This is a real conversation that I had with a good friend of mine.
We were talking about completely unrelated issues when racial prejudice subtly inserted itself into the fray, and I felt obliged to make a small comment about it. That comment spawned a long conversation about the nature of race, fairness, recognition, validation, and especially self-identification.
In short, I argue that everyone has the right to self-identify freely, and that true respect for other individuals requires that we acknowledge (recognize and validate) any label they choose to adopt, but does not require us to accept the labels that they want to place upon us. For example, any "fertile" or "impregnable" human (i.e., a "woman" or "female") who feels strongly "masculine" is welcome to identify as a "man", or as nongendered - that’s what freedom is about, and that’s fair. (And people are also free to think of such a person in terms of inborn genitalia for purposes of biomechanical reasoning. Biomechanics can be separated from big-picture labeling without any loss in precision.) Unchosen identities can be rejected insofar as they are nonessential to individual survival - nonviolent, personal choices are ours to make freely.
My friend, on the other hand, argues that the freedom to self-identify ends when people who are seen as “white” choose to reject that particular unchosen identity. I vehemently argue that this is a racist position to take, and totally disagree with it.
I have edited the conversation for clarity and grammar; I also added links to defend my claims when I was accused of disagreeing with “all of the literature”. I did not remove any words that were substantial to the flow of the conversation. My friend has been invited to offer any edits to this post, be they for clarity or emphasis.
My sincere hope is that many people will find this enlightening. I mean no harm, and I stand by the scientific and moral legitimacy of my beliefs. I apologize in advance if you take offense - offending people is never my intention.
It began like this...
Me: I go by Aiso on the website. I like my “fake” name better than my “real” name. Luke McDonald has a boring, "white" capitalist history. Aiso Ippudu Milele is a name that has been influenced by many cultures around the world.
Friend:I hate my real last name. I like my first name. It’s still very white-sounding, but I’m very white.
Me: I like the sound of your names just fine, personally, though I could see why you wouldn’t feel as happy about your last name (especially since so many people have trouble pronouncing it, the rhythm doesn't follow with perfect smoothness from your first two names, et cetera). Also, I’m not white, so I don’t think of myself that way anymore.
Friend: How are you not white?
Me: Because my skin isn’t white. The background of this chat is white. I hate when people tell me I’m white, and it will start a friendly argument.
Friend: Race is nothing other than how you look and how you get treated.
Me: White, black, yellow, and red are equally racist oversimplifications engineered to divide people. People treat me less like I’m white after a long conversation about it.
Friend: It’s not meant to mean the same thing as a color.
Me: But it actually does - it’s cultlike jargon. That argument basically asserts, “It’s not really color, we just use the color words.” That’s cultlike reasoning.
Friend: People use it to refer to your experience, and if you pass for a Caucasian person, you have different life experiences than someone who doesn’t.
Me: That’s a very dangerous intellectual habit that only divides people into color-word-based “races”.
Friend: Refusing to acknowledge that doesn’t change whether or not it exists. It’s also unscientific. And you can call it whatever you want, but the experience is real.
Me: People don’t know anything about my experience until they meet me.
Friend: There are tons of studies on different treatments of races in education, jobs, and the legal system.
Me: If they look at me and see white and say, “Oh, he has white-person experiences,” then they know nothing about me. They can guess all they want. But we can’t know anyone until we actually have conversations with them.
Friend: You don’t know what it’s like to grow up black in America. And black people in general are more hurt by you minimizing their experiences.
Me: Nobody knows what it’s like growing up as anyone else anywhere. I’m not suggesting that the way in which we are perceived has no effect on our development. I’m only highlighting the fact that the reality of an individual life and the perception of an individual’s identity are never the same thing. Most people are neither accurately nor fairly represented by a label that presumes to estimate the nature of the privileges and challenges that they’ve encountered on the basis of something as superficial as skin color or facial structure. Scientific research has clearly established that our cultures of origin, personal abilities, material resources, social habits, family dynamics, and innumerable other factors offer far more useful information about why we’ve developed into our present form, how we’ll probably feel about that, and where we’re likeliest to go from there.
Friend: Yes, everyone’s an individual, but you would be more statistically likely to get treated differently in the legal system if you were black. If you had a black-sounding name, you would be less likely to get the exact same job with the exact same qualifications. This is proven.
