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.