Friday, August 31, 2007

Race vs. Ethnicity: A woman of color's perspective

I wrote this article back in 1996, two years after I started working at the Boston Globe. I came across it while doing an archive search for something else and, in re-reading it, thought I should reprint it here.

The distinction between race and ethnicity is an important one for me. I consider myself to be "multi-ethnic," not "mixed race," in part because there is no way to guess at the country or culture in which I was raised by looking at my skin. Growing up in a university town in the Northeast, having attended the same private prep school for 13 years, as a child and a teen I identified more as a WASP -- in spite of the fact that I am neither White nor Anglo-Saxon nor Prostetant -- than I did as a person of color, no matter how I looked to other people. I left my cushy suburb to go to Syracuse University, where I couldn't understand why people were all of a sudden greeting me as "Sister," or speaking to me in rapid-fire Spanish, or saying that I "sure spoke English good" and asking me where I was from.

This article was reprinted in several text books, including Interactions: A Thematic Reader, in which it was re-titled "I'm Just Me" and appears alongside writing by Anna Quindlen, Maya Angelou, former President Jimmy Carter, and others.

You can access the original (for a fee) here at It's been 12 years since it was published, so of course certain details have changed -- I definitely no longer weigh 115 pounds! -- but the idea still stands.

October 5, 1996

Race Needs 'Other' Option

By Lylah M. Alphonse, Globe Staff

This is me: caramel-colored skin, light-brown eyes, brown-black hair with a few silver threads just to the right of my temple. I have a few freckles, like cocoa powder dusted under my right eye. I'm 5 foot 3, 115 pounds, was a field hockey goalie, still am a fencer.

This is me: I have my mother's Persian features, my father's Haitian coloring and curly hair that's somewhere in between. When I was little, I desperately wanted my younger brother's graceful hands and my youngest brother's huge green eyes.

This is me: On census forms, aptitude tests and applications, whenever possible I check the box for "other" after the question about race. When there's no "other" option, I check four boxes: white (German and French on my father's side), Asian (Persian-Indian on my mother's side), Native peoples (Arawak Indian on my father's side) and black (an African great-grandfather on my father's side). If the instructions limit me to only one box, I skip it entirely.

One would think that institutions could have come up with a different method of classifying people by now. It's almost 1997. According to 1990 census information, the number of "other" people has grown to 9.8 million -- a 45 percent increase since 1980 -- and it's still on the rise. "Mixed" marriages doubled between 1980 and 1992, when 1.2 million were reported. And "mixed" is more than just black and white, though those unions have increased also -- by 50 percent, to 250,000, since 1980.

"Mixed" relationships are nothing new, even though the media still sometimes treats them as though they are. My family's been doing it for four generations. Five, if you count me and my blond-haired, blue-eyed boyfriend.

There's a massive push to include a "mixed-race" box on the census for the year 2000, but SATs, GREs and other aptitude tests can surely rethink their designations more than once a decade. Why isn't there a "mixed" box on all those other forms yet? Or instructions that tell us to "check all that apply?" Or, better still, a new question: "What group do you identify with?"

Natives of Zimbabwe, which used to be Rhodesia, who are descended from that country's British settlers are just as African as natives of Ethiopia, but in the US we wouldn't call them African Americans. Yet we would give that label to the child of a Caucasian woman and a man from the West Indies, even though the child's connection to the African continent is distant, if it exists at all.

Why do we call mixed marriages "interracial"? Isn't it your ethnicity -- the culture in which you are raised -- that defines who you are, more so than your race? Race is part of the equation, of course, but the color of your skin doesn't necessarily dictate the culture and traditions that surround you while you're growing up.

I grew up in Princeton, N.J. It was very sheltered -- kind of like growing up wrapped in cotton, which I think was a good thing. When I left Princeton to go to college in Syracuse, N.Y., I was naive about racial matters. I still think I am. I was surprised by the looks I'd get when I walked around on campus at night with my friends, and by the fliers I got year after year inviting me to attend the "African-American Orientation" at the student center. I didn't understand why, when I was reporting a stalker, the campus police officer told me that I spoke English very well.

Then I realized that people were looking at my skin and deciding that I was African American; or looking at my features and deciding I was Indian; or listening to me talk and not being able to place me at all.

People still try to figure out my background. But now, instead of just looking at me and wondering, they ask me questions like "So, were you born here?" Or "Where in India are your parents from?" And "What do you consider yourself?" A friend's father once asked, point-lank, "What exactly is Lylah?" ("Female," my friend replied.)

These are the answers I give them: I was born and raised in Princeton, N.J. My mother is from India. My father is from Haiti. As for what I consider myself . . .

I'm just me.

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