Saturday, March 29, 2008

What's in a Name?

I've been reading "Guns, Germs, and Steel" which is a fairly interesting, if skimmable, book. Mostly its a nitty gritty account of human dispersement, development of prehistoric civilization, and then humanity's subduing and oppressing of each other. But what is really striking is the seemingly modern invention of race.

For thousands of years people were defined by tribe, chiefdom, or state. Many races lived on each continent and people weren't defined by the color of their skin. Race, at least the typical American perspective on it, is a farce. While there may be cultural differences, there is no "black gene" or "white gene." Races could be divided infinitely, as no person looks exactly like anyone else. I heard once that Puerto Rico has 30 categories for race on its tiny island.

At my clinic when a patient enters for the first time they must fill out a brief questionnaire, including a blank for "ethnicity." Many people don't even know the word, and pronounce it incorrectly with a questioning look before I try to elaborate. Legally I can't suggest what ethnicity a person might be. It seems silly that we should a. ask this question and b. not be able to give examples to explain it. I don't even know why it's on the questionnaire.

But I have found it interesting that Americans immediately know what ethnicity they are, while Brits often put "English", "Christian", or "C of E." I found it refreshing that Brits aren't so focused on race. But there is a trade-off. Americans are more aware, and perhaps more judgmental, when it comes to race but we tend to save questionnable comments. But Brits seem to be more oblivious to race and racist comments. In one day I was told a really racist joke by a coworker, and then witnessed a patient approach a Dr. and repeatedly wave and say "ni hao, ni hao" goading this Dr. (who is Burmese) to speak Chinese to her.

I liked Obama's speech about race in America. I think it can be a pins-and-needles subject. There has been an immense amount of harm done, and there aren't easy solutions. But in dialoguing about this division I hope that we can bring some understanding to all sides.

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