Me: I’m not saying that there aren’t real effects of people’s perceptions, but I am saying that dividing people increases those effects by othering people and fostering resentment. I’m not denying anyone else’s experience. I’m only asserting my own. If someone wants to tell me a story about how they’re “black” and it has been extremely hard for them to be “black” in America, then fine, I accept that is how they think of themselves, and sympathize with their unfair experiences, and I want to improve the situation. But I’m never going to accommodate the idea that I am “white”. Call yourself whatever you want, and I’ll call myself what I want. That’s what’s fair. The real dividing line between quality and style of life is not “race” but social power - money, beauty, intelligence, influence, et cetera. If you’re a rich, beautiful, intelligent, charming, and influential “black person” whose parents gifted you startup money and connections, then your life is much more like Donald Trump’s than mine will ever be - and almost every other wagelaborer with a sandy complexion can say the same thing.
Friend: Not that I call myself white. I said Society calls me white. “Denying people their identities is not racial progress, but rather harkens back to this country’s sordid racist history.”
Me: I didn’t deny their identities, so that doesn’t bother me. I denied the identity they want to put on me (in response to the fact that you actually did say, “I’m very white...”). That’s different. If anything, the people who reject my self-identification are denying my identity. And I have no belief in either the scientific legitimacy or the positive value of the ways that some people categorize others into “races”. I don’t “deny” anyone’s self-chosen identity - only the identities that some people attempt to force onto others.
Friend: “Colorblindness Narrows White Americans’ Understanding of the World and Leads to Disconnection”.
Me: Well, I disagee with whoever said that, because I think they’re enabling racism. I think that we will learn more about someone’s actual life by asking them about what it was actually like, than by seeing a color and immediately thinking, “Oh, they’re probably dealing with this this and that.” Any assumption based on superficial appearances of race, however apparently scientific, is racist. You don’t know where someone’s from by their skin color or bone structure. You don’t know what languages they speak. You don’t know how wealthy they are. You don’t know what they believe to be important in the world. They might not even have genitalia. You know nothing about them beyond what you can actually see with your eyes. These are facts that transcend science. If we see a color, and we assume, “Oh, their life is probably more like this...” then that’s always racism. I’m not saying that you definitely did this; I’m just emphasizing this point. I oppose racism, in all forms, period. People can call me white until they’re bluish in the face, but it’ll never resonate. I know what white is: it’s 255 255 255, and it’s not me. Caucasian ancestry? Sure, arguably. At least you’re talking about borders that actually surrounded my ancestors. But I’m still not “white”.
Friend: I don’t think it’s up to cis, straight, white males to decide.
Me: Well that’s racist, sexist, and oppressively divisive, so I disagree with you.
Friend: Only white people say they don’t see race.
Me: That statement is absolutely false, and I think it borders on racist to believe that to be true on the basis of personal, anecdotal experience with some “white” people. I know “black” people who do NOT call themselves black, and explicitly don’t think of themselves that way. Also, I never said I “don’t see race”, I said I don’t assume race. If someone self-identifies with a racial label, I accept it.
Friend: A minority percent. They get treated as black people regardless of how they identify.
Me: A minority of so-called “white” people deny the label of “white”. So what? That doesn’t make it less likely to be fair or reasonable. Most of Egypt believes that angels are on their side. Does that make it true?
Friend: And my passing-as-white black friends don’t have the same struggles as black people who don’t pass as white.
Me: One of the darkest people I KNOW doesn’t say he’s “black”. So I just don’t buy that as a rule.
Friend: If a group of people have different life experiences based on the color of their skin, then that is relevant. I don’t think it’s up to the privileged class to decide what labels should or shouldn’t be used.
Me: Powerful people are the privileged class, not “white” people. In many wealthy cities of Africa, “black” people are fine, and it’s the “white” people who are more often subjected to racism. Wealthy “black” Americans have more material advantages by a landslide than broke, abused “white” ones. Speaking of problems in terms of race oversimplifies them and distracts from the deeper substance of the issues at hand.
Friend: You are referencing specific people. There are women who aren’t feminists, too.
Me: Right, and that is exactly why it would be equally wrong to assume that a woman supports modern feminism simply because she’s a woman - I mention specific people whenever their existences contradict sweeping generalizations, such as, “Only white people say they don’t see race.” In reality, the relationship between color and power is greatly dependent upon your location on the planet. Race involves illusions of socialization that are confined to subcultures and individuals who believe certain myths - the belief in race cannot possibly be defended by purely objective research that transcends opinion.
Friend: Of course.
Me: “If a group of people have different life experiences based on the color of their skin, then that is relevant.” - Never said it wasn’t, I said we shouldn’t assume anything about those experiences based on skin color. We can ask about their lives, instead. Then, if we discover that they have such experiences, sympathize. Help.
Friend: Look, all of the literature disagrees with you.
Me: No, it definitely doesn’t. Many biologists argue that race is a myth. I acknowledge history. You do not need to personally believe in races or racially self-identify in order to precisely and fairly acknowledge the real history of merciless abuse that other people have suffered (and continue to suffer) around the world. Furthermore, it’s not remotely logical or scientific to say that “all of the literature disagrees” with me so generally, implying either that everything I’ve said in the course of this conversation is wrong, or perhaps that “the literature” says, “Assuming things about people is the right move.” Plenty of people argue and studies prove (and “literature” agrees) that racial prejudice actually damages our ability to reason.
Friend: That’s because race isn’t biology. It’s sociology. Your opinion on this is a controversial and offensive one to many people. The studies show that they have different experiences in America due to their skin color vs yours, regardless of what you call it or if you refuse to acknowledge it. And no one says the experiences aren’t different. Just white people here and there.
Me: On average. But studies show trends. Studies never show “they”, as in any specific people, did anything. Studies show that “some of them” do things.
Friend: They show that statistically, people of this or that imagined category are more likely to be this or that way.
Me: Exactly. But studies do not prove anything about the reality of individuals.
Friend: I’m talking overall. And why what you’re saying isn’t cool to tons of people. White people don’t get to decide here.
Me: Well, then don’t decide if you self-identify as “white” - that’s your prerogative - but I’m not “white”, so I think and speak freely about the truth. I’m talking about the actual realities of individual people, who very often defy people’s impressions of “overall”. And if people don’t like the truth, that doesn’t bother me anymore. Because there is absolutely no scientific study anywhere that says dividing people into races makes them friendlier to each other, more connected, or more able to accurately understand each other’s differences... as a matter of fact, there are plenty of studies suggesting the opposite. Because when people have racial prejudices, they are more likely to make inaccurate inferences about other people. That has been proven many times - prejudice biases us toward inaccurate judgments.
Friend: You are white whether or not you identify as such.
Me: Only to you and the people who agree with you, but not as a matter of objective reality. But you are free to believe what you want - just like everyone.
Friend: Recognizing and validating someone’s experiences doesn’t mean you’re dividing based on race.
Me: I never disagreed. I simply said assuming based on superficial appearance divides people. Recognizing and validating experience requires first that we actually listen to it. I never criticized the recognition or validation of other people’s experiences. I criticized the failure in other people to recognize and validate mine.
Friend: Recognizing and validating someone’s experiences doesn’t mean you have any prejudice.
Me: Again, I never implied otherwise. The recognition and validation of someone’s experiences doesn’t require any preconceptions about race, whatsoever. You can’t know experience from looking at someone, so I never pretend to do that, and I openly invite others to join me.
Friend: You keep acting like I’m discussing myself. I’m discussing black leaders and anti-racist educators and what I’ve learned from them. I don’t give a fuck about race from my own eyes - for romantic partners, friends, anyone.
Me: I was using the generic you, sorry. But, while we’re on the subject, I think some supposedly anti-racist educators are some of the most racist people I’ve ever seen, so they stand conceptually as exactly no kind of authority on the matter from my view.
Friend: But you’re not discriminated against for your skin color.
Me: Oh, yes I am. You’ve been talking about the ways in which I am for almost 20 minutes. You’ve been telling me how I’m not welcome to believe a perfectly nonviolent thing about myself because I’m seen as “white”. If that's not discrimination, what is it?
Friend: How are you discriminated against as a cis, straight, white man?
Me: Well, right now at this precise moment seems to be a pretty great example. You’ve been talking about the many ways in which I will be judged for trying to speak freely about these concepts specifically because you see me as a “cis, straight, white man”. I strongly suspect that if I were a “black” woman, these ideas would be much more acceptable to you - at the very least, you wouldn't be so dismissive of my self-identification.
Friend: You are the least-discriminated-against class in the US based on your appearance.
Me: You would never tell me, “But you’re black. You can’t just change what you are.” Discrimination is discrimination. I do not think it helps anyone when we try to weigh discriminations against each other in an effort to establish which ones are more acceptable. We can easily eliminate all of it if we break the box and free our minds.
