Reading

Beyond Classification

This reading comes from the Facing History and Ourselves resource Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement.

Rod Serling used fiction to explore the negative consequences of the labels we attach to ourselves and others. For many Americans, that kind of discrimination is a part of their daily life. Stereotyping obscures the reality of who they are and what they may become.


According to many psychologists, although it is natural to view others as representatives of groups, stereotypes are offensive. They are more than a label or judgment about an individual based on the characteristics of a group. Stereotyping reduces individuals to categories. Therefore stereotyping can lead to prejudice and discrimination. The word prejudice means pre-judge. We prejudge when we have an opinion about a person based on his or her membership in a particular group. A prejudice attaches value to differences to the benefit of one’s own group and at the expense of other groups. Discrimination occurs when prejudices are translated into actions. Not every stereotype results in discrimination. But all stereotypes tend to divide a society into us and them.

Dalton Conley understands the power of stereotypes. He writes:

I am not your typical middle-class white male. I am middle class, despite the fact that my parents had no money; I am white, but I grew up in an inner-city housing project where most everyone was black or Hispanic. I enjoyed a range of privileges that were denied my neighbors but that most Americans take for granted. In fact, my childhood was like a social science experiment: Find out what being middle class really means by raising a kid from a so-called good family in a so-called bad neighborhood. Define whiteness by putting a light-skinned kid in the midst of a community of color. If the exception proves the rule, I’m that exception.

Ask any African American to list the adjectives that describe them and they will likely put black or African American at the top of the list. Ask someone of European descent the same question and white will be far down the list, if it’s there at all. Not so for me. I’ve studied whiteness the way I would a foreign language. I know its grammar, its parts of speech; I know the subtleties of its idioms, its vernacular words and phrases to which the native speaker has never given a second thought. There’s an old saying that you never really know your own language until you study another. It’s the same with race and class.

In fact, race and class are nothing more than a set of stories we tell ourselves to get through the world, to organize our reality. . . . One of [my mother’s favorite stories] was how I had wanted a baby sister so badly that I kidnapped a black child in the playground of the housing complex. She told this story each time my real sister, Alexandra, and I were standing, arms crossed, facing away from each other after some squabble or fistfight. The moral of the story for my mother was that I should love my sister, since I had wanted to have her so desperately. The message I took away, however, was one of race. I was fascinated that I could have been oblivious to something that years later feels so natural, so innate as race does.1

Diana Chang was born in New York City and reared in China. After returning to the United States, she wrote a poem called “Saying Yes.”

“Are you Chinese?”
"Yes."

"American?"
"Yes."

"Really Chinese?"
"No...not quite."

"Really American?"
"Well, actually, you see..."

But I would rather say
yes

Not neither-nor
not maybe, 
but both and not only

The homes I've had,
the ways I am

I'd rather say
twice,
yes.2

Ifemoa J. Nwokoye has lived in the United States and Nigeria. Her mother is a white American and her father a Nigerian. In both nations, people regard her as “different.” She writes:

In our society, being both black and white is a difficult thing to deal with; you learn from the beginning that you are supposed to be a member of some specific group and so will never be accepted for who you really are. You are born into a complex world that aims to simplify things by making divisions between races. In America, people are often unwilling to accept the idea of a biracial person. In our everyday lives we are constantly confronted with situations in which we must define who we are. We check the boxes marked “white,” “black,” on our college forms, but there is no space marked “multiracial” yet. There is no place for me.

It is also twice as hard coming from two very distinct cultures— Nigerian and American. In each society I am treated in extremely different ways; yet, in both, I am identified by color. In America, I’m seen as black. I remember the time a schoolmate asked a friend of mine why she was sharing her snack with a black girl. I recall the icy stares of the ladies behind the perfume and make-up counters of every department store, their plastic smiles melting to frowns as they watched my every move. Most vividly, however, I remember how my math teacher would repeatedly confuse me with the only other black girl in the class, even until the end of the year—his belief apparently being that all black people look alike. Through all my experiences living in this culture, it has been a struggle to maintain my self worth.

