Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Can I Call My Nonbiological Twins Black Because My Husband Is?”
I’m a Caucasian woman married to an African-American man. Shortly after we married, I discovered that I couldn’t conceive my own biological children. We opted to ‘‘adopt’’ two embryos. (Couples who have successfully undergone in-vitro fertilization and don’t wish to have more children can donate remaining embryos to other couples.) I was soon pregnant and gave birth to twins. Based on the records of the fertility clinic, we know that our children are genetically mixed Hispanic and Caucasian. I am not comfortable being open about the origin of my children, except with family and close friends, until they are old enough for me to explain it to them. However, several times in the last three years, I’ve been asked about their race, most recently on a pre-K school application form. On this form, there is no option of ‘‘mixed race’’ or ‘‘other.’’ Therefore, I identified my children as black. Was this the right choice? Name Withheld, Chicago
My response: My favorite response I saw to a question trying to find a systematic response to the non-systematic concept of race was
“I don’t know. I’ll have to ask my neo-Nazi friends. They know this race stuff better than anyone.”
Its Swiftian satire showed the absurdity of the context. As they say, ask ten people about race and you’ll get fifteen opinions, all one-hundred-percent justifiable to the person saying them, none agreeable to everyone.
I recommend instead of focusing on race and absolute answers of rightness, to focus on the people you are interacting with, how the results of your actions affect them (and yourself), creating more options than dichotomies, and building relationships instead of looking at interactions as one-shot deals.
In short: I recommend using compassion, empathy, and problem-solving skills with the people you’re interacting with over absolutes and judgment over abstract concepts of right and wrong.
The New York Times response:
Ethics generally commends telling the truth. But in a situation in which our ordinary ways of thinking are at odds with reality, there can be no easy truth to be had. When it comes to race, confusion is the most intellectually defensible position. Let’s try to sow some. If your children were your biological children, many people in our society would say that they were African-American, because we have a tradition, going back before emancipation, of treating people with one black parent as black . . . or Negro or colored or whatever the favored term was at various times in American history. That’s the ‘‘one-drop rule,’’ so called because consistent application of it would mean that anyone with any African ancestry at all was black. (Of course, unbeknown to those who started this system, we all have African ancestry in the long run, which shows how much our thinking is shaped by our lack of knowledge.)
As it happens, millions of Americans are black according to the one-drop rule but don’t have any of the features that people associate with African ancestry. Lots of them ‘‘pass’’ for white. Many don’t, though. Walter White, the early-20th-century leader of the N.A.A.C.P., was able to travel the South investigating lynchings because, although his parents were ex-slaves, he ‘‘looked white.’’ His autobiography begins: ‘‘I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.’’ (In a biopic, he could have been played by, oh, Bryan Cranston.) ‘‘ ’Cause it’s swell to have a leader/That can pass for white,’’ wrote Langston Hughes, who with his ‘‘copper-brown skin and straight black hair’’ — his description — was himself taken for white during a trip to Africa and could have passed for Indian if he troubled himself to do so.
Race being socially constructed, things work differently in different places. In postwar Britain, the word ‘‘black’’ has been used for people of South Asian as well as African ancestry. In South Africa, ‘‘coloured’’ is still widely — though not officially — used as a racial category, referring to people of mixed Dutch and Asian or African descent, most of whom speak Afrikaans. In Brazil, less than 8 percent of the population identifies as ‘‘preto,’’ or black; over 40 percent of the population identifies as ‘‘pardo,’’ or brown, implying some mixture of African, indigenous and European ancestry. Almost all would, by tradition, count as black in the United States. Now, however, an increasing number of people in the United States reject the one-drop idea, and they might say that your biological children are mixed race. (Some might say they were not of any race except the human race.)
But your children’s biological parents identified themselves as Caucasian and Hispanic on the forms in the clinic. Given the way the term ‘‘Hispanic’’ works — Sammy Sosa, Cameron Diaz — the Hispanic parent could have had skin of almost any shade. And given what I said about passing, the Caucasian parent could have had African ancestry. Still, I take it that your kids aren’t ‘‘obviously black,’’ otherwise you wouldn’t be asking what to do. In these circumstances, because your husband is African-American, it seems to me there’s just no indisputably correct answer to the race question. The forms assume a simpler world than the actual one.