Friend: Are you transracial? I’d share these same things with a black woman.
Me: You would say, “You are black whether or not you identify as such,” to a woman who told you she isn’t black, just because you thought her skin looked pretty close to what you think of as black? I find that extremely hard to believe. Also, everyone is transracial, because everyone on Earth shares some DNA.
Friend: To clarify, do you think people care less about your opinion during discussions of race being a white person?
Me: You literally said, word for word: “White people don’t get to decide here.” So if you don’t think (at least some) “people care less about your opinion during discussions of race being a white person”, then you’re not listening to yourself. I obviously can’t know, but I’m pretty damn sure you would never say, “Black people don’t get to decide here,” or, “Chinese people don’t get to decide here,” or anything else like that about anyone you didn’t perceive as “white”. Only “white” people aren’t always welcome to speak openly and freely about their beliefs regarding the nature of race in America. Because we live in a culture that doesn’t “count” racism when it’s against people that the media doesn’t call “minorities” - which is a pretty ridiculous idea on a global scale when you consider the fact that fairer-skinned people are a global minority. But we often limit ourselves to what we think applies in our little bubble called America, and we rarely expand those implications to the global arena. Our country is 4% of the global population. Sure, if you count the problems in other lighter-skinned majority countries, you get somewhere near 30%, but regardless, there are more people who don’t live in our social bubble with our specific sets of standards. So I actually am part of the minority in this superficial, misguided sense of division, because I think of myself as an Earthling, not simply bound by the country in which I was born. And, actually, I’m an extreme minority, because I’m not “white”. And other-identified “white” people who don’t self-identify as “white” are among the rarest people on the planet. The majority of other-identified “white” people are perfectly content to self-identify as “white”.
Friend: [They were busy, so I kept talking.]
Me: Sorry if I have offended you in the course of defending myself from a series of what felt like unfair and aggressive assertions about who I must be and what I’m justified in saying, but when I think of a “Hutu” coming across a presumed “Tutsi”, who tells the “Hutu”, “Wait, wait, wait, I’m not even Tutsi, I just look somewhat like them!” and is then immediately ignored and slaughtered along with his family by the “Hutu”, who is very confident that the government and society are entirely right and that the poor family was “Tutsi” even if all of them disagreed, I could not possibly see more clearly that “socially”-and-governmentally-approved labels are the real problem with how we see other people; and that personally-determined labels are not what cause conflict and division and hate and war; and that, in fact, social and governmental approval of the conscious ignorance of personally-determined labels helps as much as anything to enable the racism that causes those things.
Friend: You didn’t offend me. I’m at work and preparing to interview two people, so I will be in and out. I’m not talking globally. I’m talking about the US education system, legal system, and workplaces. And the black woman would be treated as black by racists regardless of how she identified.
Me: No stress - just wanted to be sure. Tone is lost in text and I have found that my katana-like thoughts often sound more offensive when I can’t soften them with my voice and rhythm... She will be treated differently by racists, yes, but not by everyone. And I feel obliged to emphasize the difference between your last statement and your earlier assertion. Before, you said, “You are white whether or not you identify as such”, not, “Other people will still perceive you as white.” Those are two very different statements. I am only disagreeing with the absolute tone of the first one. You would not use the dismissive language of the first comment if not for the fact that you see me as “white”. Also, to be clear, I only talk globally, because what works for us has to work for the globe if we want to move closer to ideals of equality. I don’t think that dividing people racially or even into nations is of longterm benefit to the education system, legal system, or workplaces of any country. In fact, history has taught us that the worst atrocities were explicitly sanctioned by education systems, legal systems, and workplaces of the countries in which they occurred. American slavery, Nazis, Rwanda, the Congo, etc. In my view, education and legal systems very frequently enable racism because of how they approach people’s differences, so I am perfectly happy to know that I am resisting their bad habits.
Friend: Being white just means being perceived as white.
Me: Not to me, and not literally.
Friend: That’s all race is, how you’re seen and treated.
Me: To many people, colloquially, you’re right. But that is an oversimplification. And it needs to die, in my opinion, so that everyone can live better. These definitions you’re working with perpetuate race and thus racism by treating them as inevitable constructs that apply universally. Race is how you’re seen and treated by some people - not generally. A period after “treated” is misleading.
Friend: And if I’m a woman being treated like shit in the Middle East, I don’t care about how women are being treated globally. My problem wouldn’t be less real to me in my daily life.
