One of the oddest questions I have to ask when I am preparing adoption petitions or processing divorces is how people identify in terms of religious heritage, race, or ethnicity. The Court requires this information — but it is always more than a little awkward to ask. After all, why should it matter? But it is interesting to hear how clients respond. Some answer quickly, indicating that they have a clearly defined identity, while others respond as though they are thinking about it for the first time.
My grandparents and great-grandparents came over on boats from Russia in the late 1800s or early 1900s. They all lived on the Lower East Side, or in Brooklyn. There were only certain places Eastern European Jews would live then.
When I was growing up, options had opened up somewhat, but we were more connected to our roots. We knew our food, our language, our holidays, our idioms. We knew which neighborhoods were Jewish, or Italian, or Irish, or African American. Yet our schools and workplaces were more diverse, we had more contact with people of different cultures.
One of the delights of my childhood was being invited to Christmas or Easter dinner with friends who were Greek, or Italian, or African American. Like my family’s gatherings, we talked about food, about celebrities, about what was going on in politics. Their parents, like mine, worried about whether we kids were safe, about whether we were doing well in school, about our futures. I learned that, no matter how different we might seem on the outside, there was so much about our families that was so much the same.
I thought about this recently when I was in a workshop with Mutima Imani who asked us to answer the question, “Whose blood runs through your veins?” And then again when reading a New York Times story about how DNA testing can change your view of yourself, in an article called, “Sigrid Johnson Was Black: A DNA Test Said She Wasn’t.”
Whose blood runs through your veins?
How do our ancestors’ world views affect us? How do their experiences affect us? We are shaped by how we see ourselves, and by how others perceive us.
What defines us? What, really, is ethnicity? What is race?
Who is our “we”?