Ironically, in Nigeria the situation is absolutely reversed. Because I am so much lighter than most people there, I am given a higher status and considered a model for others. I am treated with the utmost respect and admiration because in their eyes, I resemble a white person. What does remain consistent in both cultures is that I am not considered a biracial person; I’m still being labeled as one or the other.

I lived in Nigeria for the first seven years of my life and have visited on and off since my parents’ divorce. As a child in Nigeria, I wasn’t fully aware of people’s perceptions of me, but I had a sense that I was somehow “better” than most of the children I knew, and that I had something special that they lacked. I remember being the teacher’s favorite; the other students would get beaten, while I never experienced a lash of my teacher’s cane. And I recall sitting in the front seat of my dad’s car during a traffic jam. The little hands and noses of the village children would press hard against the window of the car, as if to penetrate the barrier of glass to steal a precious part of me. The society conditioned me to view myself as superior.

Drawing on my experience in America and in Nigeria, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that there is no place in either of my cultures where I can be accepted for who I am. I think of the irony in both experiences, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

I know that I must ignore the limitations and labels society places on me, and instead, realize that I am an individual with unique insight, able to encompass the best of both worlds. I refuse to see my biracial identity as confining, and I am determined not to be defeated by other people’s narrow vision. Increasingly I am able to get strength from my inner voice and accept my own perspective on who I am. I now take pride in my two cultures.3

Citations

  • 1 : Honky by Dalton Conley. University of California Press, 2000, pp. xi–xii.
  • 2 : Copyright © 1985 by Diana Chang.
  • 3 : Of Many Colors: Portraits of Multiracial Families was copyrighted ©1997 by Peggy Gillespie and was published in 1998 by the University of Massachusetts Press. pp. 137-138.

Connection Questions

  1. Create an identity chart for Dalton Conley. The diagram below is an example of such a chart. It contains the words or phrases people attach to themselves as well as the ones that society gives them. Begin with the words or phrases that he uses to describe himself. Then add the labels others might attach to him. Create a similar chart for Ifemoa J. Nwokoye. What words or phrases does she use to describe herself? What words or phrases might others use to describe her? How are the two charts alike? What differences seem most striking? What part have labels played in shaping each identity?
  2. Construct an identity chart for yourself, much like the ones you made for Conley and Nwokoye. After you have completed your chart, compare it to those of your classmates. What do you have in common? To what extent is each chart unique? What part have labels played in shaping your identity? What other factors have affected who you are and what you may become?
  3. Our identity—our sense of who we are and what we might become—is more than a set of labels. It is also shaped by our philosophy—our ideas, values, and beliefs about the world and our place in it. What ideas about self and others have shaped the philosophy of each of the individuals quoted in this reading?
  4. How does society shape our identity? To what extent does your answer explain why Ifemoa Nwokoye believes that the identity crisis everyone faces is “doubly hard” for biracial children? Who else in American society may confront similar challenges in forging an identity?
  5. Compare and contrast Diana Chang’s experiences with those of Ifemoa Nwokoye. How do their histories shape their attitudes and beliefs?

A Facing History and Ourselves student who dislikes being labeled was surprised to discover that her classmates had similar feelings. She writes:

I had always known that I didn’t fit into boxes and labels neatly, but it was not until all of us in class looked carefully at our identities that I realized that there were times when we all couldn’t fit into a box: racially, economically, religiously, or politically. That day we put away facades, superficial stereotypes, and imposed labels and came to the understanding that we are all crossbreeds in some way. . . . Once we were able to understand our own identities, we were better able to understand those of others.

How do the student’s comments explain why Dalton Conley believes that “race and class are nothing more than a set of stories we tell ourselves to get through the world, to organize our reality”? How do the comments explain why Ifemoa Nwokoye has come to believe that she must “ignore the limitations and labels society places on me, and instead, realize that I am an individual with unique insight, able to encompass the best of both worlds”? How do the student’s comments explain the way Nwokoye views her heritage?

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