Me: That’s fair, but again, that’s unrelated to my fundamental points, because I’m not denying the experience of anyone who is actually being treated unfairly, nor would I ever discourage them from speaking out about it or trying to fix it. Anyone who has a serious, calm, rational, logical conversation with me about these issues and leaves thinking I’m racist or causing problems has not really taken the time or effort to openly hear me out. Either they were too upset by the subject, or they didn’t want to hear it from me, or they came to the table with too many assumptions to understand the nuanced specificity of what I’m actually saying. I therefore have no regrets about saying it. I know where I stand, and I know I’ve been careful, fair, logical, and scientific. I would even argue that the racism against white people (which definitely exists) is harming poor “non-white” people as much as (or maybe even more than) everyone else, because they often see a world where white people caused all the problems, and fail to honestly acknowledge their own participation - as well as the participation of people who have a skin color nearer to their own - in the actual, material nature of capitalism, competition, and exploitation. Sometimes people even defend racism against and blaming of “white” people by saying that “non-white” people who do what they think “white” people do have “become white.” (Arguably, you did this earlier, when you spoke casually of “passing-as-white black people”, implying that they aren’t “black” anymore if they don’t fit your imagination of what they’re supposed to be while being “black”). Sometimes, some people have a direct experience with objective reality in which they see that anyone of any color can be as much of a problem as anyone else, and they effortlessly deny it; they refuse to acknowledge that they’ve really seen what they just saw. That, as far as I’m concerned, does not help anyone. And when people delusionally blame “white” people (or “white men” in many cases) for creating all the problems in the world, they will struggle to see the facts of reality that are required to change the fundamental way of life in modern cities across the world. Because those facts sometimes require the admission that women and “non-whites” cause problems too. In fact, they do it very often - globally, non-“whites” exploit others as often as “white” people, and women as often as men.
This ended the conversation. However, my friend later posted an essay, apparently in response to our conversation, in which they claimed that “color blindness” causes many social problems. But I never actually claimed to be “color blind”, so none of those issues apply to the arguments that I really made in the course of our conversation. Denying fallacious labels is very different from denying the reality of other people’s experiences. Actually, I argue for color seeing - that we should see the magnificent range of colors that people actually are, rather than the color we want to call them.
While I'm on the subject, my friend asserts that color blindness “denies cultural heritage”, “undercuts affirmative action”, “fails to acknowledge racial construction”, “discourages people from acknowledging racism”, “fails to look at the bigger structural picture”, “assumes race no longer matters”, “invalidates people’s identities”, and “narrows white people's understanding of the world”. I don't disagree that color blindness and denial of the relevance of the concept of race can enable those outcomes if the blindness is literal and it persists despite experience, but hopefully you can see from reading my words in this conversation that I engaged in exactly none of those habits - I never actually promoted color blindness, nor would I; and I never actually promoted denial of the relevance of the concept of race, nor would I. The only thing I actually did is defend my right to reason and label myself freely. The only person whose identity wasn’t validated is me.
As a side note, I think it’s worth pointing out that color delusion - in other words, racial prejudice - is also a very real threat to the improvement of social structures, the recognition of individual identities, the preservation of cultural heritage, the avoidance of narrow-mindedness, and the accurate acknowledgment of racial construction. As far as I'm concerned, we need neither color blindness nor color delusion - we need color seeing.
My friend’s essay did not mention any of the substance of my actual claims during our conversation whatsoever. Despite the fact that their essay is not really a response to anything I believe or have said, I still offered my friend the opportunity to link our essays together, since their essay was supposedly inspired by our conversation. My friend declined this offer, so you will have to use Google-Fu if you’re curious about their response. :)
When it comes down to it, I know as a matter of fact that race is a myth, and we’ll all be happier when we all realize that together. However, that does not imply that I am denying the suffering that anyone has experienced, or the unique needs of anyone who is struggling in severe circumstances. Just as we need not believe in the objective reality of religious myths in order to understand the history of religions, we need not believe in the myth of race in order to respect and acknowledge the true struggles of real people. It really is that simple as soon as we realize that it’s that simple.
So, what do you think, dear reader? Do you agree that true fairness implies that everyone is free to decide what to call themselves? - or just everyone except for the ones that some people like to call “white”? I know where I stand. I simply hope that we can transcend discrimination in all of the many ugly forms it likes to take. Peace and love, homies.
Aiso Ippudu Milele
13 May 2017