Of Race and Racism

Earlier tonight a Upeace student performed a series of monologues on campus which she has been doing for a few years, called “Mixed”.

Here is a link to a segment of it, for context.

It’s about the external ascription and self assertion of race and ethnicity from the perspective of people who blur labeling and bend stereotypical ideas.  First I want to comment that it was extremely informative, enriching and entertaining (I completely lost it at the use of the antiquated and ridiculous term “quadroon”).

My interpretation of the piece’s central theme was the irrelevance and the imaginary nature of an idea of “race”, and it’s inspired me to write down my thoughts and arguments about race as they have been for many years.

Pre Factum Qualification

Obviously ethnicity has physiological implications.  Our immediate genetic derivations of course have impacts on our physical appearances, vis-a-vis complexion, countenance, et cetera.  And of course our cultural surroundings have profound impacts on our attitudes, beliefs and understandings.  But culture and ethnicity are entirely different from “race”, which is what I want to talk about, or “racism”, the prejudicial ideas some people draw based on perceptions of ethnicity and culture.  Distinctions of ethnicity and culture are relevant  and important for diversity, but they have absolutely no bearing on conceptual divisiveness within the one human race or homo sapiens sapiens.

Ideas of “race” really don’t trace back very far.  As far as my research has yielded, these notions of biological “othering” and division within an idea of one human race do not appear in antiquity whatsoever, not in Egyptian, Greek, Roman or medieval texts.  Even in primary sources regarding the Crusades, I have never encountered a reference to the concept.

The word itself comes from the Italian word “razza”, first used to differentiate between flavours of wine.  It was not applied to people in a divisive sense until 1774, with ideas of “racialness” only appearing in 1862.  To the best of my understanding, the reason for the construction of the idea that some groups of people are so fundamentally different from others that they are a different species or race, is due to the imperative of dehumanization or “othering” to facilitate colonial genocide in the context of democratic and humanist contradictions.  Compulsions for wealth and power are all well and good for ruling elites, but when these things don’t benefit armies and general populations, you need to find alternative justifications for sending them to massacre the defenseless.

In this short video, Edward James Olmos articulates the point I’m trying to make pretty concisely.

The evidence is overwhelming that ethnicity and culture have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on things like intelligence, personality or disposition, yet I think it’s safe to say that majorities in most territories and nations still cling to these antiquated ideas.  And to some extent it’s forgivable; we’ve only been committing efforts and resources to understand and debunk these centuries-old myths through anthropology, sociology, psychology and sociobiology for a few decades, and we’re talking about ideas which have been sunk into our collective consciousness for many generations.

Similarly, when Cristobal Colon (or whatever his real name really was, he had like 700 of them) empirically disproved the ruling paradigm that the world was flat, it took a while for the idea to really sink in, for people to understand it.  And that was a very simple myth, with a very simple and entirely incontestable rebuttal.  With the idea of race we have a relatively complicated myth with a relatively complicated but no less entirely incontestable rebuttal.  Even today the Flat Earth Society continues to argue that the world is flat, and even today billions of people continue to think in racial terms.  Forgivable, but not acceptable.

That there is roughly equal evidence supporting the theory that the earth is flat as there is supporting the theory that ethnicity is a meaningful determinant of any kind, should bring us to a logical and obvious conclusion.  We need to start treating  attitudes which fathom the idea of race the same as we would attitudes which fathom the idea of a flat earth.  If you can read this, you are almost certainly a homo sapiens sapiens, or Cro Magnus human.  As such, you and I and everyone else falling under this classification come from Africa, specifically the Afrar/Great Rift region of Ethiopia, as far as modern science has been able to determine, with a relatively tiny number of generations in between which have played a role in our physiological and cultural development.

I hope that this has been quite clear in how ideas, ideologies and attitudes about race are founded in cognitive dissonance and ignorance, carry-overs from an epoch of deliberate misinformation.  Race exists in the world exclusively as an imaginary idea, and ideas hold only the power we give them.

Would you dignify an argument for a flat earth by engaging it?

My prescription is to pay the same heed to racists as you would to flat earthists: smile, nod, and walk away.

Post Factum Qualification

There are many, many situations and circumstances wherein the arguments I’m making would probably seem heartless, or even blindly naïve.  In genocidal situations, for example, such as in the cases of Rwanda, Israel/Lebanon/Palestine, the Holocaust, Guatemala, et cetera and other cases where leaders and policy makers use racial ideas to mobilize armies such as in the cases of East Timor or Bosnia, it’s a bitter pill to swallow that the victims of these blind campaigns of racially-facilitated violence could or should simply ignore the ideas, ideologies and attitudes that are driving machetes and bullets toward them and their families.

But consider this: ideas about race are almost never factors in the motivations of these leaders and policy makers; they are frameworks used to control and justify populations.  It’s obvious that the defenseless person being set upon by a hate-fueled mob is a victim of violence, and it’s important for us to understand this.  I would argue however that it is even more important for us to understand that the hate-fueled mobs are victims of coercion and manipulation.

In parts of the world where racial ideas, ideologies and attitudes are still used as justifications and facilitating frameworks for violence, which by the way are diminishing in number and not increasing, obviously education and campaigns for awareness are important.  What I’m talking about here is the most appropriate and useful position to take on these attitudes and ideas in a broader, global context.

Love in MLK.  Pura vida.

Published in: on 19 February 2010 at 8:56 pm  Comments (1)  

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