What It Means To Be Human: Race And Choice

by Vanessa Raney

October 20, 2003


Don't know why, but I choose to see human beings. Maybe I see other things, too, but later, if I've had a conversation with someone, I remember more about what was said than the person with whom I spoke. Okay, so my ears vibe at the variation of how the things were said: the proud stresses of the Bostonian, the sibilant echoes of the African, the brogue of the Scot, etc.

I might also notice oddities, or particularities. Like the way the young Turkish guys who live in my apartment complex isolate themselves from other people. Or how the girl in one of my classes calls herself Korean, but in fact is American: American in her indoctrination into American culture, in her conformation into American education, (1) and especially in the absence of an accent that belies English as her secondary language.

I have problems, as well, with the PC use of the terms African American, Mexican American, anything American. It might be because I've recently taken to traveling to conferences to present papers that I begin to understand more clearly what it means to be of different cultures, or places. There is a character in one place -- like Claremont, California -- that is different from another place -- like Fargo, North Dakota.

There is a difference, too, between the culture of America and that of, say, Africa. The differences are in their respective ideologies, their traditions and expectations, their needs and wants, their systems of education, their familial structures. And it's not to say that one culture is better, or advantaged over, the other culture. But it's entirely something else to claim the other culture in the rubric of the first, to say that I am this when my experiences dictate otherwise.

It's one thing to be African, and to know and appreciate what it means to be African, and quite another to say that because I can trace my line to Africa I, too, am African. If a person is born in America, grows up in American foundations, takes part in American culture (verbally, etc.), that person is American -- no matter how much he or she might want to be African, even if his or her parents were themselves African. You can no more be African without knowing Africa than you can be a trapeze artist without knowing if you can take on the air.

To be African, to be American, is to appreciate what Africa is, what America is, to take part systemically in the culture of Africa, of America, to understand what the concepts family, politics and church mean to Africans, to Americans, to be removed from the constraints of American culture (to know African culture), of African culture (to know American culture). You can no more level criticisms or assign the facet of something without being a part of that something. I also can't look at a person of black skin, white skin, brown skin, and say I know what the person is and how he or she came to be with me at a particular time.

I can only see a human being with whom I can learn. By learning I mean everything it implies: someone I can challenge -- who can challenge me, someone I can become invested in -- who can invest in me, someone I can be true with -- who can be true with me. And what is truth? Truth is knowing that what you are -- however you may be -- is what anyone can see without having to dig so hard into you that you break. Truth is knowing that we're all human beings, that we will make mistakes, that we will feel whatever we feel, that we will act in a moment how we will act, and that it doesn't matter what we do, we are still human beings.

In other words, I can't be any less of what I am with one person as I am with another person. To be anything less is to lie, to be disrespectful. And knowing that means I accept what one does or how one acts. I don't have to agree with the actions one takes, which allows me the option to do something -- but it doesn't make the person any less in my eyes. Depending on what that person does, I may lose respect for him or her as a person of less character, perhaps, but I can't at any point lose total respect. At the base of my respect is the respect for the humanity I see in other people.

That we are all human beings has value for me, and that's what I choose to see. I don't know how I came to choose this view of people; surely sometime when I was young. Maybe it was growing up with people of diverse backgrounds, or maybe it was that I didn't notice if my teachers made something of race (and I think I'd be more likely to remember if a teacher had, as negative experiences hold longer generally than positive experiences). I also don't know how I came to believe that actions say more about a person than words.

I could take the time to find out, I suppose, but I've thought so much about what it means to be human that I don't know if I need to go back to earlier times. I think being human is enough for me. I think it's enough for me to know what human is, and enough to know that I accept human beings as is. What more is there in a world if not the connections between things -- with ourselves, with nature, with the things (among them, people) around us? If you knew me, you'd see how open I am, but you wouldn't necessarily see how I came to be open.

I didn't always, for example, say "hi" to people as I passed them. I learned to do so by seeing other people do it, twice in fact. Then I thought about it -- and I thought it was a good thing -- so I started doing it. And then recently someone said to me, "I admire you." And I can't accept that. There's nothing to admire about me; I am what I am, in part from observing what other people were doing. So I begin to think about how I got here.

Then I realize that it's choice. We make choices for what we do. We can choose to isolate ourselves from other people. We can choose to deny who we are (and take the advantages for doing so). We can deny other people on the basis of whatever creed we choose (ideas, positions, national origin, color, etc.). We can ignore who we are and lie. We can refuse to see our own privileges. We can choose to be blind. Or we can choose happiness. Happiness to me is the absence of regret. Why regret the things we do if we can't change them? We can learn, though. We can see the examples of other people, reflect on them, and take what we think is good. I choose to see you for you. What do you see?



1.  The word conformity is intended; conformity as a system of language, social expectations, etc.  (back)

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Poetry on Swans


Vanessa Raney is a graduate student in History at Claremont Graduate University. Her poetry has recently appeared in American Western Magazine (online), Quirk, Asphyxia Digest, WireTap Magazine (online), The Bayou Review, and The Thing Itself.

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Published October 20, 2003
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