Conversations about race should acknowledge diverse perspectives
In the 2020 mini-series The Queen’s Gambit, the young and brilliant Beth Harmon takes the chess world by storm, defeating top male players even as she battles addiction and the demons of her past. Beth is played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who says of the character, “She doesn’t necessarily think of herself as a woman first … she just automatically assumes that she is equal.”
Taylor-Joy’s comment about her character resonated with me because this has been true of my life when it comes to both race and gender. My parents were born in India, immigrated to the U.K. (where I was born), and then moved to Houston, Texas (where I grew up). I was raised with the belief that, in America, I had the freedom and opportunity to achieve anything I wanted. The fact that I was a woman of color, or that my family’s roots in this country didn’t go back generations, was irrelevant. Although somewhat idealistic, this perspective gave me the courage to follow my ambitions without a second thought as to whether my race or gender would get in the way.
Perhaps that’s why I’ve always resented being asked to identify myself by race—most of the time it just doesn’t feel essential to who I am.
Unfortunately, however, we are increasingly being asked to see ourselves and others through a racial lens—for example, by checking boxes, joining affinity groups, and interpreting everyday interactions in terms of racial privilege and oppression. In academia, where I work, proponents of these diversity and inclusion efforts believe that it is necessary to fight racism. Without these efforts, DEI advocates argue, our society will continue to be governed by unacknowledged racial power relations that operate through institutions and pretend to be neutral but are in reality racist to the core. Ironically, this purportedly “inclusive” approach is inclusive only towards those who accept the premise that racism is baked into our nation’s DNA.
I saw a museum exhibit on human evolution many years ago. One display made the point that in the days when people traveled by foot, they would have perceived race as a continuous spectrum rather than a set of discrete categories. In other words, if you were to walk from southern Africa to northern Europe, you wouldn’t perceive racial differences nearly as starkly as you would if you flew from Johannesburg to Helsinki. Indeed, these days we’re told that racial categories are basically made up. I’d say that’s progress.
But if racial categories are made up, and if we’re trying to undo the legacy of racism that these categories reflect, then insisting that people identify or self-segregate by race feels like a step in the wrong direction. The underlying assumption is that racial diversity translates into diversity of experience or perspective, and that all people of the same race share common interests or cultural traits. This assumption is questionable at best, and can cement crude racial stereotypes at worst. My parents’ Indian culture undoubtedly played a role in my upbringing, and certain life experiences have occasionally made me painfully aware of my status as a person of color. But those aren’t the only—or even the most important—aspects of my identity.
Emphasizing racial identity—even in the name of fighting racism—clashes with the Classical Liberal ideal of equal and inalienable rights for all upon which this country was founded. I’m not naïve enough to claim that we’ve yet fully lived up to that ideal, but over the years we’ve made progress thanks to the efforts of people like Martin Luther King Jr., who demanded payment on the “promissory note” that originated in the “magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence” and “to which every American was to fall heir.” That promissory note sets a high standard: only a colorblind society was consistent with the notion that “all men are created equal” and that people should “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
But today, many people no longer consider a colorblind society a worthy goal. Aspiring to colorblindness is racist, they tell us, as it uses the guise of neutrality to reinforce the white supremacy that underpins our institutions. Instead, we need to go in the opposite direction by instilling in everyone a strong awareness of their racial identity and associated cultural heritage, and by explicitly considering race in hiring and admissions.
An example of this worldview is found in Debby Irving’s book, Waking Up White, in which the author describes growing up with the belief “that America provided a kind of neutral template on which anyone could design the life they chose.” However, she comes to realize that this narrative reflects her white privilege, and that (in the words of sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva), “the melting pot never included people of color.” She describes becoming aware of her own “internalized dominant white culture traits,” like viewing time as linear. She generalizes about “how people of color experience America,” arguing that “most people of color struggle daily to brace themselves for and make sense of our racialized world.”
