General Question

KatawaGrey's avatar

How do you feel about the arbitrary nature by which a person's race is defined?

Asked by KatawaGrey (21413points) April 9th, 2009

My roommate and I began discussing this in relation to Halle Berry who is considered a black actress, despite the fact that her mother is white and, as far as I know, completely of European descent. The same issue has come up with our new President. Everyone is calling him the fist black President, but genetically speaking, he is only half black. His mother is white but no one is calling him our first mixed race President. Often racial labels are based on the shade of someone’s skin rather than genetic history or even such physical characteristics as facial features and body type. How does the collective feel about about these labels?

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22 Answers

squirbel's avatar

I hate them. I’m of mixed race myself.

sevenfourteen's avatar

I am mixed (I’ll just lay that out there first). My mother is white and my father is black or “african american”. Basically I’m black; my friends, family, siblings, and college application define me as black. For me I think it’s if you’re in the least bit minority that’s what you are. If your grandmother is hispanic you are hispanic, if your great great grandfather was an african slave you’re black.

Now about the skin color- my sisters and I all have the same mother and father. But with all great mixed children, 2 out of 4 of us are dark, I am lighter, and one of my sisters looks completely white. In grade school they kids would try and convince my sister who looks white that she wasn’t black and to call the rest of us the n word. This isn’t right, she’s half black and becasue of her her skin color became white. Now I know this is probably just ignorant kids but that’s not right.

I think that people just define themselves by a minority because they want to be part of the culture. Minorities seem to have this culture or bond tied to them that typical “white” europeans don’t. The president has a diff skin color and people seem to think this means that this is all he is. That’s just the same ignorance that me and my sisters have faced growing up.

KatawaGrey's avatar

@sevenfourteen: For me I think it’s if you’re in the least bit minority that’s what you are. If your grandmother is hispanic you are hispanic, if your great great grandfather was an african slave you’re black.

What made you think this? Is it because this how everyone defines a person’s race?

The_Compassionate_Heretic's avatar

Labels have no inherent value and I disregard them.

ninjacolin's avatar

I feel this way: Nobody cares and if someone claims to then their opinion doesn’t matter.

GAMBIT's avatar

We are the human race.

DragonFace's avatar

its dumb and once again i blame society

Darwin's avatar

@sevenfourteen – That’s the old “one-drop” rule. It is considered by most to be waaaayyyy out of date.

@KatawaGrey – They are calling him “The First Black President” but he is really “The First President Who Isn’t Passing for White.” There are several others who were at least as non-White as Obama.

As to race, it truly is arbitrary, especially now that culturally and geographically we are no longer separated as we were in the past. Even anthropologists agree that it really is based mostly on external features. It can still serve as a form of shorthand – if someone is described as “Asian” we expect straight black hair and brown eyes with an epicanthic fold, not blond or curly hair and blue eyes.

Our family is made up of 3 “races,” 5 major religions, and 13 ethnic groups (at least), so what are we? I know my son considers himself Black, my stepson (who doesn’t speak a word of Spanish) considers himself Hispanic, and my daughter considers herself American.

We are human.

As to what “race” Halle Berry is, I think we need to ask her what she considers herself.

sevenfourteen's avatar


I do agree that this is out of date but I go to a university with so little diversity that any diversity is better than none. For this reason typically the kids who consider themselves black or hispanic (whether it be by skin color or place of origin) hang out in a tighter group and the kids who consider themselves anything other than that accept them like that. Now there is intermingling but the sharp divide of what skin color you have creates a backwards diversity.

And I agree with your idea of what you say you are is what you are, because who truely knows that our ancestors were faithful to their relationships.

Darwin's avatar

@sevenfourteen – So what do you do if your grandmother was Hispanic but your other grandmother was Black? Does it depend on the texture of your hair? The day of the week? Are you in both groups? Or do you just pick Other?

Please note that my son and my step-son both have the same skin color (except in the summer when my step-son gets really dark) but one opts for Black and the other Hispanic (my step-son is half Filipino and somehow goes from that to Hispanic).

