the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Race and Ethnicity

I grew up in Queens, New York, which just happens to be the most diverse place in the country. When we talked about each other as kids, we were always very race and ethnic conscious. I don’t mean racist, but aware of people having ethnic identities. I don’t even see this as a negative thing. Who wants everyone the same? A person’s race and identity was just an identifier, like their height or weight. I might say, “Remember Bob, the tall black guy from the party,” just like I would say, “Remember Ellen, the pretty red-head from the party.” We would even go further than just race. He could be the Puerto Rican-guy or the Italian Guy. We would separate Jews as being religious “frum” or not, or Israeli, or Persian.

Things changed in college, when I became aware that this type of identification seemed blue-collar in tone. Even when people still identified as Asian or Black, it seemed wrong to identify someone as such, at least in public. In private, between friends, one could be as racist as the next guy, but everyone feared being seen as a blue collar type from Queens.

College Friend: “Did you meet Dan yesterday?”

Neil: “Which was Dan?”

College Friend: “The history major. He was wearing the green sweater. From Maryland. With glasses. Bald.”

Neil: “Oh, you mean the black guy?”

College Friend: “Ugh, don’t say that!”

I found this attitude a little odd, as if acknowledging his color was akin to acknowledging some sort of weakness in his personality. What was the big deal? On the other hand, I guess I can understand the sensitivity. At Columbia, Dan might be the only black guy at the party, and I’m sure he would hate always being known as the “black guy” throughout college. The rules change when the amount of diversity changes.

I’ve never truly resolved this issue for myself. I’m pretty open to all types of folk here on Citizen of the Month, even though I’ve gotten in trouble a few times for some gay joke or stating that Portland only had one black resident. I don’t think of you as black or white, Jewish or gentile, although I have to admit that it is exciting to me when a reader is different in some unique way. The blogosphere can be so bland, that it is cool to interact with someone a little different. I’ve written about this several times already. I’m still waiting for my first Native American blogger friend! The question is — can someone be identified as different, and still thought of as the same as everyone else? Am I Neilochka the blogger or Neilochka the Jewish blogger? Or can I be both? I’ve already spoken to a few of you that took a while before coming out as “black” or “ethnic” because you felt that other bloggers would perceive you differently.

I think about these ethnicity issues while I’m writing. Recently, I was writing a post while sitting in Starbucks about this guy sitting next to me, a brainy-looking grad student, who kept on trying to read my monitor. He was Asian (another loaded issue — I sometimes find it difficult to tell if someone is Chinese, Korean, or Japanese) and when I was writing the story, I started to describe him as “this Asian guy.” Then I censored myself. I thought to myself, “People will wonder why I him making him “the Asian guy.”” Am I trying to make a statement about Asians? Is there some other meaning for making him Asian? In truth, the only reality was that — he was Asian! Still, did it add anything to the story that was unintended? If you read something you wrote where a “Jewish guy” was looking over your shoulder, wouldn’t I have the same concerns?

On of my new blog friends from Los Angeles, Los Angelista, also writes on a cool website called Anti-Racist Parent — for parents committed to raising children with an anti-racist outlook. It brings up some important issues for parents. The site was “my muse” for this post. You should also check out Los Angelista’s terrific blog, too.

48 Comments

  1. The Maiden Metallurgist

    “The rules change when the amount of diversity changes”
    This is a weird but really true statement. I feel like both diversity and racism are issues where I live, and especially on my campus, but hardly anyone ever talks about them. Like even talking about different ethnicities or cultures automatically makes you a racist. Maybe you are not supposed to notice that everyone isn’t white and Christian. But I guess I don’t see how that’s better than celebrating the difference, or at least opening a dialogue about it.

  2. Not Fainthearted

    “The rules change when the amount of diversity changes” I think is a true (if paradoxical) statement. But I think what you’ve also experienced is the change of attitudes and sensitivity over time.

  3. Danny

    Very interesting topic but I don’t see how mentioning someone’s ethnicity in a description is ever inherently racist. If you were introducing a character in a novel, it would be bizarre not to mention that they were black or Chinese or blonde or green-eyed, no? Of course it’s certainly true that the reader brings his or her own (possibly negative) preconceptions to such descriptions. “Brainy Asian student” will immediately conjure up an image for me as would “my Russian wife” or “my Jewish accountant.” But I do not think people should leave out those details! (I accept that people have often referred to me as “the bald guy!”) When I was young I remember certain family members saying the word “black” in a whisper, as if it was something that could not be said in full voice, like the word “cancer.”

    “Shari’s friend Edna is [whisper] black and she just found out this morning that she has [whisper] cancer!”

    Now that’s weird!

  4. Rattling the Kettle

    It’s silly to consciously “ignore” race. We should celebrate that which makes us unique. For example, I am never offended when someone refers to me as “that strikingly handsome white dude”. Yes, I’m white. Yes, I’m incredibly good looking. Wear it with pride, I say!

  5. abbersnail

    I’ve always found this to be really bizarre. It gets weirder in San Fran, where the fastest-growing ethnic group is Hapa (half and half). Oddly, the only people who ever make the conversation awkward are the people who aren’t Hapa.

    Sheesh.

  6. Lisa

    I think growing up in Northern California we didn’t have so many issues with race or ethnicity because we were surrounded by it and there was no need to call it out. Neighbors, friends, and even strangers on the street were just “that guy” or “that girl”. The area where I grew up – where my parents still live – has continued to grow, ethnically and racially speaking. So much so, in fact, I’ve often wondered if my parents now feel like the minority, or “token white family”.

  7. 180/360

    I am very sensitive to racial remarks- mainly because I feel uncomfortable using race/religion as a descriptor.

    I look forward to checking out Los Angelista’s blog- as I hope to raise children who are as equally anti-racist.

  8. Bre

    I think it’s generally terrifying for folks to talk about race when they’re not sure how to and that’s certainly not something we teach.

    I’m of the opinion that as we get more and more specific (Caucasian, Irish-American, Female), we lose more and more of the person (Bre).

  9. Angella

    Well said, Neil.

    When I lived in Vancouver it was an entirely different different culture (and mindset) from small town BC. The rules changed, somehow.

    But race does not seem to cause as much furor as religion. As soon as I tell people I am a Christian, all SORTS of preconceived notions occur.

    Religion (of which I do not practice) seems to stir evn more controversy 😉

  10. Angella

    “even” more controversy. Sheesh.

  11. Inarticulate Fumblings

    Lyrics from the musical ‘Avenue Q’ (Song: Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist)

    Everyone’s a little bit racist
    Sometimes.
    Doesn’t mean we go
    Around committing hate crimes.
    Look around and you will find
    No one’s really color blind.
    Maybe it’s a fact
    We all should face
    Everyone makes judgments
    Based on race.

    Everyone’s a little bit racist
    Today.
    So, everyone’s a little bit racist
    Okay!
    Ethinic jokes might be uncouth,
    But you laugh because
    They’re based on truth.
    Don’t take them as
    Personal attacks.
    Everyone enjoys them –
    So relax!

    Everyone’s a little bit racist
    It’s true.
    But everyone is just about
    As racist as you!
    If we all could just admit
    That we are racist a little bit,
    And everyone stopped being
    So PC
    Maybe we could live in –
    Harmony!

    If you haven’t seen it, you need to. Hilarious and true.

  12. TC

    I grew up in Queens, too! I spent the first 28 years of my life in New York, before finding my way out to LA…

    Small world.

  13. Tuck

    http://www.alllooksame.com/ and then enter the exam room. Good luck!

  14. Tuck

    Ah, memories sitting around the table with my old aunts and uncles. “Shvatza this” and “Shiksa that”…as free-flowing (and probably as innocent) as that Jewish schmaltz. See…even schmaltz is a dirty word these days (thank you very much Dr. Ornish).

  15. Erin

    I totally feel the same way. Oh and by the way, Echo is your first Native American reader. Don’t let her bright blue eyes deceive you, she is registered Cherokee, I believe.

  16. Nerevised

    Your blog is fantastic. So glad I stumbled on you from NaBloPoMo. Substantial and hilarious, can’t wait to read more.

  17. Neil

    Tuck — I’m working on a project with a filmmaker who is Japanese-American and he got into some trouble at an Asian film festival for casting someone Korean as Chinese in a film.

    Erin — Is she really Cherokee?! How cool. My Citizen of the Month diversity project is now complete.

    Lisa — Maybe it is just my experience, but there is always more talking about ethnicity when there is a lot of it around, because there are usually tensions among the groups, whether we like it or not. At the same time, they also learn to live with each other.

  18. Catherine

    If Echo is your first, I am your second. I am Inupiaq (Native Alaskan).

  19. V-Grrrl

    Context is everything in using descriptives.

    I was once taken to task by a reader for describing my out of control taxi driver as being African (I live in Belgium.) I wasn’t trying to disparage Africans, but hey if you recently immigrated from Africa, your cultural driving habits and sensibilities aren’t finely tuned with the realities of driving in Western Europe. I’ve been in cars with newly arrived Americans who scared me to death too.

    I’ve also been accused of being “ageist” for writing a post where I joked about how one of the advantages of going on garden tours when your in your 40s is that you get to feel like a sweet young thing next to the typical geriatric garden tour participant. I got reamed in a forum for being “boorish” and inappropriate with that comment which was on my expat blog. Anyone who actually went on the garden tour would have seen *exactly* what I was talking about. The tone of my piece was lighthearted and I even poked fun of myself, saying the gap between me and the “old” people was not nearly as wide as I liked to believe it was and maybe I was delusional.

    The bottom line: these terms are just descriptors and we do need to be sensitive to how they’re used and the context, but we shouldn’t be silenced.

  20. Geeky Tai-Tai

    Just last night I said to my husband, “Check this out, I heard about it from Neil.” “Who’s Neil?” he asked, and I replied, “He’s a writer out in L.A.” It didn’t occur to me to add that you’re Jewish.

    The friends that we’ve made here are very diverse and usually we identify them by their nationality or race, just so that our other friends understand who we’re taking about (Romanian, Dutch, German, African, Malay, Muslim, Chinese, Filipino, etc.) As a matter of fact, we’re going to host an American Thanksgiving International party on the 24th because turkey and dressing is a rarity in Asia, and we are thankful for our dear friends.

    Living here I’ve learned so much about other cultures and religions than the mostly “American Christian” culture back home. Singapore observes as public holidays all of the big religious celebrations except Jewish holidays. I guess that’s because there are only about 800 Jews here, an even smaller minority than Christians. Today is a public holiday to celebrate Deepavali (Festival of Lights) for Hindus.

    There are many differences amongst us human beings in the world, but there are a lot more similarities and I prefer to focus on them. I wish that more people would try to do the same.

  21. Paul

    Surely its all contextual? I dont let any derogatory term that can be applied to me (and as an overweight gay guy, there are plenty) be offensive, unless its thrown at me with the intent of being cruel. My sisters fiancee is Jamaican. They dont come blacker than Germaine and we get along fine, quite happily calling each other silly names, and all in jest.

  22. Kyra

    I think that all colors and race are beautiful, and that we all have identifying factors about ourselves. Consider this; if you met three white women and one was deeply tanned in comparison to the others – when describing her later would you say she was really tanned or dark?

    We tend to comment on characteristics we ourselves do not possess because they’re the way we differentiate. It’s when it’s done in a way to set another human being aside into a different catagory that it becomes a problem. People are ruled by stereotypes, and it’s unfortunate. So even if you don’t feel one way or another about a person’s color, identifying it to someone who does might influence their thoughts unfavorably.

    I think it’s wrong to be afraid of distinguishing factors, but it’s also foolish to think that others don’t twist them into something darker. It’s a balancing act or respect and acknowledgement.

  23. Elisabeth

    I once wrote about race issues on my blog (which included that Avenue Q song posted by Inarticulate Fumblings), and got a bunch of very condescending comments from so-called “experts” on that topic, who blasted me for being very naive – although they did admit that my heart and mind were in the right place.

    As a result, I will never again write about such issues on my blog.

    Americans (to make a gross stereotypical statement – another non-PC thing to do on a blog) tend to be very hung up on being PC. It’s amazing how much more relaxed I can be among my French relatives and friends, who seem to not care as much about PCness.

  24. lotus07

    Ethnicity is this bizarre animal in today’s society. I work for the state in Child welfare, and one of the things they love to track is children by ethnicity for obvious reasons. They want to know why there are more of a specific ethnicity in foster care than the general population to try and target resources. The problem is, no one wants to label the child, so the ethnicity is somewhat useless. There is no guidelines for catagorizing ethnicity here and no agency will come up with one to codify a standard for fear of getting sued. Some agencies use up to 30 different ethnic categories (is the child Asian/Latino/native-American) and some agencies only use five (black – brown – white – Asian – other). It is a dual edged sword. We need to track these variations to know where to spend the money to help them, but no one is willing to raise there hand and say I’m African American, etc….

  25. OMSH

    We’ve been talking about this with our kids lately. They don’t know how to refer to people and not get “in trouble” in school.

    Meredith’s best friends are both black. She thought that saying the word “black” was offensive and so she started saying “brown” trying to be nice. She doesn’t give a rip about their color at all – she loves them both completely, as they love her. But when she tries to describe them, she doesn’t know if she can say, “She’s the cute, tall, thin, black girl that is the line leader and runs really fast.”

    I’m not offended by that, but I worry that someone will be.

    They refer to her as “white” because in her group she is the only “white” girl – and it is fitting.

    I’m not sure the answer. I don’t “see” color when I’m in this community. I don’t give a rip about religious affiliation, culture, color, or any of that, but I get tongue tied in the real world at times – trying not to offend.

  26. Neil

    I hope this isn’t being read as an anti-PC diatribe, because I really do believe in being respectful of others. I appreciate how Jews are made comfortable in most of the country. I don’t want to be known primarily as the “Jewish guy.” I was only saying that I don’t mind having this as part of my identity and if you describe me as having green eyes, or Jewish, or just plain sexy — they would all be part of who I am. I’m not advocating thinking of all black guys as “black guys” and stopping there.

    OMSH — I don’t give much damn about a person’s ethnicity, but it is interesting, so I encourage it. I don’t think it is good if people are afraid of exploring differences because it is safe. I should love you, even if you have weird cultural holidays. I haven’t had complaints when I talk about the Jewish holidays. I’m more worried that people will be afraid to express their own selves. For instance, I would love to learn more about life as a devout Christian or whether gay partnerships are as crazy as straight ones. I have enough neurotic Jewish friends. It’s time for more neurotic Christian and Native American ones! Are we all neurotic in different ways?

  27. Los Angelista

    Neil,
    Love this post and I’m honored that what I wrote inspired you a bit. (Aw, shucks!) In my last novel writing class, I noticed that the other students only wrote about someone’s skin color/ethnicity when the character wasn’t white. Interestingly enough, there were also some assumptions that all of my characters were black. For example, one character who is black had a best friend who was white. I hadn’t specifically said that the friend was white (or any ethnicity for that matter) but it was assumed she was black. I was also reluctant to put pictures of myself or my family up on my blog because I didn’t want to be labeled as a “black” blogger, in much the same way that I don’t want to be labeled as a black writer, only writing things of interest to black people.

    I get in trouble too though. Someone recently got mad when I described my father as the “whitest guy I’ve ever met”, but I’m sticking to it because it’s true! I think we just all have to love each other and be forgiving when we stick our foot in our mouths. I’m a little tired of all the witch-hunting going on in the media because it doesn’t build understanding in our individual spheres of influence.

  28. Jennifer

    I live in the DEEP SOUTH and race isn’t as much of an issue here as people think it is. If anything, folks around town are having more of an issue with Hispanics than anyone else and it’s more of a legality issue. I personally take issue with having to identify my race as white; I’m actually a lovely dark brown thanks to my native American heritage. Although I don’t think I have enough heritage to be considered your native american blog friend. Sorry. 🙁

  29. Neil

    Los Angelista — Ugh… it is sad when racial stuff starts confusing our own writing! But you are right… I would never describe someone white as white. That was so obvious, but I didn’t even think about it!

    I just find this topic interesting because the internet allows us to interact without pre-conceived notions of what we look like. I’ve told the story before of meeting Rainier of Dating Dummy in San Diego, and stepping out of the car, looking at him, and the first words out of my mouth were, “Holy crap, you’re Asian!” Rainier = Asian?!

    Jennifer — It’s OK, I’ll take you how you are.

    Now I’m looking for someone of Hungarian ancestry — because, in my opinion, Hungarians make the best pastries.

  30. amanda

    i still love this blog. yes, these descriptions are born of convenience, i think. sometimes they serve to tell a story, paint a picture, etc. sometimes they are used to mask our ignorance. obviously in your case, i think it’s the former. but i think such a heightened state of anti-racism is in some way racist, because if someone thinks of a benign description instinctively as being racially motivated, then it says something about their base state. i suppose if we all just agreed to lighten up and love each other we wouldn’t need to worry about and analyze people’s motivations.

  31. Neil

    Amanda — You’re probably right about it being a bad habit to see people through a race or ethnic prism. I know Sophia hates it when people see her as “Russian,” even though she hasn’t lived there in years. I guess I’m trying to rebel against the blandness of much of society. I LIKE differences.

    I hope everyone gets to read about the important work you documented while you were in the Philippines. Now that is one difference woth mentioning!

    http://amandaberlin.blogspot.com/

  32. Lisa

    Interesting- I’m always curious what my blog friends look like. There’s one girl that I’m pretty sure is black. WHO KNOWS! I’m so curious.

    Also I think the beef with “the asian guy” or “the black guy” is that nobody is ever “the white guy”, you know?

  33. Pearl

    Interesting post. Is it relevant. Web strips a lot. Will the data be pertinent. Is there room for just saying? It’s plot-driven to think, I may only mention height if it becomes relevant to describe how the person reached the top shelf. I may only note ethnicity if it bears on the narrative. But there is a white or color assumption by many of all colors and ethnicity. Bringing out the note of diversity, even when it doesn’t matter, is data. Data as data isn’t bad.

  34. CP

    I don’t mind being acknowledged as the Jewish blogger in my community. I am proud to be a Jew and love when I am identified as the Jewish redhead with the big mouth. I grew up in Rego Park Queens too…and we all used to refer tob each other as the black kids, the puerto rican kid, the italian guy down the street or the israeli girl on the 10th floor. It was just for identification purposes only…and it was no big deal. It shouldn’t be.

