Monday, April 9, 2012

My Bad Habit

I have a bad habit. Okay, I have several. One, though, is significant in terms of diversity and race. I take guilty pleasure in scanning the comments section of articles posted to the website of a local newspaper to see how long it takes for race to enter the dialogue. The phenomenon is especially common in articles regarding politics or crime. 

This newspaper seems to have a policy not to include race in physical descriptions of suspected perpetrators. This policy draws the ire of many readers who suggest the paper is not doing its job by withholding this information and instead is pandering to political correctness. A reporter recently directed unhappy commentators to a PBS interactive web piece called, RACE – The Power of an Illusion, to illustrate the philosophy behind this issue. The PBS information demonstrates that race is a social construction. This construction historically benefited its more powerful architects over those from whom they sought land, property, labor or other ill-gotten commodities. RACE – The Power of Illusion instructs that, “Not one characteristic, trait or even gene distinguishes all the members of one so-called race from all the members of another so-called race.”

The “Sorting People” section of the PBS site challenges viewers to correctly identify the race of twenty different people, take a look and you will see why this is so daunting. The issue is a personal one for me. My own heritage is Irish, Native American, and French. While I am Pembina Chippewa, my mother was enrolled out of Sault Ste. Marie reservation in Michigan, meaning that she and her children would have federal recognition as Native Americans although we are not Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa, but most anyone would identify me as white. My son has about the same skin tone as me, but some would question or be surprised to know that his maternal grandmother is African American.

Herein, I believe, is the crux of the newspaper’s policy on printing suspects’ race. What angry readers really want to know is what color the accused individual is. Race, ethnicity, and color are not all the same thing. Hispanics and Latinos, or individuals whose heritage leads back to a Spanish speaking country, have skin tones that nearly run the gamut of human pigmentation. African American is a common racial classification, but is it appropriate for an individual whose family comes from Jamaica, Haiti, or Kenya? So identifying another person’s race for them is insulting and often erroneous.

None of this is meant to exhort a philosophy of “colorblindness.” We are not all the same, and that is okay. More than okay; it is wonderful, beautiful, and deeply valuable. Race is an illusion, but many of us still need ethnicity to define ourselves, our communities and provide a sense of belonging. We have not reached the point where communities of color can stop coming together to pursue, maintain, and further civil rights. Historical scars of racism have not healed and new ones appear constantly. 

However, I do believe that it is important to remember that we are more than the sum of our labels, more than a color. I encourage you to visit the PBS site at

Colin McCormack
Member, United Way Internal Diversity and Inclusion Committee

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