Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

Who Determines Your Ethnic Identity?

November 4th, 2010 · 21 Comments

Chally at Feministe expresses outrage
over a story from Australia about Tarran Betterridge, a light-skinned student of Wiradjuri and Caucasian parentage who was passed over for a job with a campaign to promote Aboriginal employment because she didn’t “look indigenous” enough. The grounds for finding this offensive are clear enough: How dare any “casual bystander” (as Chally puts it) presume to tell someone else their racial identity merely by glancing at a photograph?

But I wonder if this intuitive view doesn’t hinge on a mistaken essentialism about race. We know, after all, that conventional racial categories are social constructs rather than simple biological facts—and that, for instance, whether an Italian American is considered “white” is a culturally contingent question that’s been answered in different ways at different times. What that means, though, is that the question of whether someone “is” black, white, Aboriginal, Hispanic, or whatever, can’t be answered by reference to any simple natural fact about (say) ancestry or biology. It will depend on the social purpose for which you’re asking, and the context in which you’re asking. For many purposes, “being” black or Latino just is a matter of being socially perceived as belonging to the relevant group—and who someone’s grandparents were or what genotype is hiding behind that phenotype are just irrelevant, except insofar as they determine perception. Those perceptions, of course, may differ from group to group, or context to context—and the individual’s own sense of identity may be something else again.

So return to the specifics of the case. Apparently the job in question involved manning a booth, and the motive for preferring personnel of indigenous heritage was the belief that the program’s targets would be more likely to approach a booth if they perceived it, at a distance, as being staffed by at least one other indigenous person. If you grant that as a legitimate rationale for a hiring preference, then whether Betterridge “really is” indigenous isn’t relevant. What matters is whether she’d be perceived that way from across the room by another indigenous person, a question that has nothing to do with whether she is “any less a person of the Wiradjuri nation.” Because, of course, being “a person of the Wiradjuri nation” is itself nothing more than being recognized as such by other people. Nobody outside that community, of course, can tell Betterridge whether she “really is” Wiradjuri, but for the limited purpose of this hiring decision, it’s not clear that it matters either way.

Tags: Sociology



21 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Mark // Nov 4, 2010 at 12:18 pm

    Makes me (white as the driven snow) want to start self-identifying as “Black” just for the sheer farce of it.

  • 2 K.Chen // Nov 4, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    You ended a pretty insightful meditation on ethnic identity before coming to a silly and all too typical conclusion. You turn to other members of X community to determine whether or not so-and-so is part of that community. But that doesn’t work, because communities by their nature are fractured with differing parties demanding different authenticity checks. You have merely begged the question of defining who belongs in the set of X community, who would then determine whether or not so-and-so is one of them.

    All of these interactions happen in the shadow of, or in direct contact with the larger outside societies, who if not applying their own authenticity tests, are picking and choosing groups whose authenticity tests they will use. (Affirmative action, Indian law, ethnically based scholarships, so on and so forth).

    Punting the question to the community doesn’t work.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Nov 4, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Well, again, I don’t think what the community (however defined) decides is the “real” answer—I don’t think there is a “real” answer. All you can really make are a bunch of statements of the form: Set of people X define person Y as a member of group Z. I’m just saying in practice, that’s the recognition protocol we follow for a lot of purposes.

  • 4 Mike // Nov 4, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    It’s like how the President is Black despite the fact that he has as much German an Irish blood in him as I do.

    For most purposes, you are what people perceive you as. Why else would we have a Chinese actress winning awards for playing a Geisha?

  • 5 Freddie // Nov 4, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    The bigot, of course. When all these people were debating whether Obama was “really black” or “black enough,” the only question that mattered was “would he get seated at a lunch counter in Alabama in 1950?” And the answer is no. The bigot knows who he’s out to oppress. He has the most straightforward perspective on the issue you could ever hope to find.

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // Nov 4, 2010 at 3:13 pm

    That’s actually probably the most useful answer for a lot of political purposes. If you’re trying to rectify historical injustices, the relevant question isn’t whether someone would be regarded as an “authentic” whatever by any particular group now, but, as you say, whether they would’ve gotten seated at an Alabama lunch counter in 1950.

