There’s No Such Thing as Race
As an adjunct professor of cultural anthropology, I’ve grown accustomed to my white students blaming their black classmates for their own failure to qualify for financial aid. Along these same lines, it saddens (but never really surprises me) when they refer to the continent of Africa as a country. I’ve finally come to accept that for my students, travel abroad comes only in the form of military service. After all, I teach an intro level course at a community college; most students take my class in order to get out of taking a foreign language.
What surprises me, year after year, is the number of students who deny the existence of racism while fully embracing the concept of race.
Race is, to put it bluntly, a social construct. There is, in fact, no such thing and even though humans have, since the dawn of time (r at least the ancient Egyptians), attempted to categorize their world accordingly, the fact remains that biogenetically distinct races do not exist.
Let that sink in for a minute.
If you’ve never taken an anthropology class (and even if you have), this probably comes as a bit of a shock. We look differently after all, don’t we? We act differently. We have different aesthetic preferences. Some of us, to borrow a common trope, are good at basketball and some of us aren’t; some of us, or so it seems, are born with a sense of rhythm and some of us aren’t.
It’s not our fault for “noticing” these so-called racial differences. The ancient Egyptians classified the world according to four categories: red, yellow, white and black. In the 18th century, the Swedish scientist Carolus Linnaeus developed a more sophisticated nomenclature: Homo sapiens europaeus (white Europeans), homo sapiens americanus (red Native Americans), Homo sapiens asiaticus (yellow Asians) and Home sapiens afer (black Africans). A few decades later, Johann Blumenbach introduced a new system: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Malay, Ethiopian and Native American.
It is this last, five-part taxonomy that is probably the most familiar to us today. We still use the term “Caucasian,” and for many years the term “Mongoloid” was synonymous for babies born with Down Syndrome.
Of course in the 21st century, 47 years after the death of Martin Luther King, we have replaced these terms with their politically correct counterparts. No one calls babies Mongoloid anymore, and now it’s “Black” or “African American” instead of Ethiopian. We’ve even added Pacific Islander and Alaskan Native to the list; I know this because before my students can register for my class, they must first check the appropriate box or boxes on the college’s admissions page.
Of course these designations are voluntary. And although institutions like to keep track of them for statistical purposes, we would never go so far as to suggest that one “race” is superior to another. We know better now. But the headlines keep coming, the hashtags, the uncomfortable realizations that the war on drugs has succeeded only in making us the most incarcerated nation on earth, that these “episodes” and “incidents” of police brutality keep on happening and that they keep on happening to the same types of people. It becomes easier to rally support for free speech on the other side of the Atlantic, as in the case of Charlie Hebdo, than to take a good hard look at the unending and cumulative manifestations of systematic racism our own society.
Radical Islam, after all, makes a more convenient, more socially viable target, even if we have been thus far unsuccessful in its eradication.
So what’s the solution?
Terminology, I think, plays a big part. We need to stop endowing the word “race” with any sort of scientific credence.
And we need to stop insisting that we live in a post-racial society. Sure, we have an African American president but this doesn’t mean that we can call it quits in the fight for equity.
Sometimes my students deny the existence of racism because they’ve never experienced it. These students are usually young men with white skin. Other times, my students deny the existence of racism because they don’t want to admit it’s still happening. These are usually young women with black skin, and seeing as these students face the double whammy of having been born both a female and a person of color, I can’t blame them. Statistically speaking, especially in terms of the sorts of wages they’ll earn, they will have the hardest time navigating this hegemonic culture of white male dominance.
But to deny racism out of pride, out of optimism, out of adherence to the good old American tradition of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps only serves to justify the inequalities that plague our nation. So let’s not deny its existence; let’s deny the existence of race instead. Let’s equip ourselves with the knowledge, for once and for all, that genetic differences don’t make us different species, that race and ethnicity aren’t the same thing, and that biology has nothing to do with the latter. Let’s remind ourselves that there is only one race- the human race- and then maybe we can finally achieve the post racial society we so desperately need.
