Within the context of race, what does it mean to say that someone is White or Black? More often than not, when we discuss issues involving race the conversation revolves around behaviors, beliefs, ways of thinking, etc. Rarely are we ever just having a conversation specifically around the amount of melanin we have in our skin. And even when the conversations are about melanin, more often than not, someone is trying to claim they have irrefutable evidence connecting melanin and behavior.
The reason why conversations around race always center around behavior is because we don’t live in bubbles. We interact with one another, and how we navigate those interactions is found in our identity.
Think of identity as a collection of definitions that answer the question “who am I supposed to be?”
Group identities define for us what things like family, religious affiliation, race, ethnicity, gender and even sexual orientation mean. Group definitions answer the statement “This is who WE are”.
Here is the fact. We learn what it means to be “black”. We learn what it means to be “white”. We learn what it means to be a man or what it means to be a woman.
Both individual identities as well as group identities are inherited beliefs. We inherit these definitions very early in our childhood from our parents, caregivers and by how we are treated by others within our environment, even by society at large. As children we see these definitions as “rules” and the expectation is that these rules will be followed accordingly or risk being rejected from the group. And within these definitions are outlines of how we ought to relate to others.
This last part, how we ought to relate to others, is where we find our values.
Here is the fact. We learn what it means to be “black”. We learn what it means to be “white”. We learn what it means to be a man or what it means to be a woman. Both individual identities as well as group identities are inherited beliefs.Yes, values are definitions. We have a tendency to gravitate towards those who share the same values because it is affirming for us. It makes our definitions seem all that more real, all that more credible, when we are surrounded by others who define the world as we do.
It might be easier to think of identity by using an analogy to a buffet in a cafeteria food court.
In this analogy, think of group identity as the totality of all of the different choice of dishes being offered in a cafeteria; potato salad, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, steamed broccoli and carrots, candy yams, chicken nuggets etc.
Since each group identity is different, each group has different dishes to choose from. This doesn’t mean that they both won’t have potato salad in one of the buffet stations but each group will also have some dishes that are only offered when it’s their turn to come down to the cafeteria.
In this analogy, each dish represents a different definition/expectation found within the identity of the group.
Each one of us goes through and selects what we want to put on our tray and we leave what we don’t.
In the end, whatever combination of dishes and portions is on our plate is how we define ourselves and the expectations that we are expected to meet.
Continuing with the cafeteria analogy, a stereotype is simply a dish or a few of the dishes that are being offered that appear to be common by people outside of the group.
So someone outside of the group looks at a plate or two and sees pasta salad and says, everyone in that group eats pasta salad!
Stereotypes are only real in the sense that there will always be people within the group that will have those dishes on their plate. The reason why stereotypes are generally considered offensive is because people from outside of the group rarely take the time, nor have the inclination, to actually recognize or understand all of the diversity that exists within a group.