I was really surprised that, according to the American Anthropological Association, the idea of race as we know it can be traced to the 18th century, created right here in America. While this makes sense to me because I know race is a social construct, it feels like a concept that has permeated the human consciousness, so much so that it is hard to imagine the world not categorizing itself based on race. It’s almost hard to accept that something that has been used to justify the oppression and killing of millions of people is only a few centuries old.
As someone who is mixed race, I have spent a lot of my time thinking about what race means and how it defines me. My mother moved from China when she was very young. My father is Caucasian with ancestors from just about every major European migration. They were both raised in a typical Midwestern town, where they decided to raise their own children. I grew up in a neighborhood with mostly Caucasian people and I identify more with American suburban white culture way more than I do my mother’s father’s Chinese culture. Though her early family life was much different, my mother is culturally much the same.
If I had to explain the non-existence of biological race to anyone, I can think of no better way than to point at myself. First of all, most usually can’t guess my race. I’ve been identified as Caucasian, Latino, Native American, and Asian. The fact that the main method that one would use to categorize someone into a race is rendered completely obsolete after one generation reveals how fragile the concept is.
This mixing of races is not a new concept born out of recent progressive ideals. Irish used to be considered a race. As did Gypsy, Jewish, and Greek. Hispanic is sort of considered a race, but for some reason one is Caucasian Hispanic or Non-Caucasian Hispanic. The evidence of the fluidity of our labels is right here. These differences tend to follow social and political conflict more than actual physical attributes and change much faster than evolution ever could.
This is especially obvious when moving from a place with very little racial diversity to one with a lot. I moved from a small mostly Caucasian Midwestern town to the mosaic that is Toronto, Ontario where 51% of the population is first generation immigrants. Race went from a simple practice of identifying someone by their skin color as Black, Asian, Caucasian, or Other to constantly hearing about races I didn’t even know existed with their own physical identifiers and stereotypes I would never notice and still don’t. My own race has changed many times based on where I was at the moment. When I’m here I switch between Caucasian and Asian based not on my looks or actions, but on who I’m hanging out at the moment and how they identify themselves. I visited China last year and even though my mother was from China and I had the same hair and eye color as everyone else, I was definitely still the White American in everyone’s eyes.