Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What is ethnicity anyway??

As many of you know, I am in the process of moving from downtown Miami to the Boston suburbs to start a new job. I also recently sent in my Census form. What do these things have to do with each other? Both involved checking off both a race and an ethnicity on some official paperwork.

It got me thinking. Race has always seemed to me to be something based on genes and therefore immutable. For many generations, my ancestors lived in Western Russia and Poland. Even though I know that being Jewish, you can probably go far enough back to find ancestors from the Middle East (no, I haven’t taken one of those IBM/NG genetic tests), but basically I am white.

For many years, race was all that these kinds of forms asked. But some time ago they (whoever “they” are) split off ethnicity from race and started asking if you were Hispanic also. This was due to the fact that there are many Hispanics who are white and many who are of African or Caribbean descent. I am sure that there are many places where Asians should be similarly divided into many ethnicities, but I haven’t seen that yet. Ethnicity is different from race. But what is it?

What does this have to do with me? Well, I have been living in Miami for almost 20 years now (about half my life) and this has had a huge impact on me. Not racially of course, but definitely culturally. My Spanish is not great, but I get by when I have to. I cook many Hispanic styles. I dance salsa/meringue pretty well, at least when my knees allow. I know Latin America’s politics, geography, and business as well as I know Europe’s.

So if ethnicity is something different than race and therefore not genetic, could it be that I am half Hispanic now? Compared to the other folks down here, the answer is clearly NO WAY. I don’t compare to the recent immigrants and most of the 1st and 2nd generation neighbors around me. But compared to the other people in the Boston suburbs, maybe I can make that case. When I was recently in Boston househunting, I found myself using Spanish terms by accident. Not the Spanglish words that have become part of the common English vernacular, but real Spanish. And I am sure I can out cuisine and out salsa most of the people up there. So if ethnicity is more cultural than genetic, perhaps I am.

The reason this is important is that I am going to be establishing my identity when I get up there. I have some friends already, but not in the town where I will be living. What persona do I want to promote? Do I want to “be” half-Hispanic? Filling out forms may seem irrelevant to this conversation, but that also matters. When you officially declare something publicly (even when you are lying, but especially if you mean it), it has much more of an influence on your later behavior than most people realize. I can send you some thorough research on this if you are interested. So if I start out with this persona, it will continue to develop and grow in me.

When I fill out my HR forms up in Boston, do I have the background and the interest (and the cojones :-D) to announce myself that way? Is it true? What is ethnicity anyway??

No comments: