This is another student paper from last semester's Introduction to Ethnicity/Race course.
There isn’t just one clear-cut answer in defining one’s identity, race, or ethnicity, because everyone is different. Identity can be defined as characteristics used to describe someone’s personality, ethnicity, race, and behavior, in order to understand individuals. There are many perspectives on race and ethnicity. The goal of this essay will be to identify myself as an individual by using my past experiences to explain these concepts of race and ethnicity.
If I asked others to describe my physical appearance and characteristics there are many responses that I would receive. My identity can be described in the following manner, I was born in Syracuse, New York, in July of 1986. The most common way my physical attributes can be defined is that I have dark tan skin, black hair, brown eyes, and I’m five foot five inches tall. From this appearance many people think my race is Spanish, Mexican, or Hispanic, although I’m actually Italian American.
This is a common mistake among people when they try to identify people’s races. Many people think that race is just the physical attributes of a person, or what’s on the surface, such as what color skin someone has, how tall someone is, their facial features, and body type. This is a mistake that I made before I first started looking at race and ethnicity in a closer manner. At first, I just considered myself to be Caucasian, because I thought that I’m white not dark so Caucasian would be correct. Also when looking at others, I assumed when looking at a black person, that they were African American, or that a moderately dark person was Spanish. I realize that race is so much more from just being white or black. Race isn’t what someone looks like, or what color their skin is, it’s defining where they came from, or who they identify with. This can be seen from looking at two perspectives, a biological one and a socially constructed one.
Let’s first examine the biological perspective on race. When looking at this view it’s important to know what we mean exactly by explaining our race in terms of biology. Dr. Lee, a biology professor at SUNY Fredonia, recently presented information on this perspective. A biological perspective means that race isn’t important except in terms of medicine, because certain races have certain genes carrying diseases, like Sickle Cell Anemia and Cystic Fibrosis. But for other areas our genes explain who we are, where are ancestors came from, and when it comes to diseases doctors will rely on your individual genotype and not your racial history. Examining someone’s DNA allows geneticists to trace his or her maternal ancestry by mitochondrial DNA, and his or her paternal ancestry by the y chromosome, which is only present in males (Lee 2007).
One argument against the notion that race is biological can be seen by looking at the relationship between physical features and a person’s genetic makeup. If you look at a person’s genes, and you know what diseases they have this doesn’t tell you anything about their physical features or race. Likewise, when you look at someone’s skin color or eye color this doesn’t tell you what their genes are. This is saying that the biological perspective doesn’t support race, because there’s no direct relationship between someone’s genetic makeup and physical features (Brown Jr. 2001).
I have problems with believing this biological perspective for several reasons. One is that people don’t just have one kind of genes defining their race; often times, they have many. This can be seen by looking at evidence from the article, “Why Race Makes no Scientific Sense: The Case of Africans and Native Americans,” by Prince Brown Jr. Brown argues in the case of Africans and Native Americans, many times their genes are interchanged. In that 500 years ago when ships were present in Asia, and Africa, there was an immediate exchanging of human genes between these two cultures. Therefore, the science behind this biological perspective isn’t the best one to use when referring to race, because it isn’t always accurate. So let’s now look at the socially constructed perspective on race (Brown Jr. 144-151).
Race based on a socially constructed theory can best be defined by looking at a quote by Prince Brown Jr. “Perhaps the strongest evidence that race isn’t a biological fact but a social creation is the different rules for classifying people into racial categories across societies and the shifting rules for classifying people within a single society” (Ferrante and Brown Jr. 115). The quote is describing society in America throughout history, and how we can see how society has changed its view of race over time. This can be seen by the categories in the census in recent years.
Society viewed race early on in broad terms as either being white or black; then this notion of race was transformed over time. The census of race reveals this change from 1790-2000. This view on race changed over time because the American society changed as well. Early on we only had whites and slaves in this country, then through our Independence movement, Civil War, and Industrialization periods we saw changes in our society. These changes were the immigrants that came from Africa, Asia, and Europe, and they shaped the world we live in today. The way these immigrants transformed America life, at the same time transformed our notions of race and these notions became more complex. This is a trend we are going to see throughout history; our society will continue to change, and with it so will our race (Ferrante and Brown Jr. 115-117).
This is why I believe that race is socially constructed and not biologically based. For one, are genes are all different, no one’s is the same, and it is impossible to trace our race from our genes. Another reason is that our society shows how are race is being constructed. Over time both of these concepts have changed, which explains the different races that are occurring in America. Race can be seen as being physical attributes of a person or groups of people as viewed by our society, and how these views have been changing over time because of the changes of people in society.
Another piece of evidence that explains race as being socially constructed can be seen by looking at the question, “Does race matter?” Yes, I feel that race does matter. Why? Race is one of the defining characteristics of our identity. Race is important and matters to me because it allows me to discover who I am as a person. Without paying attention to race, I feel like I wouldn’t care about who I was. I think that race is socially constructed because it allows a person to designate themselves as being insiders, or outsiders, which reinforces their social, political, and economic environment (Ferrante and Brown Jr. 113-114). I agree with this because I do it on a daily basis. The environment you live in for example is likely to be with who you identify with. Many communities today have large homogenous areas that are, predominantly black, white, or Hispanic. We are more likely to interact with others that we can identify with. In a day to day basis we see this in our friends, school, and work settings. Because if you are hanging out or interacting with others who look differently from yourself, often this makes people in these situations feel awkward and out of place. Therefore, they will try to identify with groups of people with similar physical traits like themselves.
One way I have seen race as being socially constructed in our society or environment is based on my experience in the neighborhood I grew up in and my past work experience. I grew up in a neighborhood where the majority was middle class and Caucasian. This neighborhood formed, like many other suburbs largely because whites wanted to get out of the cities and could afford to move. Our society has been changing in that more and more people, predominantly whites, have moved to suburbs because of the poor conditions in the cities. We see a larger racial minority in the cities, from Blacks to Hispanics, because they can’t afford to move. This supports the notion that people in society identify with people similar to them, whether it be economically, socially, or racially.
I have also seen race being socially constructed in a part time job I worked over the summer at a grocery store in Syracuse. Since this store was located on the edge of the city, there was a diverse population of customers. From my viewpoint as an employee, these customers would come at certain times of the day. Usually, early on or during the day the majority of customers would be Caucasians, but towards night time you would see more African Americans and Hispanics come into the store than Caucasians. This is because these racial groups identify with each other in society; they go at the same time because they don’t want to feel out of place if they go at a different time. They want to go shopping with who they identify with. With these diverse races in our society today we can see that the world is bigger than we think, and there’s more to someone’s race than meets the eye.
Since we have established what race means, and how it can be viewed in our society, let’s look at the issue of ethnicity. When looking at Ethnicity we are looking more at someone’s heritage, nationality, culture, background, or where they came from. Initially when I started exploring this concept of race and ethnicity, I thought that my ethnic background was just Italian. However, the more and more I researched my ethnicity, the more I realized that this wasn’t the case. Like race, someone’s ethnicity is more than what meets the eye.
Let’s start by looking at my Italian ethnicity. My grandparents on my mother’s side both came from Italy, and so did the one’s on my father’s side. On my mother’s side, my grandma came from the town of Compobasso, by Rome. My grandpa was from the northern part of Italy, and grew up in the town of Trento. Living in Compobasso, my grandma spoke the Italian language, and didn’t come over here until after World War Two in 1948. My grandfather from Trento in the North was located by the German border. Here they spoke the Italian language, but they also spoke a dialect of it in the form called Tyrolean. So I think my grandfather identified with both German and Italian culture. He fought in World War Two under Mussolini, because he was still in Italy at that time. This was a hard experience for him because he didn’t like fighting under Mussolini; he didn’t agree for what he stood for. He also came over to America after the war in 1948.
My grandmother and my grandfather on my Dad’s side were both born in New York, and were Italian. Their parents both came from Sicily, and as can be seen from my skin color I have a lot of my Dad (Sicilian) in me. Also, by looking at my families’ ancestry, I have a multiethnic Italian identity, because I identify with different parts of the Italian culture, Sicilian and Tyrolean.
My family is very Italian, and I have experienced the sense of being Italian growing up. The way that I have been accustomed to my Italian, Sicilian, and Tyrolean heritage throughout the years has been with my grandparents, mostly my grandma and grandpa on my mom’s side. Whenever I would go over to their house, I would always eat, it was a ritual, and I couldn’t go over there and escape without at least eating one cookie. Throughout the years I have eaten a lot of Italian and Tyrolean dishes especially. One of the traditional Italian desserts my grandmother always prepares are pizzelles. These are waffle cookies that can either be crispy or hard depending on how you like them. A Tyrolean dish that I also have often is called Polenta. This is made from cornmeal and is a popular dish found in northern Italy still today. Growing up this is how I mostly experienced my Italian, Sicilian, and Tyrolean heritage, with my grandparents by tasting my Ethnicities. Even though I have multiple cultures or ethnicities that I identify with in Italy, I feel like in order to keep my ethnicity simple, I’m multiethnic as being an Italian American.
One article that really helped me find my ethnic identity as an Italian American was, “Are Italian Immigrants Just White Folks?” by Rudolph Vecoli. The article describes Italian Americans in America, and how there seems to be a loss of ethnic identity, in that many Italian Americans are forgetting where their ancestors came from and identifying themselves as purely Americans. An example the author uses is that many younger Italian Americans don’t even recognize their Italian names. A main reason that this is occurring is because of the older generations of Italian Americans. They aren’t doing their jobs of passing down the Italian culture to the younger generations, and therefore causing a disappearance of Italian Americans in our country today (Vecoli 264-271).
