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What's Your Race?

In my current job as a Medicare sales agent, a job I intend to keep, I blessedly have the ability to lift up the microphone piece on my headset to instantly mute. Even so, I have to merely mouth profanity, as they record everything I say, whether I’m on mute or not. But let me tell you about a new situation that causes me to flip that mic up to mute in milliseconds.

The 2023 Medicare plan applications have added two optional questions: Are you Hispanic/Latino or Spanish origin? Further reinforcing the specialness baked into Cubans’ self-identity, there is a special sub-category for Cuban if you say yes. But I digress. The second question asks What’s your race? It sounds so informal, like asking, How’s it hanging? So inappropriately hip, considering the extremely racist construct of race developed by white colonialism. But I digress again.

Midwesterners of European origin are terminally polite, for the most part. So women in their 70s in Ohio and Wisconsin are leaning away from their phones and asking their daughters, “Linda, what race am I?” The daughters always answer, “White.” (With a tone of voice that implies, “Ma, we are now called white people. Don’t you get that?”) Some of the Medicare applicants are stunned to find out they are white. Other applicants gamely throw out the word ‘Caucasian’, though I am pretty sure they have no real idea what this means, especially in relation to other so-called ‘races.’ Then there is the most comforting of answers, “We’re German,” referring to whatever area of Europe their ancestors are from.

Now I will digress…..Caucasian was a term coined in the 1780s to distinguish what were considered the three racial categories of the time, with Caucasian as top dog. The lesser races were known as Mongoloid (all quote-unquote Asians) and Negroid, the category that has been everyone’s favorite punching bag for centuries. The enslavement of Africans was in full swing at the time. OK, so Negroid, a borrowing of the word for the color black in Spanish, negro - I get that. Mongoloid - apparently related to Mongolia. That’s clear. But why were the people of the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia singled out as having the best human specimens? First of all, it was purported that Noah’s Ark landed in this region after the biblical flood. So God meant these people to survive. Originally, not the color of skin but the shape of the cranium made these beings superior. So there were brown-skinned Caucasians in this originally Germanic pseudo-science. This eventually morphed into light-skinned people only. The only remnant of the former more-encompassing term is the fact that people from the Middle East and Northern Africa are left no category but white to pick on these darn questions. The people who know only that they are Caucasian (possibly to avoid perceived negative connotations of whiteness in “woke” culture) are relying on debunked claims of three biological races begun some 240 years ago. I consider calling yourself Caucasian a copout in the current deconstruction of white supremacy.

I would digress even further if I broke down the United States government-invented term Hispanic. Hispano sounds good in Spanish; i.e., eventually we can trace one of our ancestors back to colonizers from Spain. The word Hispanic is the Nacho Bell Grande of terminology, just as made up and unsavory. When I ask a Black person this question, sometimes I have to reduce the question to Are you Spanish?, which gets the point across as well as anything. (Sort of like referring to ‘the sugar’ as a term for diabetes for a certain generation.) Mostly, those who say they are some type of ‘Hispanic’ are flummoxed by the race question and answer either, I don’t know or Other. Undoubtedly many of these individuals could more properly claim an indigenous heritage to go along with the wayward Spaniards who contributed to their DNA. At present the New World indigenous category is entitled American Indian or Alaska Native. So-called ‘white’ Latinos may have been raised to consider themselves superior to African diaspora people from their country. Ah, the can of worms we create/When we try to classify hate!

When I speak with a Black or African American individual, most pause for a moment, reflecting the current confusion about terminology that bedevils the racial conversation. Most say Black, a few say African American with certainty, and others say, “Black…African American.”

Ironically very few people pick the option of I choose not to answer on either question. Mic firmly in the mute position immediately after asking each question, I spare them my sighs or sharp intake of breath or desire to editorialize. No one is monitoring the rolling of eyes that these questions invariably elicit in me, thank God.

I am very disappointed that the Medicare Advantage or Prescription Drug plan applications have chosen to prolong the antiquated systems of classification put into place by the US government years ago. I am appalled by what they may do with the information, once gathered. If any of you run across these questions, I would encourage you not to answer them, unless you see some inherent benefit in knowing who relies on these programs. The continuing strategy of fitting a round peg in a nefarious square hole sickens me. In my opinion, it detracts from honest attempts to dismantle white supremacy with more fruitful discussions about what divide and connect us as people.

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