As I read this book, I couldn’t help feeling stereotyped. Here I was, a person of color who grew up with the same narrative about hard work and success that Irving did, who views time as linear, who doesn’t see the world as racialized, and whose immigrant family has had mostly positive experiences with the American melting pot. Was she really saying that my narrative belonged to white people?
In “An Immigrant’s Plea: Don’t Convert to Whiteness,” Johann N. Neem, who was born in India and immigrated to the U.S. as a child, put his finger on why this bothers me so much. He wrote that, “Overcoming racism requires recognizing the capacity of all people to share in the nation’s common life. But there can be no common life of the nation when, from the perspective of scholars of whiteness, that common life is the property of white people.” Neem says of his progressive white friends, “Sometimes they’ll attribute something to whiteness and I’ll think, I’m not white and I believe that or do that. That’s just American. I’ve noticed a lot of the things they now think of as ‘white’ are things we used to share.” And while those friends intend to be inclusive, their “minding of racial borders [makes] it more difficult for immigrants…to be part of the nation” and “essentializes people’s culture by their racial category.”
Psychologists have found that when you spend a lot of time thinking about something, it starts to seem more important than it really is. That certainly seems true of race in progressive, “anti-racist” circles. Perhaps that’s why it’s in those circles that I’m most aware of my status as a person of color. It’s where I’m encouraged to join racial affinity groups, where I’m expected to identify with my Indian heritage over my American upbringing, and where people express (and expect me to feel) regret about the fact that I’m not bilingual.
In these circles, assimilation is a dirty word, a process that strips people of their culture to preserve white supremacy. In Waking up White, Irving writes, “I now understand that acting like a white American…[is] a matter of survival” in a society that “has enforced a model of dominance and assimilation that elevates those who can fit the prescribed mold while excluding and destabilizing those who can’t.”
There’s no denying that examples of forced assimilation are horrifying. To be clear, it is important to reckon with the ugly legacy of racism in this country. But we also need to acknowledge the progress that we’ve made, thanks to that promissory note and all the brave folks who demanded payment on it. And we need to recognize that it’s possible to go too far in the opposite direction.
For millennia, people have migrated and cultures have evolved. Fundamentally, all cultures are remixes of remixes. They are in constant flux. That’s why my Hindu parents put up a Christmas tree every year. That’s how St. Patrick’s Day became an American holiday that people with zero connection to Ireland can enjoy. The same appears to be happening with holidays like Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo, and Diwali (except when the cultural appropriation police get in the way). The American melting pot can be inclusive, welcoming, and fun—and what comes out of it belongs to all of us. I’m not “acting like a white American.” I’m acting like myself—an American who resents having our shared culture parceled out by race.
I don’t have any scholarly expertise on race, and this essay is simply my personal reflection. You might correctly point out that there are plenty of other people of color who have come to much more negative conclusions about Classical Liberal values and the American melting pot. But that’s precisely why it’s wrong to make sweeping statements about “how people of color experience America” or how a racial or ethnic “community” feels about an issue. There are no elected representatives for a racial or ethnic group. Affinity groups only reflect the views of those who choose to join, and social and news media only amplify the loudest voices.
People of color (all people, really) have widely divergent perspectives on matters relating to race and race relations. Some are progressive. Others aren’t. Some identify strongly with their ethnic heritage. Others aren’t that connected to it. Some choose to see their experiences through a racial lens. Others don’t. Some support racial preferences in college admissions, but majorities in all racial groups are against it. Among families with recent immigrant histories, perspectives and self-identification can divide along generational lines as the melting pot does its work.
As I said, I’m no scholar of race. I’m an economist who studies retirement policy. I write a lot about age, but I’ve never written about race. So, why start now? I keep hearing a particular progressive worldview that this country is irredeemably racist and that values like rational thought, hard work, and individualism are rooted in “white culture.” I think it’s important for those of us who disagree to speak up.
A pro-human effort to transcend race requires acknowledging and respecting diverse perspectives, both within and across our made-up racial categories.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
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