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?