KatawaGrey's avatar

@Darwin: I agree that race is arbitrary but I think more than just skin color needs to be considered. Obama is considered black but he has some distinctly European features. In all honesty, it seems to me that it is everyone’s individual choice. If your son considers himself black even if only one of his grandparents is (and he is genetically 25% black) that is his choice and perfectly valid. If your son considered himself white with the same genetic makeup, that would also be perfectly valid. However, people seem so eager to put a blanket label on everyone. If you have this color skin, then you are this. It doesn’t matter that you’ve got some of this sprinkled in and that you have the features of your mother who is from this other race. Your kids are doing it right and I can only hope that everyone labels themselves, if they choose to have a label at all.

I go to the same school as @sevenfourteen and she is absolutely correct. There is almost no diversity here. Interestingly enough, I’ve found that the kids who consider themselves black and hispanic and who are in these tight groups are extremely friendly and welcoming, no matter what race you categorize yourself as.

noelasun's avatar

Perhaps one reason that skin color determines which way you go in terms of “race” is simply because as you grow up, you end up identifying more with one group than another.
At first glance, it doesn’t matter what nationality/race a person is or considers themselves to be: ie. President Obama. We’re arguing technicalities here because we’re interested in him, but if he passed you on the street, he’d be seen as a “black” male.
How people perceive you doesn’t change who you are, but it does expose you more to a set of experiences that is more common to one race than another.

The shared experience seems to give us a commonality, One that might have never existed if not for these experiences that allow us to relate to one another more deeply.

3or4monsters's avatar

@Darwin Interesting. My mother and all my aunts/uncles are half-Filipino as well, (which makes me 1/4 but I identify as white since I glow in a darkened room) ....and despite that my grandmother’s maiden name is Hernadez and Latin surnames are common, when they discuss their heritage it’s “Asian” or “Pacific Islander” but almost never “Hispanic” even though both (all three?) are true.

AlfredaPrufrock's avatar

I think it was the Greek ambassador who descibed Obama as “America’s perfectly tanned president”.

aprilsimnel's avatar

I’m of mixed-race. Some people don’t like to hear me say that and will insist on identifying me to their own satisfaction, which is annoying. Apparently, what I identify myself as is of no consequence if it doesn’t fit in with some people’s views of the world. I understand that it’s easier to put people in their little boxes and be done with it, but I can’t help that; my ancestors are my ancestors and I will be honest about them, no matter where they came from or that the facts of my ancestry make some people uncomfortable.

I took an elective seminar in college on Irish history before 1200. I was the only naturally tan person in the class. On the first day, the professor, from County Meath, asked who was of Irish descent. I raised my hand and a number of people gasped. ::sigh:: The professor looked totally nonplussed and said, “It never ceases to amaze me how white Americans act as though their ancestors never had sexual relations with or have ever conceived children with non-white people. For all you know, someone in your family tree has ‘passed’.” Then he told then if they didn’t know what that meant, then they should look it up. Then he started the lecture. I was flabbergasted. He was the only white person I’d known at that point who even knew what that meant.

squirbel's avatar

If you are light enough, you pass for white.

noelasun's avatar

@squirbel Thanks.. I actually looked up the word “passed” go me!

squirbel's avatar

not a prob!

researcher ftw ;)

mattbrowne's avatar

The genetic history of all 6.7 billion people on this planet offers a very clear proof that all humans are almost identical. It’s a very rational approach to show that skin color is a very minor feature and basically irrelevant when it comes to defining what makes us human. I think the whole race discussions are about artificially created sub-cultures. But since you mentioned genetics in your question I wanted to point this out. So for the nature or nurture debate, the issue of race is almost 100% nurture. When we talk about gender, my estimate is 50%.

evelyns_pet_zebra's avatar

Judging someone on race is about as sensible is judging someone on eye color. It’s a stupid way of deciding the ‘worth’ of a person.

Bill Clinton was the first black president, if you pay attention to the Republican talk radio types. Obama is our first Muslim president, if you listen to the same sources.

Truthfully, Obama is the first president from Chicago, IL. You remember IL, the most corrupt state in the lower 48, right?

don’t get me wrong, I like Obama and even voted for him, I’m just pointing out the way things are viewed here in the backwater part of America. Some of the paranoid anti-Obama emails I get are downright hilarious and insulting to anyone with half a brain

Nullo's avatar

I had an etymologically-inclined teacher once, who explained that “race” derives from a Norman term related to horse-breeding. Dunno why, exactly, but right then and there, I decided that using “race” for anything other than a different species was stupid. It’s culture and values and the like that define people; the rest is cosmetic.
Ironically, this makes it more likely that I get called a racist.

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