This is a critical issue that has to be addressed and something must be done in order to recover our Italian ancestry before it’s lost. I think the older generations are doing this because they want their offspring to identify more as being American and not Italian. This is a valid point because many immigrants that come here (Europeans anyways), tend to try to assimilate into the American lifestyle, and in this process they forget where their roots come from. This isn’t necessarily because they want to forget their roots, but its because they believe that forgetting them leads to a better life in America. They want their children to have better lives than they had, and if they don’t teach them their Italian roots they think this will help them to be more successful in America.
This isn’t the case though, because without all of these immigrants, there would be no America. What makes America so attractive to immigrants is its diverse population of different ethnic groups, and the chance for opportunity and a better life. It’s the older generation’s job to pass on their cultures’ traditions to the younger ones, because that will promote the younger generation’s ethnic identities of being Italian, and if this doesn’t happen Italian, and other ethnic identities in America could be lost for good.
My definition for ethnicity can be associated to what Vecoli’s, which he defined as being “a form of memory” (Vecoli 270). I think what he is saying with this statement is that Ethnicity is based on our experiences, our memories of our culture. This makes us who we are.
This statement really made it seem valid to me, because growing up my memories of going to my grandparents’ house and hearing my mom tell me of my Italian heritage have helped me to identify myself as being Italian. Also, being around my grandparents has helped to become more identified with the Sicilian and Tyrolean cultures as well. As weird as this will sound I never considered myself being an Italian American, because I always thought of myself as being one or the other. One example is I often tell my friends that, “Man you won’t believe how much food I just ate, my grandma made me eat until I couldn’t anymore.” Their response is that, “She must be Italian.” When it comes to family issues I always identify myself as Italian. Citizenship and where I live in my community, and the customs and traditions I have learned growing up can mostly be associated with me being American and not Italian. This article showed me that I’m not just Italian or American, I’m both and I have to support both of my ethnicities (Vecoli 264-271).
By looking at what I have learned throughout my research on race and ethnicity we can go back to the beginning of this essay and explain why people thought I was Spanish, or Mexican. One of the reasons this is the case is due to my skin color. I have naturally dark tan skin, and people usually associate this with being Spanish and not Italian. This is the case because based on most people’s stereotypes of being Spanish is that they have a dark tan skin color. Also, when people think of Italian, I think they listen to their language, or what they eat, more than what they look like. This is typical of people who don’t see race as more than someone’s skin or remember that race is more than what meets the eye.
Also, in terms of my Ethnicity many people think I’m Greek and not Italian based on my last name being Costa. Often time this name is considered a Greek name. However, Costa in Greek is usually spelled Kosta, not Costa. I didn’t realize my name was considered Greek sometimes until last year. One of my friends asked me, “Are you Greek?” I replied, “No, why?” He said, “Because there’s a Greek restaurant in Buffalo named Kosta’s.” This surprised me because I always assumed that my name was always considered to be Italian. But, this just goes to show, never assume someone’s ethnicity or race without exploring the possibilities first.
I think that this research on race and ethnicity has helped to prepare me to become a better teacher. My major is Social Studies Adolescence Education, and in the classroom you don’t always have a homogenous class; often times you can be placed at a school that’s diverse racially and ethnically. This class showed me that you have to be aware of who you’re trying to teach as a teacher. How are you going to be an effective teacher, if you don’t even know who the audience is that you’re teaching? I have a better knowledge base of the diversity I can expect in the classroom thanks to my research I have done on race and ethnicity. For example, knowing my students cultures and understanding their ethnicities I will be able to apply learning strategies in the classroom that they, thanks to their ethnicities or races, can better identify themselves with.
So here is what I have learned up to this point towards the end of my research on Race and Ethnicity. Race isn’t biologically based; it’s socially constructed through our experiences with others in a social, economic, and political way. Race is our physical attributes, what we look like, but also is related to how we are viewed by society. Ethnicity is based more on our experiences as individuals, with our families and what we learn about our cultures, all of which helps us to define our identity.
Now that we have redefined the concepts of race and ethnicity, let’s redefine my identity. Racially, I’m a Caucasian male. My ethnicity can best be described as a multiethnic Italian American. When it comes down to the issue of Race and Ethnicity there isn’t just one way of looking at it, as you can see these concepts can be looked at by different ways. People don’t think twice about race or ethnicity, which is sad about our culture today. It’s very important to know your identity; without it you will become lost in life.
Brown, Prince Jr. (2001a). “Biology and the Social Construction of the Race Concept.” in The Social Construction of Race and Ethnicity in the United States, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 144-151.
Brown, Prince Jr. (2001b). “Why Race Makes no Scientific Sense: The Case of Africans and Native Americans,” in The Social Construction of Race and Ethnicity in the United States, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 332-337.
Ferrante, J, and Brown, Prince Jr. (2001c). The Social Construction of Race and Ethnicity in the United States, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 113-337.
Lee, T., (2007). Presentation on Race from a Biological Perspective. Race and Genetics. SUNY Fredonia.
Vecoli, Rudolph J. (2001). “Are Italian Americans Just White Folks?” in The Social Construction of Race and Ethnicity in the United States, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 264-271.