Last summer I did a statistical analysis of my Facebook friends and wrote two posts about it. I was going to dedicate the third post to the racial and ethnic make-up of my online friends, but got writer’s block at the magnitude of the task of writing about race.
Do I outline a short history of how race has been defined? And from who’s perspective? Should I approach it as a purely statistical exercise? Or should I deconstruct it nice and easy?
So this is what I’ve decided to do. First, I’ll write about my observations on how race and ethnicity are defined in each of the three countries that I’ve lived in. I’ll be focusing on how race and ethnicity is defined officially, by the government, and colloquially on the streets. Then I’ll compare the demographics of my Facebook friends to the US and world populations.
In Japan, instead of race and ethnicity, people are largely categorized into nationalities. So even Blacks and Asians from the US are just known as Americans. Generally, things are simplified even further into Japanese and foreigner. This is probably because the number of non-Japanese citizens is less than 1% of the population, and the vast majority live in and around Tokyo.
The largest non-Japanese group are the Koreans. They number about a million, but about a third of them have assimilated by adopting Japanese names and becoming citizens. And even though I’m ethnically Korean, most Japanese just consider me American, and that’s that. It’s doesn’t get much deeper and people don’t put much thought into it.
So Japanese constructions of race are not useful for my analysis, since I’ve already discussed the nationalities of my Facebook friends.
Britishisms and Americanitry
In contrast to Japan, things are considerably more complex in the UK and the US. Though both are rich multicultural countries, they have significantly different ways of constructing race and ethnicity.
Who Is Asian?
By far the largest non-white group in the UK are South Asians, people from around the Indian subcontinent. So “Asian” almost always refers to South Asians. The term does not apply to East Asians or Middle Easterners. On forms, “Asian” is further separated into a long list of subcategories of Indian, Bengali, Pakistani, etc.
The reverse is true in the US. When people say “Asian” they generally mean East and Southeast Asians. And when filling out forms, there are many subcategories to choose from, ranging from Filipinos (the most numerous) to Hmong (members of a Laotian tribe). And South Asians are just lumped together as Indians.
In the UK, East Asians are colloquially called Orientals, which is considered a slur in the US. Or we’re just referred to as “Chinese”. On questionnaires, the only choices for East Asians is “Chinese or other”. I guess that by “or other” they meant Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and so on. I had to laugh at the laziness of that so I just left this field blank.
In British questionnaires, blacks are separated into East Africans, Caribbean, West African, South African. And Caribbean Blacks are further delineated by country, Jamaica and Barbados for instance.
The US census, on the other hand, just groups them all together. So someone like Colin Powell (who had immigrant parents from Jamaica and who would be considered white there), Barack Obama (who is half white and half Kenyan), and Michelle Obama (whose West African ancestors had lived in the US for generations) are all considered one race.
Shades of White.
Similarly, the US has an all-encompassing category for White. If you’re Arab, Egyptian or Iranian, you’d check off the box for White. Italian or Finnish? White. Except if you’re from Mexico or any Central or South American country then you are officially Hispanic. Unless you have any African ancestry, then you’re with the Obamas.
On UK forms, White was also an all-encompassing category. But it did not include Irish. They were ghettoized into their own little box to check off.
All this is further muddled by the fact that a third of American Whites have African ancestry and two-thirds of African-Americans have European ancestry.
So all this shows you that definitions of race are fluid, changes from place to place and is sometimes arbitrary. The purpose of checking off the race box in official forms is for governments to keep track of potential discrimination. That’s why the Irish, long treated as second-class citizens in Britain, have their own category. And it’s also why if you have any kind of visible African ancestry in the US, you are considered Black, because historically, no matter what shade of black or brown, you were treated the same, which is to say, miserably.
While it’s useful information for tracking possible discriminatory practices, checking off a box about your race also reinforces those differences, for better or for worse.
What Color Are Your Facebook Friends?
In the end, I decided to go with the categories of race and ethnicity I grew up with, which is the US style, circa 1990s. I say circa 1990s because when I checked the most recent US census form I realized that even what I’m about to present to you is horribly out of date. For instance, Pacific Islanders are no longer grouped with Asians. And Hispanic is considered a linguistic ethnicity, no longer a race.
Asians make up 20.9% of my Facebook friends. This is way more than the 5% of the US population. But much less than the world population of Asians (60%). Most of these are East Asians (14.7%) and most of them are Japanese. Since I live in Japan, this is a rather low number.
59.7% of my Facebook friends are White. This is pretty much in line with the US population of 66% Whites, but is much much higher than world numbers at 16%. If you include the 1.6% of my Middle Eastern friends, and the 5.4% of my Jewish friends, that number is bumped up to 66.7%.
There is no category for Jews in the US census, but it is a group that is strongly identified in American race-consciousness so I include it here. That 5.4% is much higher than the US number of 2%, and way higher than global numbers (0.2%). Jews are generally concentrated in large cities on the coasts of the US, where I grew up, so that would account for the high percentage. Other contributing factors are that Jews are well-represented in the arts and in higher education, two circles I travel in.
According to the most recent US estimates, Blacks total 14% of the population and the same figure seems to hold for the world as well. Yet among my fellow Facebookers, Blacks are a paltry 4.7%.
The easiest explanation for this low number is that apart from my early childhood, I’ve spent most of my life in white California suburbs and in the Pacific Northwest, the region with the lowest number of Blacks and people of color in general. Another explanation is that a lot of my African-American friends don’t use Facebook, instead favoring Myspace. And my African friends don’t frequent social networking sites.
Also surprising is the number of my Hispanic Facebook friends. At under 6% it’s curiously low compared to the 15% in the general US public, but closer to my global population estimate at 8%. All the same reasons outlined in the previous paragraph may apply.
Another important racial category in the US is Native Americans. Although numbers in the general population is low, just 1-2%, this is probably the most diverse group, including Polynesians, Inuits and Hopi. Among my Facebook friends, they can be counted on one hand.
It’s also important to mention that quite a few of my friends identify as bi- or multi-racial. They number about 5%.
The results surprised me a little. I expected more people of color since I fancy myself a worldly person. But the fact remains, I am a product of my circumstances and the the racial ratios illustrate that. Yet that’s only half the story. As I’ve examined in my previous posts about my Facebook friends, the numbers are skewed towards those who actually can and do sign up for Facebook.
Finally, the problem with quantifying my community is that the parade of numbers masks the individuality of my friends. For instance, the 60% of my friends who are White ranges from a muslim Serb who is busily rebuilding his country to a midwife in Oregon to a teacher in Mexico. Those three have very little in common. So let the numbers illuminate what they can, so long as we recognize it gets more interesting at the individual level.
For more analysis of my Facebook friends, check out: