Race, Culture, and Ethnicity in America: Checking Boxes and Switching Codes

In many ways race is about difference and how those differences are codified through language, categories, boxes, segmentation, and even the implicit sorting that goes on in our heads in terms of the way we label others and even ourselves.

—Michele Norris, The Race Card Project

Here’s Proof

The results from the 2010 US Census include six single-race and 57 multiple-race groups.

This month’s issue of National Geographic marks the magazine’s 125th anniversary. That’s quite an accomplishment, and it represents thousands and thousands of pages of amazing photographs and stories. But National Geographic has more to share, and last month it opened up a new avenue: Proof, a blog “launched to engage ongoing conversations about photography, art, and journalism.”

Proof‘s first post is “Visualizing Race, Identity, and Change.” It features photographic portraits by Martin Schoeller (I wouldn’t have recognized that name before writing my last post) and discusses the dilemma faced by so many multi-racial Americans who find it difficult or impossible to check only one box on the census.

The post is a companion piece to a feature article in National Geographic, entitled “Changing Faces.” It’s written by Michele Norris, host and special correspondent for NPR, and curator of The Race Card Project, a site that collects views on the topic of race, all expressed in sentences of only six words. And you thought Tweets were short and to the point.

Of course, quite a few of the boxes were checked in the 2010 Census, and the results show a multi-colored collage of racial diversity across the American landscape. You can see that collage at The Racial Dot Map, created by Dustin Cable of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. With one dot per person, the zoomed-out map shows a blending of colors representing the five categories of White, Black, Asian, Hispanic, and Other/Multi-Racial. But by zooming in, you can see the distinct contrasts at the neighborhood level, both intermixed and segregated.

Speaking in Code

NPR has started a new blog this year, too. It’s on race, ethnicity, and culture.

“Remember,” write the blog’s authors, “when folks used to talk about being ‘post-racial’?”

Well, we’re definitely not that. We’re a team of journalists fascinated by the overlapping themes of race, ethnicity and culture, how they play out in our lives and communities, and how all of this is shifting.

They call the blog Code Switching. In linguistics, code switching is when a multi-lingual speaker switches between languages within a conversation. More loosely defined, it can also include moving from one dialect, set of vocabulary, accent, or speaking style to another because of a number of factors, such as setting, relationship to the listener, and expectations.

Imagine that the doorbell rings. You answer the door and see that it’s your boss at the ad agency or your grandmother from Mexico or your childhood friend from the city or your ESL student or an acquaintance from the gym or a policeman. How might you talk differently to each of them? We all do it to one extent or another. But it’s an even bigger factor for those who move between races and cultures.

Gene Demby, host of the blog, calls this movement “hop-scotching between different cultural and linguistic spaces and different parts of our own identities.” Code Switching goes well beyond just methods of expression. It also covers news, info, and opinions on race relations and cultural interaction within America’s borders.

One of the things I like about Code Switching is its broad range of topics, from pop culture—”Why Black Heroes Make Zombie Stories More Interesting“—to historical—”The History of How a Shogun’s Boat Made Lincoln a ‘Tycoon’“—to current issues—”It Takes a Classroom to Learn the Family Language.” When it comes to race, culture, and ethnicity in America, they’re covering it all.

If only the staff here at Clearing Customs had the resources of NPR.

(Michele Norris, “Visualizing Race, Identity, and Change,” Proof, September 17, 2013)

[photo: “Question#9—Multiracial ID’s,” by Spot.us, used under a Creative Commons license]


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