Obsession with race and classification

Cover of "The Troubled Heart of Africa: A...

Cover via Amazon

Why are we obsessed with the race or heritage of those we meet? Seems like we are overly interested in ethnicity…as is “”what are you?” kinds of questions that we ask those who seem exotic, different, or not clearly defined.

Am reading two books at once: Robert Edgerton’s book on Congo history, “The Troubled Heart of Africa” and Jean-Pierre Chretien’s “The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History.” This obsession with lineage and ethnicity is not new. Both have numerous quotes from Europeans during explorations in the 1800s. Rwandan Hutus and Tutsis are variously described and “nilotic” (from the Nile), Semitic, Negroid, Greek in facial features, etc. Certain Congolese are described as Macaques (Monkeys) and those who hare “civilized” are described as “evolved.” Of course many described them as “hamitic” as in the tribe of Ham.

I know we are beyond (mostly) those dark days of abject, unabashed racism, but seems we still want to classify people. I’ve been asked, “What are they?” in regards to my kids (who are clearly African American). I imagine biracial folks get these questions in spades.

Why is it so important to know? What do we gain from asking? I think we ask for a couple of reasons.

  • Curiosity is probably one key reason. Some of us are attracted to different
  • Connection is probably another motivation. We’ve met someone who looks like this and want to feel close to this new person
  • Categorizing via racialization. We may want to know how to think about someone. “Are you Italian? Oh, so that explains why I think you are…” This is the biggest reason I think. It gives us clues (shortcuts and stereotypes) as to how we want to think about and respond to others. The ugly side of this is that we categorize in order to develop stratification or castes.

Are there other reasons we do this? Good ones?


Filed under Cultural Anthropology, Race, Rwanda

9 responses to “Obsession with race and classification

  1. D. Stevenson

    To initiate conversation, to establish some sort of commonality, ways to begin a possible friendship. This falls under connection, I suppose. When I rub elbows with someone who is obviously not “pure American,” I will often ask them their heritage. They seem to enjoy telling me something about themselves and I usually learn something interesting.

    Re: “obviously African American” – This isn’t necessarily obvious. What about the white MK with an American passport who grew up in Africa? Is that person African American? What about the fairly new immigrant from the Congo? Is he African American? What about the Indonesian with the same physical characteristics as an “African American?” Which of my nieces 4 kids are African American? She is a blond who spent her 1st 10 years and some of her adult years in Japan. Their Dad is a red-head who grew up in France. The first two were born in the USA. Their 3rd child was born to a tribal woman in Africa. Their 4th child, biologically born to them, is their “peach baby” (so labeled by their 2nd.) They are growing up in Africa.

    I would say that none of these people fit the “African American” community. Your sons won’t either, even though they will likely experience prejudice and be stereotyped because of their skin color. Both my Congolese and Indonesian friends have experienced this prejudice from both whites and African Americans.

    It is a shame that we tend to label people and cast them into a stereotype instead of staying open and getting to know them as a unique person.

    By the way, I think your older son looks like you.


  2. Scott Knapp

    I heard a story (true news item some time ago) about several immigrants from Africa who came to America, obtained citizenship, and chose to go to an American university. When they applied for scholarships which were designated for African-Americans, they were denied…because their skin color was Caucasian! Although they’d been born and raised in South Africa, and could call themselves legitimate Africans by birth, they weren’t the right color of “Africans” apparently. Racism goes both ways.

  3. E.

    Well I always ask someone who has an accent where they are from so perhaps if we strike up a friendship I have a free stay in that country later on lol. It just makes life more interesting…not to mention all the new foods I get to taste.

  4. E.

    BTW..(by the way) what nationality are your kids? My Husband is S. African Zulu and W. African Igbo . I am Aztec Indian and Irish …(see just made for a more interesting convo already) and I think thats why people are so curious about this topic. In general we want to know if perhaps we are from royalty or fame or something more meaningful than our mundane lives .

    • D. Stevenson

      How is royalty or fame more meaningful than our mundane lives?

      • E.

        Because If someone is from royalty they could claim something other than just being from a small one horse town with nothing interesting to really stand out with . I would rather hear that someone is related to someone famous than for them not to have anything interesting to say. but that’s just me. for example I personally know people who are related to Bach , Benjamin Franklin etc . So just by saying those names it brough up interesting conversation …is what I meant..

  5. E.

    cont… And why I feel people use classification. It gives them a sense of importance I guess.. IDK?

  6. My kids are from Chicago…adopted. Once we were in DC in a hotel and a maintenance person came up and swore that our son was from his home country of Eritrea. Said he had the look of Eastern Africa.

    D. Did you see any of the PBS specials where they tried to uncover the genealogies of some famous African Americans. When folks learned of some pretty amazing people in their lineage, you could really see the pride well up in folks. I think being able to be someone (when you may have felt you were less than) is pretty important for some.

  7. E.

    o my gosh yes I love that show !It gives people a sense of identity too knowing where they come from . esp. if they are adopted. People want to know their roots it makes them feel complete I think . I just found out recently on my grandmothers side I am polish as well so that takes everything in a new direction. like I have land there that I can go see/stay etc… people who discover their roots may have inheritances they would have never know about waiting for them … : No one who is here in America is 100 percent pure anything so its always interesting to see if maybe we are related somehow to others somewhere down the line . race can also bring a sense of belonging too.
    have a great weekend everyone:)

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