Friday, October 7, 2011

R.I.P. to the world's most famous mixed-race adoptee -- Steve Jobs

As most everyone around the world knows by now, Steve Jobs passed away at the age of 56, succumbing to his long-time battle with pancreatic cancer. Quite frankly it’s amazing that he lasted as long as he did. I know his form of pancreatic cancer was an extraordinarily rare form that actually responds to cancer treatment, which is why after his diagnosis in 2004 he has done as well as he had. But I also know that typically a pancreatic cancer diagnosis means that most people die within a year (this was true of a maternal aunt of mine, my cousin’s mother-in-law, and a friend’s mother).

There have been tributes galore to Jobs, heralding him as a technology and taste pioneer—a revolutionary of design—someone who literally changed the way the world interacts with one another. Like many people, I learned about Jobs’ death by reading about it on a Mac device (one of 5 that we own—yes, my household has drunk the Apple kool-aid). And in reading about the many details of Jobs’ life, one that has emerged (or two I suppose) is that he was adopted by two working-class white parents and raised in the Bay Area of California and that his birth parents were graduate students who met in Michigan—his birth mother was a white American woman and his birth father was a Syrian international student.

Which makes Jobs one of the most famous mixed-race American adoptees.

Although I suppose it also begs the question about whether we would consider the child of a Syrian father and white-American mother “mixed-race” – because people from the Middle East, depending on their particular ethnic and national background, identify as “Caucasian” or “Asian” or “African.” None-the-less, the fact that Syrians are claiming Jobs as their own (declaring him the most famous Syrian to have passed in recent memory) means that he is at least seen as Syrian by his ancestral homeland.

But is he Syrian? He was raised in a white household by white parents and by and large seemed to have navigated in a predominantly white world (the nascent diversity of California in the 1970s not-withstanding). By all accounts he did not have a close relationship with his birth parents—he wasn’t really in touch with either one. And I can’t really find anything that suggests that Jobs was curious about his Syrian heritage, at least not curious enough that it would come up on a google search or appear in one of the many obits about his life that have been appearing in every magazine, newspaper, and blog.

I guess what I’m asking is, if race is a social construction—is ethnicity constructed as well? Can you really be Syrian if you were not raised Syrian? And particularly since Jobs, for all intents and purposes, appeared to navigate the world as a white man, is this, indeed what he was?

Of course, like everyone else, Jobs was so much more than just the sum of his race, ethnicity and gender. This is the man who wasn’t afraid to drop out of school and to take courses that appealed to him and to be a perfectionist. Most of all, it’s the words of his commencement address to Stanford University that I think is a great summation of what his life represented: Stay hungry, stay foolish. Great words for all of us to live by.


Balancing Jane said...

Very interesting post! The OED defines ethnicism as "consciousness of or emphasis upon racial and cultural identity." I also looked at the chart on this diffen website looking at the difference between "race" and "ethnicity":

It seems to me like "race" is a grouping defined primarily by external factors and external individuals--that other people group you into a race determined on your exterior features (including physical features (skin color, hair texture) but also the external markers you choose for yourself (clothing, hair style).

On the other hand, "ethnicity" seems to be more internally constructed and internally maintained.

If that's the case, both are socially constructed (thus fluid and dynamic), but the difference lies in who holds the power in placing that construction (the self or the other).

As for Jobs, it would seem like his race is being socially constructed differently by different groups. Some Syrians are constructing his race as the same as theirs while I think most Americans have constructed his race as white.

As for his ethnicity, what you mentioned in your post would imply that he didn't construct his own identity as Syrian, but that's something we really can't determine from the outside looking in, and it is also something that could have been different at different points in his life.

Jennifer said...

Balancing Jane,
Thanks for your comment. I think you are right--we can never know how Jobs may or may not have identified in terms of his "Syrian" heritage--and for some people, fame and fortune seems to be the primary identitarian marker other than race or gender (not to say that they aren't raced or gendered, but I think some folks end up in the "exceptional" category--Michael Jackson comes to mind.

I guess what I thought was interesting was how people in Syria want to claim Jobs as one of their own--but what if Jobs never thought of himself as Syrian--can you be claimed by a people when you don't identify with them?