Exploring Identity: Race, Culture, & Sensitivity

Originally posted on Celi-chan In Wonderland Blog, January 26th, 2018

For the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring the concept of identity, why and how we are the way we are, and the meaning behind being ourselves in the modern world. Today’s subject is on race and culture, and the sensitivities behind these subjects.

What’s your nationality?

What’s your cultural heritage?

What’s your ethnicity?

What’s your racial background?

Are you mixed? What are you mixed with?

What ARE you?

These are the questions I’ve been asked many times by curious strangers and friends alike. Would you say any of these? All of these? Do you think these questions ask the same thing? Do you know what you’re asking or what answer you’re searching for? Do you think these questions are offensive?

Race. Culture. Ethnicity. Nationality.

These terms are often used interchangeably, but in fact each term references a distinct facet of someone’s identity.


The Difference Between Race, Ethnicity, Nationality, & Culture

Essentially, the purpose of these terms is to categorize human beings. The intentions behind why the categorizations were needed vary historically overtime. Supposedly it all started with expanding trade routes from Europe to Africa, to the Middle East and throughout Asia. Initially, these categorizations served as a record for detailing physical characteristics and ancestry, and to some extent, religious beliefs and cultural traditions about a particular population in a particular part of the world.  Here are some basic definition of each term:

Race: Physical traits and features determined by biological or genetic factors including any predisposition and resilience to certain diseases, or skin, hair, and, eye pigmentation. These traits are a product of biological adaptations to one’s environment and lifestyle. Overtime, the differences in these physical features gained a color coded system for race/racial identifiers (mostly nowadays due to skin color). It includes Caucasian (white), African/African-American (black), Hispanic/Latino, Middle Eastern & West/South West Asian (brown), Eastern Asian/South West Asian/Pacific Islander (yellow), Native Indian/American (red), and it’s still evolving today.

Nationality: Someone’s country of origin or adopted country of origin, where someone resides or is a citizen that can legally vote, pay taxes, etc.

Ethnicity: The  combining of racial and national identity, with the addition of inherited and localized culture. A group of people who share a common ancestry, language, and tradition, or social, cultural, and national experience. It is probably the least offensive term to use when inquiring about someone’s identity.

Culture: The inherited or adopted beliefs, knowledge, morals, laws, customs, diet, social relations or other characteristics of any population in size. Generally, the way a group of people live and interact together.

In order to clarify the distinct usage between these terms, I’ll use myself as an example:

My mom is originally from the Philippines and is of Chinese, Spanish, and Filipino descent. She migrated to the US sometime in the late 70’s or early 80’s. My dad is originally from the northern suburbs of Chicago and is of Irish & Germanic/Belgium (Flemish?) descent.

I was born in the good old U.S. of A, which means my nationality is American. I was raised in a small town in the far south-suburbs of Chicago which becomes a part of my cultural background. As far as my physical features go, I have a fair skin tone, dark brown hair and eyes, a short stature, and slightly slanted eyes. Because I am the product of my mother and father, I have inherited all of their traits racially, ethnically, and culturally. Also racially, I am white/Caucasian and I am Asian. Because of this, and for the ease of conversation, I sometimes identify myself as “Wasian” (white-asian), bi-racial, mixed-race, or an “other” race entirely. Perhaps outer-racial? (being outside of race, if that’s a possibility, since I’m both yet neither one))

Earlier I mentioned the purpose of racial categorizations. In later times however these became a means for a certain populations to promote/demote one population over another, determining intellectual superiority from physical characteristics, ancestry, religious beliefs, and cultural traditions. While society has progressed greatly since then, people still hold on to that absurd and prejudiced misinformation.

These terms, especially in regards to race, have become outdated and ambiguous, lacking clarity in the purpose and necessity for the need of these categorization. So then, are the concepts of race, ethnicity, nationality, and culture (RENC) still relevant? Absolutely. These terms are essential to defining identity, especially in today’s world.


The Effects Of A Globalized Society On RENC Identity

Our society has never been more globalized than it is today due to the advent of the internet. And even though the internet and social media makes it easier for people to connect and share with one another  across a multitude of countries and cultures, it can be difficult to communicate in a way that DOESN’T offend someone in some way. Still, a globalized society is an important factor that has some interesting effects on RENC identity. This includes:

  • The means in which the majority of online communication occurs is through text. While text itself can usually be translated through other applications, certain parts of communication, such as tone, cannot. Tone is basically how something is said which indicates meaning, such as emphasis, humor, sarcasm, excitement, frustration, apathy, sympathy, or other forms of emotion.
  • The realization that there are over 8 billion people in the world can make someone question their significance. People regularly share the intricacies of their life with their immediate family, co-workers, or the town they live in. But online, you can share yourself and observe others from around the world. This has a huge impact on a person’s identity, self-esteem, and self-image through comparing one’s self to other’s. People try to rectify the feelings of doubt by establishing one’s place online. Sometimes that means being controversial, offensive, or hateful  by using racialize subjects or slurs for attention. This kind of aggressive activity essentially questions or evaluates a person’s self-worth, exacerbating  feelings of doubt, both for the aggressor and the recipient.
  • These interactions over social media have created a hypersensitivity to anything that might question a person’s identity or value. This exposes one’s sensitivities and insecurities, in addition to revealing any assumptions and misconceptions that one might believe about others, themselves, their RENC identity, or what THEY believe that others believe.
  • People are naturally curious, and when faced with something  different they often seek to understand it. But when we fail to fully comprehend something we are left with an uncertainty on how to respond. This uncertainty generates fear, and THAT fear is then associated with that which we have failed to understand. This is especially true regarding RENC identity.
  • What’s more, while the internet has made communication more accessible, conversations may still be influenced by something I like to call, “communication etiquette”, which I detailed in another article about dealing with conflict. Essentially, it is the flow of a conversation during which mutual respect is formed. However miscommunication may occur if someone feels as though they have been disrespected, which is likely when inquiring about someone’s RENC identity. People know what they want to ask, but might not know what they’re specifically asking or an appropriate way to ask it. Especially when approaching a subject they know little about, both is a sense of an unfamiliar person and an unfamiliar RENC identity.

All this fear, uncertainty, and misinformation is perpetuated throughout society. From the entertainment we consume, the news we watch, or even the events and casual conversation we participate in, in our daily lives by those both in and out of the RENC identity in question. People who feel discomfort towards the subject often resort to humor as a safe way to question RENC identity. And while this makes the subject easier to discuss, it still sustains stereotypes, assumptions, and other faulty information. However, sometimes it’s good to not take one’s RENC identity too seriously and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. That being said, a level of discretion is still advised. Hopefully one day in the future, people will be better educated on RENC identity and how to approach it with the consideration it deserves.


When All Is Said & Done . . .

Humans are social creatures. We define and identify ourselves for personal independence and fulfillment, in addition to sharing our lives with others to create a sense of belonging. When it comes to identifying ourselves through concepts of race, ethnicity, nationality, and culture, it can be just as invigorating as it is frustrating and confusing. This is due to the history of racial categorizations and the way these terms are used interchangeably, even though each term is referencing distinct feature of one’s identity. While social media has globalized our society more than ever before, online communication is still limited. Aspects of communication, such as tone, is frequently lost. Words often go misunderstood, and people often become offended, not just because people have become hypersensitive to racial topics, but because people are sensitive (or insecure) to their identity being questioned and evaluated. What’s more, those sensitivities, along with the impact of a globalized society on an individual’s self worth and validation, makes the need for redefining these terms and re-educating society on these issues, vitally important.

This subject is a difficult one, and honestly, it was quite difficult to write this article in a way that could convey my thoughts so that it was comprehensible. And through my research and contemplation of the topic, I’m left with many questions about this area of identity. Thank you for reading and I hope you found this article enlightening. If you have anything to add on the subject let me know by leaving a comment!




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