This week a new Biz Oregon Director was announced. Sophorn Cheang is from Cambodia and fair skinned. I assume she is 100% Cambodian nationality. 100% – that’s an easy criteria for defining nationality. Is color also a way of defining black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)? Color and ancestry are very complex criteria but many decisions are being made today to select “people of color”. How do you differentiate BIPOC from the rest of the population?
My ancestry presents an example of the complexity. My mother is 100% Guyanese. According to National Geographic and other media, Guyana is one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. I was born in the United States, 10 months after my mother flew to the United States with my father, a US Air Force Officer, to get married in Appleton, Wisconsin. They left there when I was 6 months old, and moved back to Geogetown, British Guiana (now Guyana). My sister and brother were both born there and have dual citizenship. I went to school in BG, to the Ursuline Convent, from ages 3-6, then we moved back to Wisconsin.
My mother was one of 11 children, one of the fairest skinned in the family. Her siblings, my aunts and uncles, represent the whole spectrum of colors. From dark East Indian and indigenous Amerindian and all shades in between. My family have been in BG and the West Indies for at least hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. My Uncle Allie (actually Great-Uncle) has been called the “Ghandi of the West Indies”. He is described as “colored” in his biographies, and self-described as “colored” in articles about and by him.
Am I white because I look fair-skinned? I am half West Indian, with ancestors also from Trinidad, Tobago, and the Amazon Valley. My 6-year old grandson saw a picture of me on my first day of school in the United States. In surprise he said, “Gramma, you used to be a brown person!” He thought that was cool!
So, what is the criteria for labeling and selecting BIPOCs? Is it by color – dark versus light? This is a very multi-colored world and getting more so every decade. Is it by ancestry? These are complex distinctions, unless you use 100%. Let’s not rush to make decisions or changes without having clear criteria! It will get more difficult with every passing decade. Is it by birth? Should the opportunities to right previous wrongs be decided by country of birth? But many people born in South and Central America are 100% Caucasian ancestry.
Every time I fill out an application with a question on “Race”, I pause. In the past, I automatically answered “Caucasian” because I had to make a choice. It was safer to say “Caucasian,” and I can “Pass”. I wasn’t comfortable doing that because I didn’t feel I was being totally honest about my ancestry. And, there wasn’t a box in the past for “Mixed”.
Many of my first cousins, with the same ancestral composition as I, cannot. I have heard some very sad stories from my cousins who tried, with bad results. It isn’t fair; it was just “luck of the draw”. They came out a different color from me. I am of 13 different ancestries, many of them non-“white”.
So should decisions be made on darkness or lightness of appearance? Is that appropriate or fair? I have wondered my entire life, especially when faced with filling out an application. Where is the dividing line? Now I wonder even more with this increasingly ubiquitous question of BIPOC. How do we decide? What is “fair”?