Pearl Harbor. You may point to some of America’s cultural products — Hollywood movies, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Ford automobiles, major American sports like football and baseball. Some of the more developed essays may incorporate abstract ideals of freedom of speech, individual liberty, self-sufficiency, and democracy.
If we examined the essay closely, we will see that most of the attributes of what one thinks America is are attached to white people’s activities. In the American drama as narrated in these essays, white people — people of European ancestry — are the prime movers. They are the ones making all the significant decisions, while people of color are cast as ancillary characters at best, erased at worst.
Those essays in middle school about “What it means to be an American” are what I did above by listing black Americans’ historical and cultural characteristics. So again:
Whiteness = Americanness
The Problem of Individualism
Individualists have some sound arguments for why a person should de-emphasize their group identity. It is important to lay these out presently. I argue that these concerns are valid, given a set of assumptions about the value of group identity and a supposed lack of white racial identity. These assumptions, I suggest, are not supported by on the ground evidence. But first, the arguments for individualism.
One set of arguments focuses on the sociological problems associated with group identity.
Identification with a group is the pathway to treating “others” poorly. There are three main behaviors that social scientists identify in this regard — stereotyping, prejudicing, and discriminating. These behaviors are more likely to occur once we place people into immutable ethnoracial categories. Saying that all Hispanics are day laborers (stereotypes), hating Filipinos simply for being Filipino (prejudices), and refusing to hire black people (discriminating) are all behaviors we roundly condemn. These destructive behaviors are grounded in the notion that there are rigid ethnoracial groups.
Identification with a group can create demonstrable fissures in the body politic. The most commonly used term in these times is identity politics, and the most common conclusion is that identity politics are divisive. Group identification justifies supporting policies and initiatives that only benefit the group one belongs to, often at the expense of ethnoracial “others.” A Jewish person voting for policies that are “good for the Jews” or me supporting Affirmative Action policies because they are explicitly aimed at black people like me are actions that attempt to shift resources from one group to another. This may elicit a counter-response of “others” voting for policies that only help their racial group. And so on.
Another set of arguments focuses on the immorality of group identification.
First, it is just wrong to put people into immutable categories. In sociological terms, one’s ethnoracial group is an ascribed status. It was given to you at birth and not earned. On the other hand, an achieved status, such as becoming a doctor, was earned. In modern society, we see ascribed statuses as immoral and achieved statuses as moral. We try to limit the importance of ascribed statuses in contemporary society, as they conflict with our value of social mobility. How we are born should not determine how we live.
Second, we think it is wrong to reduce people to their ethnoracial group. A person can be ascribed the identity of Hispanic at birth, for example. But people are multidimensional. That Hispanic person can also be rich, a Catholic, and a father. Focusing on this person’s ethnoracial identity, according to some people, is immoral and racist. I do not entirely understand what is racist about it. Something tells me that this is seen as racist only if the person thinks there is no value in ethnoracial identity, to begin with — and so you are being reduced to being Hispanic.
These problems, it seems, urge us to focus on the individual and deemphasize group identity. We should all be Americans (or British, Canadian, etc.).
But hold on.
This logic starts from the assumption that white Americans do not have an ethnoracial identity. As I mentioned above, I think they do, and empirical patterns support this assertion at the group level. People of color are asked to give up or de-emphasize their ethnoracial identities in favor of what appears to be a standard, non-racial identity. We can then, as the logic goes, all be Americans. This just means adopting the behaviors, values, and beliefs of white folks.
“We are All Individuals” = “We Are All Americans” = “We Are All White Folks”
How Identity Works
People who identify with an ethnoracial group are losing something when they are forced to think like an atomized individual devoid of historical and cultural context. I can use myself as an example. I make choices based on my identity as a black American. These choices are important as they have consequences on others. If I think “individually,” then my decisions will end up hurting them. This hurt is both material and symbolic.
Consider the first four attributes listed above. These four are, in broad strokes, the history of my ancestors. They describe a history that explains the lack of wealth and economic success in the black community relative to whites. When someone floats a policy that would speak to that history — let’s say reparations — I can not not support that policy.
I can look directly in the eyes of people who have been hurt because of slavery and Jim Crow’s legacy, and this compels me to support that policy. When I sit beside my relatives and neighbors in church pews or take a walk in my hometown, passed dilapidated buildings left unattended by people who have died too soon, and I cannot not support this policy. When I see young black folks on YouTube producing such fantastic content in environments where everything they have in their house is catch as catch can, I cannot not support this policy. When I see black students on the verge of completing their degrees, and I know that they are likely borrowing hand over fist because their parents were left out of wealth generation because of Jim Crow, I cannot not support this policy.
