Thursday, February 12, 2009


Okay, so for one of my classes, I'm supposed to have been engaging in dialogue over the internet about a "justice issue." I picked racism. And I've been following some facebook page on the topic, though I've only contributed a couple comments.

I've been finding that facebook is a bit superficial for my taste, so I'm hoping maybe I can get some dialogue going here on the blogosphere. That means, I will be most grateful to people who comment on anything I write about racism. And I will be even more grateful for "pingbacks" in any blog entry which may be inspired by things that I've written ...

Anyway, who knows if this will work at all, but here goes.

I picked racism as a topic because I have such strong, and in some ways mixed feelings about the subject. As a person of "mixed race" I have a tendency to (over-)emphasize the idea that race is an illusive and not very useful concept--a category of thought which I sometimes wish could be gotten rid of or ignored entirely.

But of course, that's not a reasonable hope. I suppose even in a perfect world, people would still think in terms of race; they just wouldn't value any races above or below others. Perhaps in a perfect world, we would see races more like large extended families, insofar as they may have certain prevalent traits, customs, histories, etc.--and yet their identity and definition are always changing, and evolving into something new, particularly as their members marry persons from outside the family, bringing new traits, customs, histories, etc. into the picture.

Perhaps that way of thinking would help us to get away from the notion that races need to be kept "pure," and the fear that if most people married outside their "race," we would soon be a homogeneous population without any diversity.

Racial diversity is important, and the ability to have some kind of pride in one's racial identity is also important. But I do think that our racial categories need to be less rigid, and that all of our identities (whether we are white, black, Latino, Asian, Native American, or anything else) need to be less rooted in our perceived "race," and more firmly rooted in our shared humanity.

This last comment is probably particularly influenced by my experience as a person who looks Latino, but is not. Latino persons often mistake me for one of their own, and greet me warmly in Spanish. Most cannot hide their disappointment when they realize their mistake. Many become instantly frigid, some almost rude.

This is understandable, but it hurts, nonetheless. I do think it's right and natural for people of shared racial background to have a certain solidarity or sense of kinship, but it ought not to eclipse a sense of solidarity or kinship with the whole of humanity.

Anyway, that's just some of my initial thoughts on racism. Please comment! Let me know if you agree, disagree, why, etc.


whitethoughts said...

I hope you don't mind if I respond first as an anthropologist. I have to leave in a few minutes, but I might come back later and respond from some other perspective.

I was intrigued by your statements that racial diversity is important and your belief that racial categories would always exist, albeit in some more flexible and more inclusive form. Are you not confusing "race" with "ethnicity" or some other social category? Since we know that race as a biological construct does not exist (there are no naturally occuring groups of shared features such that the groups have more shared genetic material with one another than any individual member has with "outsiders"), and since social race is a concept that has only arisen in a few places in human history and only become really important in a small handful (like those derived from Northern Europe), isn't the question we have to ask ourselves really more like - why do we Americans insist on believing that race is so important and that it will always be with us?

I'll be back later - gotta go eat dinner with a potential new faculty member. For those interested in boning up on the latest in biological race research - see the AAA website - nominated for a webby last year -

Virgiliana said...

Yes, the term "race" does require definition. My understanding is that in its stricter sense, "race" is a biological/genetic term, "ethnicity" is a social term, and "nationality" is a political term. But people will use "race" (more commonly) and "ethnicity" (sometimes) with a combination of all three factors in mind. Of course, I've never made a study of this--it's just my impression of the way people actually use these terms.

And no, race as a biological construct does not exist in an absolute sense, but it actually can be a useful categorization (just ask insurance companies who want to discriminate against African Americans on the basis of their increased risk for heart disease).

It may be that "there are no naturally occuring groups of shared features such that the groups have more shared genetic material with one another than any individual member has with 'outsiders,'" but if the same could be said of the difference between men and women (I think I heard somewhere that it can, though I'm not sure--maybe you know?) that would not be sufficient reason to say that gender does not exist as a biological category.

There still are certain genetic traits that tend to be found in our arbitrarily drawn racial categories.

Virgiliana said...

Oops! I was just reading some of the stuff on that RACE Project website, and I see that the prevalence of hypertension among African Americans is a lousy example. Very interesting.

Remigius said...

As Virgie points out, regardless of any biological niceties, race as a concept certainly exists. (Indeed, since most of the traits we associate with race are inheritable and physical, perhaps one could even make the argument it exists biologically as well, though it would have to be on a different basis than simple shared genetic material - maybe on inheritable physical characteristics on a continuum or something. But I digress.)

My main point is to challenge that it is "really important" in only a handful of societies. I see constant signs of it being a factor in dealing with various immigrant groups where I live, who make distinctions among themselves, irrespective of US racial categories, based on physical characteristics/phenotype, if you will. And these distinctions clearly predate their landing here, or even interaction with Northern Europe. One example is the Somali vs. Somali Bantu distinction; even though there are linguistic and socioeconomic and historical differences as well, some of the distinction seems to be based on physical characteristics. At least that's what younger ones have told me, and kids often are pretty straightforward about such things. But certainly there are other examples.

Similar things can be seen in e.g. Russia where it is not the more "foreign-looking" Central Asians that receive as much discrimination as the (literally) Caucasian people groups like Georgians and Armenians. Again, this is largely based on physical characteristics (or at least perceived such physical characteristics), but not the differences we associate with Northern European racial discrimination. And this categorization definitely leads to a fair amount of violence.

Now, perhaps "really important" means enforcing chattel slavery. But I think that as long as people notice that other people look different from them, and as long as those differences correlate with other things (like culture, or what trade someone has, like in the Somali case, or ethnic tensions, like the Chechen wars in the Russian case), there is the potential for people to find "race" a meaningful construct - even if a negative one.

And so far in human history we've seemed to have a knack for turning potential for using negative constructs into actuality.