What to do? If your kids had dark skin, it might have been best to raise them as black. They would stand a fairly high probability of being thought of that way by strangers, and it’s still true that in our country, alas, you have to be prepared for racism if you don’t ‘‘look white.’’ Also, on the positive side, looking black gets you welcoming looks in places where you won’t get them if you don’t.
But let’s assume they don’t look ‘‘typically black.’’ Then there’s no good answer. I certainly can’t see any harm in raising them as black, though. They have a black father and black relatives, and they’ll be able to acquire whatever social markers of blackness there are in your particular community. Someone might insist that this was just plain wrong unless they have some actual African ancestry, insisting on the crazy one-drop rule. But adopted children often take on the ethnicity of their parents, so if you and your husband think of his blackness as in part cultural, he is surely entitled to pass it on to his children. Your kids will look just as black as Walter White.
Another option you mention would be to describe your kids as mixed race. That’s a label that’s gaining traction, and to the extent that people think of Latinos as a race (and some do), your kids are ancestrally mixed race as well as living in a mixed-race family. You say it isn’t an option on the school’s form. Tell them if you think it should be.
One option I’d be inclined to rule out, though, is saying the twins are Hispanic. The social meaning of being Hispanic has a lot more to do with culture (or, at the very least, a marked surname) than biological ancestry. So it would be strange to think of them as Hispanic without any cultural connection to Latin America or Spain.
The fact is that our system of racial classification is based, as I’ve suggested, on a mélange of falsehood and ignorance — with, no doubt, an occasional admixture of truth. It presupposes an extremely oversimplified picture of the relationship among ancestry, appearance, biology and culture. A lot of people have social circumstances and ancestry that don’t fit into it. If it were up to me, we would change the picture.
Because of a number of factors, an important friendship of mine recently deteriorated. One of those factors is that my ex-friend, E, suffers from depression. Another friend, G, with whom I have grown particularly close over the past year, has also lost E’s friendship. G does not know that E is depressed. Though E did not say that she wished for her diagnosis to remain secret, she did not tell G, so I can only assume she told me with the understanding that I would not mention it to anyone else. G has guessed that E is having some sort of mental-health issues and would like to know what is wrong. I think it might be helpful to tell her, but I’m not sure it is ethical. What should I do? Name Withheld
My response: “What should I do?“
Am I the only one who sees this question as juvenile? I can see a child asking a parent what they should do. I can see adults asking for options, perspectives, and successful solutions from past similar situations so they can help figure out what choices they can make.
I just don’t see adults asking what they should do. Should implies someone else knows best, but only the person asking knows the situation, has the relationships, and has to deal with the results. Should asks someone else to judge. Should abdicates responsibility to consider the situation, one’s perspective, one’s actions, one’s relationships.
Should seems to me to prepare the person asking to say, if their behavior doesn’t get the results they want, “But the New York Times told me I should!”
I write about leadership and I’ve found taking responsibility and holding oneself responsible, and acting based on compassion and empathy leads to results people like more in the long run, even if they feel they fail a few times in the short run. That’s why so many people who consider themselves successful see what others call failure as learning experiences. If you didn’t have learning experiences as a child, I recommend taking them on as an adult, not abdicating responsibility by asking others what to do.
Also, many people probably noticed the “assume” and thought of the joke of how to assume makes an ass out of you and me.
In low-level terms in this case, I suggest instead of assuming E’s motivations, talk to her to create solutions you can both accept. If you can’t, then do the best you can given that you disagree, recognizing that people disagree but still have to act. As usual, I recommend thinking about people and relationships, not abstract philosophical labels.
In the long run, you can look forward to resolving situations like this yourself if you start doing it now.
The New York Times response:
You’ve correctly identified the two countervailing arguments here. Information about a person’s psychiatric condition is, generally speaking, up to that person to control. When friends tell you about their mental health, a good default is to keep what they say in confidence. In the other direction, you could, as you say, help G better understand what is going on with E if you passed this information on. Ordinarily, the way out would be to get permission from E to explain things (or encourage E to do so). But your relationship has evidently passed the point where that is possible.
Still, it sounds as if G has already figured out the basic situation. She would just like more details. But in order to make sense of what has happened to their friendship, does she really need to know more than she does — that there’s a mental-health issue and that you aren’t at liberty to share details? ‘‘Depression’’ isn’t the most illuminating of labels. And one day G might find reassurance in the fact that you can keep a secret.
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