  • 7 jaltcoh // Nov 4, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    For many purposes, “being” black or Latino just is a matter of being socially perceived as belonging to the relevant group—and who someone’s grandparents were or what genotype is hiding behind that phenotype are just irrelevant, except insofar as they determine perception.

    There is some truth to this: race is based on appearance. But it’s hereditary at the same time. This doesn’t mean there are two different definitions of race; they work together. By default, you may observe someone’s physical appearance to guess their race, but you can make your guess will tend to be more reliable if you also look at their parents. If someone clearly has one black and one white parent, this fact supersedes our initial impression of how “black” or “white” the person looks.

  • 8 jaltcoh // Nov 4, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    Sorry for the bad editing; of course I meant: but your guess will tend to be more reliable…

  • 9 Carl // Nov 4, 2010 at 4:05 pm


    I take JS’s point to be that in questions of race there’s no such thing as “more” or “less” reliable. There’s only degrees of consensus.

    To shift the example a little, let’s take the question of how many hot dogs you can buy for a dollar. Well, at the 7-11 you can get a little less than one for a dollar; at the grocery store you can get a bit more… But what if there were suddenly a bout of inflation and now you can only get a quarter of a hot dog for a dollar? Were my old answers unreliable? How many hot dogs can you *really* get for a dollar?

    Well, of course, there is no answer to the really question about money. Money is worth what people say it’s worth.

    The same thing applies to race. When we say, “X is black,” what we mean is “A lot of people consider X black.” Can those people be wrong? Well, one person may have a non-mainstream view, just like one store can try to sell hot dogs for a quarter or for a hundred dollars. But the only way to be “wrong” is to make a claim like “the mainstream view is …” when the mainstream view is actually something else. It is not possible for everyone to be wrong about race anymore than everyone could be wrong about the price level, since race is just as artificial as cash.

  • 10 Eric Scharf // Nov 4, 2010 at 7:56 pm

    I always think of this when I encounter arguments in favor of mandatory (self-)reporting of race/ethnicity “so we can analyze the effects of discrimination.” I often suggest that such puposes would be better served by a survey asking “What race/ethnicity are you most likely to be considered to be by a stranger?” Whether such a survey should supplant or complement a racial/ethnic self-identification is debateable.

  • 11 Matt D // Nov 4, 2010 at 10:13 pm

    Sadly, it’s not so hard to imagine, for instance, feminist outrage over the opposite outcome here – the whitest-looking applicant getting a job that’s essentially ‘playing an aboriginal’ clearly has potential to excite some emotion too, no?

  • 12 Jeff // Nov 5, 2010 at 10:49 am

    For most purposes, you are what people perceive you as.

    I am whatever you say I am. If I wasn’t, then why would you say I am?

    Kidding aside, perception is the basis for a lot of constructs of race, but it’s not the whole basis. A couple of literary examples. (Spoilers on both, especially the second.) First, Sinclair Lewis’ “Kingsblood Royal.” In it, a white guy discovers that his great-grandfather was black, which of course makes you black by 1940’s standards (the book was written in 1948, I think). Of course, word gets out into the community. As such, even though he had lived his whole life as a white man, the other white people in town began to perceive him as black. Meanwhile, the town’s black people, suspicious, still perceived him as white, and he became essentially a man without a race.

    Second, Colson Whitehead’s “The Intuitionist.” There’s a character in it who is a famous elevator baron, and as such, everyone just assumes he was white. One of the main characters looks a little harder and does a little digging, however, and discovers that he was really a light-skinned black man.

    So there’s an element of visual perception, but there’s also an element of expectation and of known family history. Whitehead’s character works because people expect a rich businessman to be white. Lewis’ character works because black people expect a person who lived like a white person to keep being white.

    Which brings me, at length, back to the case at hand. An aboriginal stranger could presumably look at Betterridge and see either white or aboriginal. If aboriginals, because of years of being patronized to by the Australian government, expect to see a white person at the booth, then that’s what they’ll see, and they won’t go to the booth. Meanwhile, if they expect to see a fellow aboriginal, they’ll see that when they look at the booth.