20 Responses to “There’s No Such Thing as Race”
Although we’ve had this discussion (frequently) lately, this was very well done.
Thank you, F/friend, for this well constructed argument.
Thank you, Maia 🙂 A lot of these thoughts started swirling around at the called meeting at Arch Street earlier this month.
If I didn’t have bouts of hypomania and quit University several times I would have completed my degree in Cultural Anthropology. I really enjoyed reading this post. I personally refer to people as Black and White. I’m Canadian so I don’t use the term African American, and honestly it feels odd saying African-Canadian. I’m a humanist and I agree with race being a social construct. Thanks again for the great post.
Yes, African-Canadian doesn’t quite roll off of the tongue does it? 🙂 When I was living in the UK I had to get used to saying “Black British.” I kept saying “African American” and then being like, “Oh, no. I mean African British…” So silly. The art museum here in Philly just opened a new exhibit called “Represent: 200 Years of African American Art” and I’m wondering if that designation (African) is really necessary, but then I’m also wondering what’s the alternative? Then again, they wouldn’t call an exhibit of white people’s art European American art. Seems to me like there should at least be some consistency here. (Then again I always get my knickers in a twit when I see things like “dance” vs. “world dance” or “ethnic” dance, as though “regular” dance just IS and doesn’t have to be described as such… it’s that “other” stuff that needs some sort of alternative designation).
Exactly! What’s the “alternative” ? When will the world transition from European/North American vs Everyone else? I read a fascinating article (don’t remember where) that it’s only a matter of time before “mixed race” people will be the majority. I reckon it’s gonna be difficult to keep using the Us vs Them construct when those lines are irreversibly blurred. People are still in the “What are you?” (culture, ethnicity) phase.
Great post. Racism is so damaging and it hurts when people are subjected to it. I don’t experience it a lot because people can’t usually tell my race by looking at me although since I have been in the South I experience it more from black women than I ever had my entire life, until I cut my hair that is, and now they pay no attention to me at all. LOL. And once I was having a discussion on Garden Web and someone went to my page and when she saw that my theme had a photo of a beautiful dark skin Moroccan woman with Mendhi on her hands and a beautiful silk veil the conversation turned to hate and she more or less invited everyone to go look at the page so they can see I was not white. WHAT? and duhhh I am not Moroccan, my decorating theme was Moroccan thus the Moroccan theme on the page. It was crazy. It stings, it hurts and it remains with you. Who wants to subject themselves to that mess?
Thanks for doing your part.
Oh the South… Just when you think things are crazy enough here in the northeast! The story about your blog theme is an interesting one. I too love “Moroccan” inspired themes, and it sounds like yours was gorgeous! I always wonder though, especially now that I am renovating and decorating my house, how to walk that fine line between appreciating another culture’s aesthetic and essentially ripping them off? Not that is has to be that black and white but it’s a shame that such a silly “debate” erupted on your blog 😦
I so ny own rhing which makes my style eclectic. That orher atuff was annoying to say the least but i would never take it to heart . It showed their ignorance. It was shocking and the only reason i changed my theme is becuase the one i have now ahowa previews of my posts.
Yes, ignorance is always the worst 😦
Very well said, Kat. If you want to, you’re well equipped to do some larger-scale professional writing in this subject area. Not everybody will listen, but the people who aren’t hopelessly wedded to their own self-serving dogmas will.
Hmmm… Larger-scale professional writing? Um, yes! Sign me up 😉 In all seriousness I hadn’t really considered writing further on this subject (although I do have a lot more to say) but I’d be definitely open to suggestions!
I’m still trying to figure out where the good outlets are for people with academic credentials to make their insights available to the general public in the form of articles and essays. There seem to be tons of online magazines (like Salon and Atlantic Online, for instance), but I’m still trying to find out which ones will give new and unknown (applying those words to myself) freelancers a chance.
Hear! Hear! An eloquent way to honor MLK.
Thanks Laurie 🙂
[…] outside a women’s clinic and, drawing from her background in anthropology, to explain why there’s no such thing as race. Whatever she writes is lively, sharp and worth […]
lovely post with a nice name Kat