I Am Caucasian Ethnically, But Not Racially
When I first arrived in the U.S. from Russia ten years ago, local racial practices were part of the cultural shock I experienced while encountering the American civilization. Soon I acquired my own racial identity and later, it shifted. I discovered how identity changes in time and space. How unique is the experience of a new immigrant in this country of immigrants? My story certainly stands out from mainstream discussions in the media. But from different perspectives, my experience confirms that racial identity is a socially constructed and shifting issue.
From the very beginning, partly out of academic curiosity, being a cultural anthropologist by training, but mostly in order to fit into society through a better understanding of the American worldview, I conducted a personal experiment.
I use a small informal test every time I introduce myself to an American. Because of my accent, the first question everybody asks me is inevitably the same, “Where are you from?” To that question, I deliberately answer, “I’m Caucasian.” After observing that my answer never fails to confuse my new American friends, I switch from anthropology to geography and add, “I’m from the Caucasus.” My colleagues, specialists on Russia, know where the Caucasus is. Most people without a degree in international relations, however, ask me to show it on the map. The term “Caucasian” originated from an 18-century theory that people from the Caucasus were the “purest” representatives of that race.
My new friends identify me as racially Caucasian, which equals to white. That is why they are confused when I clarify such an “obvious” fact.
Nobody could be more Caucasian than I was, just for the simple reason that I was born in the Caucasus. But I didn’t quite feel so “pure” because of my black hair and brown eyes. Caucasian-Americans praise themselves for being blond and blue-eyed. My new identity, however, is definitely in contrast with my previous experience at home in Russia, where ethnic Russians consider ethnic Caucasians as a minority group and treat them as such.
I didn’t enjoy being a “pure” Caucasian for too long, though. My racial identity shifted, this time, thanks to a different test. One day I met an American who became more than a new friend to me — not the least because of her beautiful blue eyes. Soon, we started family planning, and my new fiancée offered to go through a routine genetic test. When discussing the test results, I was not very focused on understanding the complicated medical terminology, and I don’t remember the exact reason why the doctor mentioned that I was not a Caucasian by race.
“Waite a minute,” I instantly engaged in the conversation. “What do you mean I’m not Caucasian? Who am I then?” The doctor explained, “You’re of Mediterranean race that originated from southern Europe.” That explanation made perfect sense, because the Caucasus was situated by the Black Sea, the eastern part of the Mediterranean Basin, and historically had closer ties with Italy and Greece. “What race does my fiancée belong to, then?” “She’s Caucasian, her ancestors came from northern Europe,” the doctor said.
Since then, I always look for a “Mediterranean race” option every time I fill out my tax forms and other U.S. documents. I never find it, though, and have to identify myself as Caucasian. I know it is partly true, anyway, because I am Caucasian ethnically, though not by race.
My mixed racial experience and my ethnic background help me to see more shades of identity than presented in the ongoing debates in the mainstream media. It reminds me how a Russian artist, another immigrant like me, once told me, “In contrast with Russia, you’ll find that America offers much diversity, even in terms of color, just look at the people of different races on the streets.” And I imagined how many shades of human skin my Russian friend would enjoy noticing, with his artistic eyes trained in a white-majority country where even the minorities were whites.