Monday, January 26, 2004

Race Vs. Place

What makes someone an African-American? Is it their skin color, or their birth geography?

At a high school in Omaha, some students nominated Trevor Richards for the "Distinguished African-American Student" award, which is presented annually on Martin Luther King Day. Those kids, and Trevor, were suspended from school because their posters and petitions caused a commotion.

The problem? Trevor is white -- but he is African-American. He and his family moved to the US six years ago from Johannesburg, South Africa, where he was born. So, technically, he's African-American.

But the school says he's ineligible for the award because he's not black. Now there's a legal distinction that wouldn't hold up in court. I'm not saying that Charlize Theron (another South Africa native) has to be given an NAACP Image Award, but this white kid is more African-American than the US-born black kids in the school, isn't he?

I have never referred to myself as a Russian-American, even though I have ancestors who came from there (just ahead of the Cossacks, in at least one case), but I know plenty of people who invoke their family lineage to boast of being Italian-American, Irish-American, etc. Doesn't matter if their great-great-grandparents got off the boat a hundred years ago, that's what they'll always be. Perhaps it's an attempt to join the melting pot while retaining your original flavor and texture.

Funny that there don't seem to be any Canadian-Americans. Michael J. Fox, Paul Shaffer, and Peter Jennings don't use their heritage to identify themselves. Why is that?

Ironically, every one of these groups puts "American" last. As Russell Means once pointed out to me, the only ethnic group that puts "American" first are the American-Indians. They're the ones who weren't all that thrilled to see those boatloads of immigrants in the first place.