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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Tuesday, February 27

Gapers Block

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SUNDAY, 8:37am
I woke up wondering about the ampersand, you guys. Seriously. Its etymology. Its proper usage. Its most agreed upon definition. To me — and I'm guessing to many of you — the ampersand has always been a quick symbol used to save on keystrokes when typing, or a shortcut when writing by hand. Shortcuts are a funny thing, though, making me wonder if I've missed out on the good stuff that only taking the long way might reveal. Have I been ampersanding life? Or even people?

9:45 de la Mañana

We already know that "&" is a symbolic abbreviation for the word "and." But what I didn't know was that the symbolic abbreviation itself was once recognized as the 27th letter of the Latin alphabet, while the name ampersand comes from the words "and per se and." According to Encyclopedia Britannica, an eighth century rendition of the alphabet could have gone something like, "X, Y, Z and per se and." From what I gather, that last bit was routinely slurred into "ampersand."


Now, if you've got even a drop of xenophobia in your blood, stop now. You might get sick when you read that the symbolic interpretation of the ampersand is a stylized version of the French word et, meaning "and." Most importantly, European calligraphers were making extensive use of the ampersand because condensing or shortening the word into a single character made their work that much easier.

[Wenner's brain twists and turns, creating new synapses]


Here's where I started to think that this notion of being condensed or shortened into a single character to make things easier is not limited to the words 'and per se and.' It began to intrigue me as a possible metaphor for my own experience with race in the US; being forced to condense my character into a category, making it easier for someone else to identify me.

• American Indian or Alaska Native

• Asian

• Black or African American

• Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander

• White

• Some Other Race

It turns out that these are the revised and approved racial categories of the 2000 US census survey as outlined by the United States Census Bureau (USCB) and the Federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In addition to these race or races, if completing the survey, respondents were asked to "categorize themselves by membership into one of two ethnicities: Hispanic or Latino, and Not Hispanic or Latino." Race and ethnicity are considered two separate concepts in this construct, and that's what most Americans accept and spread to the rest of world. Disconcerting, right? I kind of feel they too short and narrow a view of race for the world to adopt.


I'm hungry, but I've sort of filled up on the idea that in order to talk about race and ethnicity, it's important that you and I have some official understanding of how they're being defined. However, I would like to caveat the possibility that the definition of race may differ among Adventurers/Explorers, Anthropologists, Biologists, Cartographers, Cultural sociologists/Sociologists, Economists, Ethnographers, Genealogists, Geographers, Historians, Humanitarians, Musicologists, Photographers, Political Scientists, Scientists and the U.S. Federal Government. For the purposes of this Ma Verité entry, let's stick to the U.S. Federal Government, i.e., the USCB, who define race and ethnicity as "self-identification data items in which residents choose the race or races with which they most closely identify."

That rather plucks my nerves, you guys. Why? Because the USCB's "chicken or the egg" definition seems to disregard the possibility (or insidiously rely on the possibility) that one's self-identification or race-based identity could be the result of what Executive Editor Gary Kamiya calls "identity-distorting effects of dominance," especially if the dominant culture has historically discriminated against or treated a particular race as inferior (e.g. Blacks who were enslaved and American Indians who were massacred or displaced). And yes, this self-identification can be propagated within a racial group when they're forced to attribute certain characteristics, interests, and beliefs as proof and validation of identity. Which, consequently, leads to stereotypes (e.g. listening to black interest radio = being Black; above average performance in mathematics = Asian; Speaking proper English = White) and contributes to bigotry.

[Wenner's mind twists and turns s'more. another deep dig about "Asian, "Black," or "White" identity in America may have to be explored; take note of quotation marks, for now.]

I work in advertising and completely understand the need for racial and ethnic demographics to segment and target an audience. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with using race-based identities or ethno-geographic labels to designate people. It's sometimes helpful to be seen as a Haitian Black male between the age of 25 and 35 in McDonald's spreadsheets. But I'm in agreement with anthropologist Dr. George W. Gill, who is concerned that the continued use of racial/ethno-geographic labels in political or "social situations where people think they have some meaning" can be dangerous.

It's hovering around 2pm about now and I'm tired. But all this digging is good for me, and maybe for you, too. Remember what I said about taking shortcuts? Well, restricting humans to abbreviated categories means we're missing out on a whole lot of good stuff about people — Asian, Black, White or Some Other Race. Even if it means taking the long way to recognize them as individuals, I don't feel like ampersanding other humans — or myself — anymore.

Do you?


About the Author(s)

Wenner Exius believes voting booths should be open on weekends, thinks Santa Claus lives somewhere in the Midwest, and wishes Hollywood would remake bad movies — not good ones. This first-generation Haitian-American Pilsen resident is a copywriter, fipple flautist, and assistant gamekeeper.

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