  • 13 Bigi // Nov 12, 2010 at 12:03 pm

    Eric Romer noted in his Harper’s piece, The White Side of History that, for whatever reason, “Americans [and probably every other group on earth] find race a necessary convention” for any number of different agendas.

  • 14 bint alshamsa // Nov 13, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    I hate to just be a random stranger coming in for the first time, but this conversation interested me so much that (even though I just stumbled on to this blog) I wanted to respond to something that was said.

    Eric, perhaps that would be helpful in some places where the differences in appearances roughly correspond with race. However, this doesn’t work out so well in places like my hometown (and probably other places with similar histories). Down here, if you’re going to try to analyze the effects of discrimination, it isn’t enough to consider what race a stranger would consider you because there are many, many people who do not look like what they would be considered if/when their background became known.

    There are other things that have to be factored in, as well. What a stranger would perceive an individuals race to be is greatly affected by the background of the stranger. For instance, my mother might be viewed as black by a white stranger who isn’t from New Orleans. However, if that same stranger was a person from a mixed-ethnicity/mixed-race background, they might be more likely to view her as mixed. However, if the stranger was a black person from New Orleans, they would be more likely to call her a Creole (which may or may not be considered a race at all, depending on who you ask).

    Then, regardless of what a stranger might consider someone at first glance, that individual can still experience just as much discrimination as others whose racial identity is (more) clear cut once the stranger does learn more about the person’s heritage. After all, there’s nothing stopping a person from reevaluating what race they see someone as belonging to, and adjusting their treatment towards that person, after they get to know more about them.

    As global travel increases, the difficulties of determining what someone “really” is will probably increase. In my own family, there is no consensus about what we truly are or what we should really be considered. Some of us identify as mixed, others as Creole, others as black. There are varying levels of privilege associated with these identities, but whether one of us is the recipient of that privilege is quite inconsistent.

  • 15 darkfluid // Dec 3, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    I think this brings up a thought, how are raced based rewards such as scholarships or special government contract status verified? I’m white, European background, but I’m sure some Hispanic and Native blood courses through my veins (I really am sure, just not sure of the percentage), couldn’t I just as easily claim I’m Hispanic, thus qualifying for hub zone contracting status and Hispanic scholarships/admissions?

    How would they verify? What proof is required? It’s my understanding that there aren’t any minimum percentages. I have friends who are white as the driven snow, but have a Hispanic grandparents. One in particular marks white on the race sheet, but his sister claims Hispanic and received at least one Hispanic scholarship that I know of.

    How many people are “gaming” the system?

  • 16 evalry // Mar 5, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Question: I’m sure that there have been, but have there ever been studies about women who are white, but have a parent from another race(not Hispanic or black)with an olive skin tone who were shone by white men? I am curious to start a study on this; mainly because of my history. I am in my mid-to-late 20s, and am beginning to see how I was treated by males of the white race. I am curious the thoughts of those who I grew up with. Any thoughts?

  • 17 sac à main // Aug 26, 2011 at 3:29 am

    Welcome to http://www.replicabagsell.com .Our company was founded in 2004 and was committed to internet marketing businesses in 2006.

  • 18 Smile // Oct 13, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    free shipping any order , ten of the special offer everyday!

  • 19 エドハーディー // Jan 20, 2012 at 3:37 am

    t a study on this; mainly because of my history. I am in my mid-to-late 20s, and am begi

  • 20 Dan // Aug 20, 2012 at 10:20 am

    as a cousin of the women in question, Tarran, I can tell you she did not grow up as an Aborigine. Nor did her “aboriginal” grandmother”. Tarran became “aboriginal” when the family realized they could financial assistance from the government to study.

    Her grandmother never identified as aboriginal, and she was only 1/8 or 1/16. so what does that make Tarran? Lily white! Yes, accept, and be proud, that you have aboriginal descendents, but stop lying and claiming you have a right to a job because you are aboriginal.

  • 21 mens firefighters zipper sweatshirt // Mar 17, 2015 at 7:54 am

    Actually no matter if someone doesn’t know afterward its up to
    other users that they will help, so here it takes place.