    CP

  35. RD

    I grew up a Puerto Rican kid in NJ back in the 60s/70s and, now married to a white (beige?) man, am trying to raise two girls with a strong sense of identity. But “who” are they really? They’re a little PR and a little white, but they are really only themselves. No one has yet identified them out loud as one or the other. Does it matter? This race question is so interesting to me because I think race and ethnicity is an integral part of our identity–and more so if there is a litte more melatonin in your skin than the next guy. But people are hesitant to acknowledge ethnicity because when we do it feels like we’re verging on stereotyping. I think one of the biggest insults I’ve ever received was when a friend said to me, “But you’re not like the other Hispanic people I know.” (Well, there was that woman who came right out and asked if I was a wetback…) I don’t know why, but it hurts me to think back on that exchange. Truth is this comment only confirmed how very small her world is because I’m no different than any other Hispanic out there in that we’re all unique. I like knowing the race and ethnicity of the people I meet both online and in person. It gives me a much bigger and richer picture of who they are, even at the risk of it being tainted with a little prejudice. At the same time, I recognize that their skin color and heritage are just a small part of who they are, and I can understand when someone doesn’t want to be simply known as “the (fill in the blank) guy/girl.” I think it just boils down to taking pleasure in and being respectful of everything someone is. (Geez, you really started a good one today, you Jewish man, you!)

  36. RD

    OMG, I had no idea I wrote that much. I should really start my own blog.

  37. Alison

    Been a while since I commented, Neil. I enjoyed this post and all the comments!

    I’m a complete WASP, but I don’t care what color or ethnicity or religion a person is.

    But I wasn’t lucky enough to grow up in a diverse community. Fortunately my parents had enough sense to expose us to people from other cultures. I still feel weird about qualifying people by their race, though. Guess I don’t want to be thought of as racist in these PC times.

  38. Artful Kisser

    I’ve never truly resolved this issue for myself either, Neil. I can’t comment on the situation in America, but I’m guessing there are similarities in Australia. Everybody’s shaped by their own particular culture and I recognise that as an Aboriginal Australian my perspective on a whole bunch of issues is going to be completely different to that of others, including my Polish partner, based purely on our personal and cultural experiences. Point is, so many things I wrote about in my blog were written from my point of view as an Aboriginal person and I would have found it hard to write about it any other. Issues raised by readers often related to what their definition of an Aboriginal person was, eg. their belief that Aboriginal people only exist in the “outback” in the NT or any other stereotype that gets bandied about. It really depends on how loaded the statement is when you’re branded a certain way. But to be honest, when I see citizenofthemonth in my links I do think “sexy neurotic Jewish dude with spunky pics of Sophia”…

  39. Neil

    Right on, Artful Kisser. If I didn’t already have a blog, I’d start one right now titled “SNJDWSPOS.” — sexy neurotic…

  40. desireenb

    Refreshing post… something I hadn’t seen a blogger address recently and is obviously stirring up many thoughts on the issue by your readers.

  41. teahouseblossom

    You can always call me your Asian fellow blogger. I won’t mind.

  42. mrsmogul

    I like living in a diverse community as you know. I do the same thing, like I say, “the green-colored guy at the party”. 🙂

  43. churlita

    I grew up being one of the only white people in my neighborhood, and ironically, my daughters (who are half Mexican) are growing up in Iowa. At least we’ve had similar experiences in that area.

  44. sassy

    In France, this is not even an issue. Maybe the French are ‘behind the times’ but they will openly use such terms in describing someone. What is funny, though, is that people will often avoid using other characteristics to describe someone. I’m 5ft 11 and always referred to as “l’americaine”, but no one would ever describe me as “tall” – that just might be cutting it a bit personal. Go figure.

  45. Otir

    I also wrote a note on the same topics. I know, it’s not in English, just to make you cringe. Cheers!

  46. buzzgirl

    You know, Neil: I identify myself as black, but I’m actually half-Cherokee (Eastern Band tribe member). If it helps your statistics, any.

  47. Sarcomical

    this is a great question to bring up. i remember this conversation coming up in college among a group of social work students on a retreat (the one year that was my major). the consensus at that time was kind of what most people have said here…that it’s sort of silly to make ourselves on purpose ignore mentioning race when simply describing a person. society is so powerful; it’s made it easy to feel bad about such ridiculous things.

  48. Brianna

    such an interesting topic…love your blog!

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