This is how identity works. I cannot argue against a policy that would improve the lives of people who I know and care for. For many, this is identity politics. For me, it is just a rational decision based upon the value I place in the group with which I identify.
I believe there is a symbolic hurt as well.
Consider a campaign aimed at improving the health of people in the United States. Imagine that the general thrust is to increase the amount of vegetable intake. Celebrities are then recruited to do 30-second spots where they talk about their favorite vegetable-laden dishes. Some folks might take an “individualist” view and consider all celebrity dishes — the cauliflower casserole, the baked eggplant, and the buttered leeks — equally useful.
But I realize the strong connection between soul food and the seminal moments in a black American’s life. In this environment, baked eggplant may fall flat. Instead, I would respect Soul Food’s deep connection with black Americans and tailor some of the spots to that experience. Parmesan crusted turnip greens, anyone?
This is how identity works. I am aware of the importance of certain types of foods within the black American community because I am rooted in that social and historical context. Someone not of that group may either not be aware of these foods or not realize their value. They would not want that history, and those memories erased in an eating healthy food campaign.
Doubling Down on Multiculturalism
I sympathize with the argument that group identification can have problems. At the same time, I am in strong support of identifying with one’s racial identity and can see its benefits. And so, what do we do here?
In the late 1960s, representatives and thought leaders of different ethnoracial groups in American society began to develop narratives that untied them from a singular “American” identity. It was during this period that the hyphenated identities of Mexican American or Asian-American gained prominence. Cultural movements like Black Power, Brown Power, and Yellow Power blossomed. Various ethnic studies departments were founded at this time — with the first Black Studies program started in 1968 at San Francisco State College. For a brief overview of this period, a useful reference is Fault Lines, Ch. 3 — A Crisis of Identity, by Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer.
This period inaugurated the multicultural turn in America.
Multiculturalism here is defined in the usual sense as a society encouraging the expression of different cultures. White Americans are asked to participate in this process by learning about and engaging in other cultures. The various ethnic parades that we see in cities today have as one goal a demonstration of in-group pride in their culture. These parades are also — maybe even more so, about displaying this culture for people not a part of that group. On college campuses, diversity is seen as an inherent good, with whites and nonwhites being asked to live and study together with hopes that both groups benefit. Most colleges require that students take a general education class that focuses on cultural appreciation.
It is important to recognize that multiculturalism is not about mere tolerance of a minority culture while a dominant culture remains at the center of society. This is pluralism and is a recipe for domination. Many European nations up until the end of the Second World War may be described as pluralistic. They tolerated Jewish ethnic enclaves. Jews were tolerated until they could no longer be tolerated.
Multiculturalism is about appreciating and elevating different cultures to a similar level of respect and esteem in society. The Islamic congresswoman should not be asked to remove her hijab. The black American who speaks in a dialect of English should be not be seen as less intelligent. I like to make the analogy to US/Canadian group identities, where one may see good-natured humor from comedians about the differences between the two countries. Still, no one thinks the people from one are superior to the other. Their identities are distinct and real but banal.
I believe we are moving towards a similar state of banality for ethnoracial groups in the United States. It is all because of the activities and institutions initiated in the 1960s and ’70s during the multicultural turn. And so, instead of rejecting this ethic in favor of individualism, we should double down on it.
Benefits of Multiculturalism
I believe the benefits of the multicultural turn in the United States have been three-fold.
First, when we respect and appreciate other groups, we become more curious about them. They are not to be feared or to tucked away into China Towns or Little Ghanas. I have written elsewhere about the model minority myth and how it breaks down when you disaggregate Asian populations into subgroups based upon their national origins. Burmese, Native Hawaiians, and Nepalese immigrants are often lumped into the Asian category. But these populations are not models at all in terms of poverty and educational attainment. I think we treat all Asians the same because we are still learning to respect and appreciate the differences within this population.
One may balk at the notion that Asians are not respected, given the model minority myth. But I am not sure lauding the academic success of Asians is a sign of genuine respect, as much as it is a talking point used by conservatives to reject government policies aimed at racial inequality. In the early 2000s, legal scholar Frank Wu wrote that Asians are seen as “perpetual foreigners.” I am convinced that we continue to use the term Asian because of a lack of curiosity. If we looked just beneath the surface, we would see various groups that need to be understood on their terms. This is slowly changing, I believe, but not fast enough.
