Eth­nic Ba­bies

Crude first steps to find­ing a new way to talk about racial re­al­ity

Geist - - Contents - Stephen Henighan

Eth­nic baby! the nurse shouted. I thought I’d heard wrong. It was 3:30 a.m. After two failed in­duc­tions and hours of labour, my part­ner had given birth to our first child. I picked up my son, told him in his mother’s lan­guage that I was his fa­ther, and posed for baggy-eyed pho­to­graphs. Only then did I ask the nurse what she had meant by call­ing him an eth­nic baby.

An in­creas­ing num­ber of children born at the hos­pi­tal, the nurse ex­plained, had par­ents who came from dif­fer­ent eth­nic back­grounds. Many of the pair­ings con­sisted of one per­son who looked white and an­other who did not. Th­ese cou­ples’ ba­bies, emerg­ing with skin of a shade that the nurse de­scribed as “yel­low­ish,” were of­ten in­cor­rectly di­ag­nosed with in­fant jaun­dice. The nurses used the “eth­nic baby” call to re­mind each other not to make a hasty jaun­dice di­ag­no­sis on the ba­sis of skin colour.

The term “eth­nic baby” verges on the odi­ous, yet the fact that the nurses who at­tended my son’s birth found it use­ful tes­ti­fies to changes in how we per­ceive race. The days when gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments were able to pre­sume a clear divi­sion be­tween “white” and that other odi­ous term, “vis­i­ble mi­nor­ity,” are pass­ing. We’ve known for a long time that race is a fic­tion in­vented to sep­a­rate in­di­vid­u­als be­tween whom no species dif­fer­ence ex­ists. “There are no races,” the Cuban in­de­pen­dence hero José Martí wrote in 1891. “Puny thinkers re­heat races that ex­ist in book­stores.” The de­ci­pher­ing of our DNA has proved Martí cor­rect: ev­ery­one alive to­day de­scends from East Africans. Yet, though Martí’s statue now looms over Ha­vana’s Revo­lu­tion Square, I’m in­formed by those who know that Cuban gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments still of­fer in­di­vid­u­als the op­por­tu­nity to iden­tify them­selves as be­long­ing to one of eleven dif­fer­ent racial cat­e­gories.

The Amer­i­cas is the only large re­gion of the globe where peo­ple who are a re­sult of racial mixing that has oc­curred in the last five cen­turies may be a ma­jor­ity. This is less true in Canada than in the United States, Latin Amer­ica or the Car­ib­bean; but we are catch­ing up fast. Like our neigh­bours, we strug­gle to ex­press the mis­match be­tween large mixed-race pop­u­la­tions and a model of na­tional unity, in­her­ited from nine­teenth-cen­tury Europe, which as­sumes that a coun­try co­heres around a sin­gle, or dom­i­nant, eth­nic­ity. The French are Gal­lic and the Ger­mans Teu­tonic; Amer­i­cans, Mex­i­cans, Brazil­ians and Cana­di­ans all re­spond in dif­fer­ent ways to the chal­lenge of match­ing race to na­tion.

The United States, where a mixe­drace pres­i­dent was seen as “Black,” has no lan­guage for this phe­nom­e­non. US def­i­ni­tions of race re­main as rigid as they were in 1894, when Mark Twain sat­i­rized them in Pudd’nhead Wil­son. Mex­ico, by con­trast, en­shrined the mes­tizo, a per­son of mixed Span­ish and indige­nous her­itage, as the quin­tes­sen­tial rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the na­tion in the 1920s. Yet Gu­atemala, next door to Mex­ico, rarely uses the word mes­tizo, di­vid­ing peo­ple into ladino (im­plic­itly “Euro­pean”) and indige­nous Amer­i­can. The coat of arms of Ja­maica uses the slo­gan “Out of many, one peo­ple” to cap­ture its pop­u­la­tion’s mixed her­itage. In the 1970s, Brazil, where over fifty per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is African de­scended or of mixed race, pro­moted it­self as a “racial democ­racy.” No one be­lieves this claim to­day: it is ex­ceed­ingly dif­fi­cult for Afro-brazil­ians to be­come mid­dle-class pro­fes­sion­als; the cur­rent gov­ern­ment con­sists al­most en­tirely of white men.

Pre­sent­ing mixing as a norm ce­ments unity by re-cre­at­ing the Euro­pean ideal of the dis­tinc­tive na­tional phe­no­type, whether it is the Mex­i­can mes­tizo or the mul­ti­cul­tural Cana­dian. The more mixed a per­son is, the more they draw their sense of be­long­ing from na­tional iden­tity rather than eth­nic iden­tity. A Cana­dian all of whose an­ces­tors were Ital­ian or Chi­nese or Ukrainian or Pak­istani has an eth­nic iden­tity that com­petes with, and may su­per­sede, their na­tional iden­tity; a Cana­dian who has some mix­ture of Ital­ian, Chi­nese, Ukrainian and Pak­istani her­itage has lit­tle choice but to iden­tify as Cana­dian. Mak­ing the mixe­drace cit­i­zen ex­em­plary, though, can ob­scure the sta­tus of peo­ple who are not seen as mixed. By defin­ing Mex­i­cans as mes­ti­zos, of­fi­cial dis­course by­passes the coun­try’s ten mil­lion indige­nous peo­ple and con­ceals the

fact that white peo­ple are over-rep­re­sented among the elite. In Canada the de­bate over whether our ide­ol­ogy of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism is a form of be­nign ac­cep­tance, or a way of keep­ing new­com­ers at a dis­tance, ig­nores the long-stand­ing sup­pres­sion of First Na­tions cul­tures.

Wide­spread racial mixing is not sim­ply part of of­fi­cial dis­course, but the cen­tral trait that dis­tin­guishes the Amer­i­cas from Europe, Asia or much of Africa. Though the pro­por­tion of racially mixed mar­riages in Canada re­mains low—4.1 per­cent ac­cord­ing to the 2011 cen­sus—it is ris­ing fast. Since racial cat­e­gories are un­likely to van­ish—“post-racial­ism,” as re­cent strife in the United States makes clear, is a mi­rage—the mean­ings of tra­di­tional la­bels will be obliged to blur as each band ac­com­mo­dates a wider spec­trum of peo­ple. I don’t know how my children—i have two now—will be cat­e­go­rized by their peers. All I am sure of is that racial cat­e­go­riza­tion is not go­ing away. Since my part­ner and I have had our DNA tested, we know that, in ad­di­tion to var­i­ous north­ern and south­ern Euro­pean lin­eages, our children have in­her­ited a block of indige­nous Amer­i­can an­ces­try and have a small African ge­netic in­her­i­tance. If they are “white,” it is not in the way my English grand­mother was white; many of the stu­dents I teach are sim­i­larly am­bigu­ous. Front-line work­ers have a prac­ti­cal need to name th­ese in­cre­men­tal changes. I was star­tled by the nurse’s shout un­til I be­gan to see it as a nec­es­sar­ily crude first step in de­vel­op­ing a lan­guage to talk about a so­ci­ety that is just be­gin­ning to take shape. In the fu­ture tra­di­tional racial cat­e­gories will melt fur­ther, and Canada, aloof and Euro­pean ori­ented, “Amer­ica’s at­tic,” as Pa­trick An­der­son wrote, will be­come more like the rest of our mixed-race hemi­sphere. We will find our own way of de­scrib­ing our re­al­i­ties, as our hemi­spheric neigh­bours have done, and, like them, we will strug­gle to fit the bald di­vi­sions cre­ated by la­bels to the ever more in­tri­cate con­sti­tu­tion of who we are.

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