Welcome to the inaugural project of Ethnic Seattle’s sparkling new Race & Equity column! You are cordially invited to visit often and stay as long as you like. Together we’ll explore community, race and equity, and things in between.

By Carla Bell
October 8, 2017

Question. When you think about the words race, ethnicity, genealogy, and nationality, what comes to mind? Is it texture and quality of fabrics? Stone cottages set in rolling green hills or mud huts with thatched roofs in faraway places? What about flags? Spice and aroma? Curly and straight hair? Language and dialect? If that last bit needs more explanation, “a language is a dialect with an army and navy”, says Marc Ettlinger, Professor of Linguistics at the University of California Berkeley. He’s found that language and dialect are distinctive primarily by politics, secondarily by linguistics. For example, Spanish and French are separate languages, but Mandarin and Meixian are so-called dialects of the Chinese language.

Whatever your answer, you’re right! Race, ethnicity, genealogy, and nationality are all of these things, and much more.

In my personal and professional life, for my community, city, country, and continent, and especially for this column, these concepts are foundational. It’s for this reason that we begin with a series looking at these terms that attempt to differentiate us, even as they reveal our connections.

What is Race?

There are many definitions of the word RACE, but a commonality in all – that is, a theme of differentiation, distinction, and competition. Looking at race in the form of a noun – a contest of speed, to cause to contend in a race – for example, to race against. Also, generation, the descendants of a common ancestor, or belonging to the same stock: of a common presumed past, a common origin, and common root language: a division (interesting choice of words), of mankind possessing traits that are transmissible by descent and sufficient to characterize it as distinct human type (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged). A family, tribe, people, or nation… unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics; a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits (Merriam-Webster Online). RACE is also defined in these perhaps unexpected and disturbing verb forms: to eradicate, erase, cut, snatch, and pluck out by the root (Webster).

So, how does race operate in our lives? Remember the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz, always hidden, working behind the scenes, pulling the strings, causing things to happen, and not happen? That’s how race operates. The United States has strategically created, validated, utilized, and aggressively perpetuated a framework of “race”, according to Joe Feagin, Ph.D, Sociology, Texas A&M.
Race at Work

There is countless and undeniable evidence with historical and present day implications of race as a social construct. In a test of racial bias in the job market, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Economists responded to job ads using both white-sounding names and fictitious names associated with Black children born in mid-to-late 70s – Lakisha and Jamal are two examples. Resumes with white-sounding names returned fifty percent more callbacks than resumes with black-sounding names.

The study concluded that “discrimination is still a prominent feature of the labor market” and race has a real and adverse effect on the benefits of a better resume, even amongst Federal contractors and businesses that identify as Equal Opportunity Employers. This is one example of the power, manipulation, and everyday effect of race, as a structural apparatus.

Race, Structural and Biological

So there’s race as structure, which we’ve only briefly touched on here, and there’s race as biology. Science has shown the operation of race as structure, and as distinct biological markers, but science has also shown a variety of ways in which we’re all the same. Follow the discuss. We’ll continue in the near future.

Carla Bell is a Seattle-based writer and abolitionist engaged in restorative justice and civil rights advocacy, supporting community resilience and healing, and a perpetual student of arts and culture.