Second, we are more likely to value ethnoracial minority groups and their contributions in a multicultural society. Instead of interpreting race or ethnic-based policies as an expression of divisive identity politics, we should describe them as identification politics. This is where members of a group bring forth a specific need, society deliberates on how to best address that need, and then a policy is crafted that targets that group need.
If this process sounds familiar, it should. Advocating for an ethnoracial group’s specific needs is no different from a nonprofit championing the needs of military veterans and society crafting a policy to increase their retirement benefits. We do not see this as a zero-sum game. This is because we value the people who occupy the status of “veteran.” Once we value the lives and contributions of people who occupy the status of “black American” or “Hmong,” then the policies we craft specifically for those groups will not be seen as zero-sum identity politics.
In plain terms, if the state of Minnesota decides to invest heavily in their Minneapolis Hmong population — literally identifying people of Hmong descent and investing in them, then people who do not identify as Hmong should believe they are also benefiting. They will also have the services of the policemen, teachers, inventors, and artists who leverage the opportunities made possible by these policies. They may end up becoming neighbors, friends, and lovers with upwardly mobile Hmong as well.
Third, when we elevate and appreciate ethnoracial groups’ cultures, we also appreciate the individuals within those groups. People mistakenly apply a cultural generalization to an individual. Upon reflection, we can understand the difference between a generalization about a group — Korean American children are more likely to go into STEM fields, and a stereotype used to interact with an individual — you are a Korean American college student and probably majoring in computer science.
But as people navigate their daily lives, they will not be so conscious of this mental process. Stereotyping is the rule, not the exception. The same can be said for prejudice and discrimination. This is why social scientists can still document these behaviors, even as people profess to be colorblind and appreciate diversity. These negative behaviors are subconscious mental shortcuts that humans have evolved to use. I have found Dr. Susan Fiske’s stereotype content model to be a readily accessible interpretation of this phenomenon.
Given the dual imperative of allowing people to cherish their cultural backgrounds while at the same time addressing the automatic associations that will come with groups, the best course of action is a multicultural approach.
Individualists asking people to stop thinking about skin color is damaging to people who value their identity. The trick to getting past skin color while still allowing individuals to cherish the identities, is ironically, to celebrate differences in skin color.
Asking people to de-emphasize or not identify with their ethnoracial backgrounds in favor of individualism is a bait and switch. The bait is that “we are all individuals, and once you de-emphasize your ethnoracial identity, we will all be American together.” This Americanness then switched for whiteness. You are asked to give up your identity for theirs.
The scholarship on whiteness suggests that people in general, especially white people, are not always cognizant that their cultural preferences have historically dominated American society. They are not conscious of the relationship between whiteness and Americanness. And so, even if it is primarily white Americans who are dangling the bait and doing the switching, they are unaware of the underlying dynamics at play. It is also the case that most white Americans are not aware of the historical realities and meaning-making qualities of ethnoracial identity.
For these reasons, the push for individualism, although grounded in devaluing the importance of another group’s culture, is not best understood as a racist act. People who push for individualism are not aware that they are pushing for whiteness and are not aware of what the person of color loses by de-emphasizing their identity. Callousness and ignorance best describe individualism, not racism.
Nevertheless, I find this push to be cruel and unnecessary. If we double down on the multiculturalism efforts that started in the 1960s and ’70s, we can continue along a path of elevating different cultures.
We can easily observe the greater intellectual centering of nonwhite people in American life. The growth of ethnic studies programs has meant teaching young people about the experiences of different groups in society. It has also meant the training of scholars who then have gone on to produce scholarship that focuses on people of color. This scholarship will have comparatively less value for white persons.
Along with this intellectual centering has been a cultural elevation. The push by Hollywood and the television industry to cast people of color and news and media outlets to hire people of color is a sign of this centering. This can appear to some to be a type of tokenism. It can also mean that these industries are aware that Americanness = Whiteness, and to correct this, they aggressively seek people of different backgrounds.
This is inclusion in a real sense, and America should pat itself on the back for making demonstrable progress. These successes allow a person like me to see my culture as a significant part of the American experience. I can make a full-throated proclamation that I am proud to be a black American and proud to be an American.
By America making my identity important, I have made America important to my identity.