A 21st Century Take on Race

As the discourse of race moves into the 21st century, factors like DNA testing results and multiracial culture make the subject more complex. Commentator Joseph C. Phillips shares his thoughts. Phillips is an actor and columnist living in Los Angeles.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

The U.S. has prided itself on being a melting pot. So why is race still such an uncomfortable topic?

Commentator Joseph C. Philips says we need to move beyond skin color and rethink the way we define race altogether.

Mr. JOSEPH C. PHILIPS (Actor and Columnist): Don't let Amy's blond hair, blue eyes and fair complexion fool you. She grew up on the ethnic streets of Chicago's South Side, is fluent in Spanish and as it happens has a black husband and infant baby boy.

Amy swears she's going to write a book entitled, I'm Married to a Brother, So Why Can't I Be a Sister. I assured her that following publication she would be deluged with mail from sisters writing volumes on why wedding vows do not membership in the sisterhood make.

Amy is experiencing the loneliness of being the other, of being excluded from conversations because she is not a person of color. Now more than a few sisters would be tempted, as I was, to shrug their shoulders and offer a sympathetic, welcome to the club. That is until they pause, again, as I did, and begin to consider their own frustrations with race, of feeling otherness and unappreciated.

I realized then that her tongue-in-cheek quest to join the sisterhood is not a plea to move beyond color. Instead, she wishes to move beyond race, to be free from constricting definitions that rob us of our individuality.

The world is changing faster than we are rewriting the rules of race. According to the 2000 census, the fastest growing ethnic group in America is that of mixed race. If the growing number of biracial citizens were not enough, the advent of affordable DNA testing has begun to reshape the way in which many others are defining, or redefining, their racial selves.

A swab of saliva has suddenly made clear that racially speaking we all have a lot in common. Yet as peculiar as genetics are, they don't seem nearly as important as the way in which we interact with the world, and more importantly the way in which it interacts with us.

I grew up with a girl that was one-fourth Native American but looked like a Barbie doll. She could talk about being Native American all day long. However, her experience in the world more resembled that of Grace Kelly then that of Pocahontas.

Our outdated views on race and continued need for racial classifications often turn us into actors in a kind of absurdist theater. Amy recounts her struggle to get a young, African-American student accepted into a support and tutoring program for African-American boys.

In an effort to improve the success of black male students, the school where she teaches began the Kofi program. Kofi is Swahili for handful. Amy felt that an eighth grader in one of her classes would benefit from such a program. However, the boy was denied entrance because he didn't qualify. You see, although the boy was born in New Jersey, his parents are Nigerian. He was not allowed to participate in the program - bearing a Swahili name no less -because he was not African-American.

Amy spent the better part of the semester arguing with the black program administrators that indeed he was African and American. I understand the conversation went something like this:

What's the name of the guy on first base? No, what is on second. I'm not asking you who is on second. Who is on first! I don't know! He's on third.

Our notions of race must keep pace without tying us into convoluted knots. Now Amy may never write her book, though such a tome might generate a very necessary conversation about our need to begin discarding archaic and divisive notions of race and racial authenticity in favor of an expanded definition that gives voice to the breadth of our human experience.

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CHIDEYA: Joseph C. Philips is an actor and columnist living in Los Angeles.

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