Monday, July 07, 2008

Conversation Recap for July 6, 2008

We met on Tacoma’s Ruston waterfront, about 200 meters West of the Fireboat on display. A bit more than a dozen of us assembled with much good food, and the weather cooperated.

During check-in we were informed that the Washington State Historical Museum will open an exhibit on Civil Rights in Tacoma, on August 18.

The topic today was national identity, and two people brought flags to display, many of them hand made.

We saw several approaches to the idea of national identity. One frequently used was to conceive of where one’s ancestors are from, in terms of nation states. Some pointed out the shaky foundations of such concepts, as in the case of a Mexican-American whose family stayed in the same place while borders shifted.

We also visited, several times, the idea of whiteness as a blended construct which is part of US nationalism. At times, the “normal” category, as one participant referred to it, does not get marked out as an identity. Over time, whiteness has consisted of many things—color, religion, behavior, consumption patterns, and more.

More than one participant shared stories that suggested historical memory is not a strong suit in the US. Most folks, at one time or another, have run into reminders that we don’t know the history of various groups.

One participant offered a simile of ethnicity as a sort of cafeteria, where many people get to select which identification they prefer. And, some get the identification applied by others. We seemed to agree that the choice in the matter increased with degree to which one appears to be white.

And, there were tales of family secrets of identity, like German backgrounds in the mid 20th century.

One participant noted that nationalism is a modern and rather odd idea, that no one saw it coming, and that some recent scholarship describes it as essentially a religious affiliation.

We discussed components of national identity in the US. One participant speculated that many constructions of ancestry rely on questionable assumptions about their forbearers’ fidelity.

We witnessed a couple of examples of flag desecration in the garments worn by passers by.

We were reminded of the geneticist Spencer Wells, whose book The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey summarizes a widely shared conclusion—that all humans are descended from a person or persons who lived in Africa about 31,000 to 79,000 years ago, and that there is more genetic variation between individual members of a single “racial” group than there is across groups. The discussion moved to consider the differences we note between humans as largely ideological, yet primate biologists usually dispute this.

Several participants described a desire to deemphasize nationalism.

Several participants mentioned the Census, and for a time we discussed the use of “race” in this national account of who we are. We were reminded that the categories applied by the Census have changed over time—in the mid-19th century, people were classified as white, black or mulatto; in the later part of that century the Census added American Indians (those taxed—recall Article I Section 2 of the Constitution), Chinese and Japanese to the list. One census (1890) included “Quadroons and Octoroons.” One (1930) used “Mexican” as a racial category. (See a brief historical overview, from which much of the above was lifted, at The two questions in the 2000 census (the first asking if a person is “Spanish/Hispanic/Latino” and the second asking if a person is one of 14 categories, including “other.” In addition, our laws over the years have recognized different sets of rights based on such classifications. After the abolition of slavery, state laws mandated segregation, limited property ownership and political rights, and proscribed marriage between whites and others.

The Census categories reflected a national conflation of the concepts of race and ethnicity. In this regard one may consult the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) response to the categories used in the 2000 Census, which they generally approved of as a step in the direction of abandoning the use of “race” as a category in the 2010 census. (See it at The AAA regards race as an idea created as part of the wave of Western European encounters with other peoples beginning in the late 15th century, and which was part of an understanding of differences among humans as somehow essential and closely tied to racist interpretations of human morphology and behavior.

For a short time we discussed the Cherokee Freedmen controversy (see the wikipedia page on it, at