e3: it don't matter if you're black or white?
an investigation into race.
the news of the past few weeks has been sobering, if not downright depressing. as South Asians, we rarely feel the sting of this thing called racism. one exception is when we’re online, interacting with users from across the globe. i remember a friend telling me that he never commented on football forums—they’d flag him as Indian and the comment would get massively downvoted, never mind the content. last week, my dad told me about his time in grad school in the US: landlords, he said, were incredibly welcoming over the phone, but would deny that they had vacancies the minute they saw him in person.
i’m itching to do something about this awfulness, something concrete, but what could that be?
i believe that structural change can’t happen without legislative change. and legislative change won’t happen without popular consensus. popular consensus, in turn, requires successful dialogue. i want to do what i can to facilitate informed dialogue on structural issues. in this case, on race.
what is race?
this is almost a non-question for most of us, but as i said before, philosophers are fascinated by anything, even stuff that honestly doesn’t seem to merit analysis.
i take the question ‘what is race?’ to mean ‘what sort of thing do we refer to when we refer to race?’ i’m going to try and pick out the referent of the term, glossing over cross-cultural variations for now.
people mostly thought of (and continue to think of) race as a natural, biological phenomenon. the 20th century, however, gave rise to a socio-historical view. this view understood race as a category that came to be via social & historical processes.
the biological explanation, put very simply, is that members of a given race share identifiable phenotypic features. East Asians have X, Y and Z physical attributes, Caucasians have P, Q and R attributes, and so on. these features are said to be inheritable and consistent within racial groups.
to understand the socio-historical, i.e. “constructed” theory of race, it’s important to understand what “constructed” even means. if something is socially constructed, it did not come about naturally. trees, for example, are not socially constructed, they are natural phenomena. the category of ‘art’, however, is a social construct, because there’s no naturally occurring distinction between what’s art and what isn’t. a pebble from a riverbed isn’t a social construct, but qualifying as a ‘paperweight’ is.
one example of a socio-historical phenomenon is the emergence of medical science. ‘doctors’ (the concept of them) arose from socio-historical processes, such as the setting up of institutions to train and certify people. so how might race be a socio-historical category—especially given that you can usually tell what race someone is just by looking?
this is a slippery question. if one submits to thinking about race as some biologists do, problems start to crop up. let’s look at an instance: if race is a biologically isolated population of individuals, then we would have to think of the Amish as a race of their own. again, this doesn’t appear to fit with our common-sense notion of race. also consider mixed-race folks. another instance: when one parent belongs to race X and the other to race Y, what label does the offspring carry? there’s no scientific consensus on this. usually, mixed-race folks are left to self-identify as X, Y, or “biracial”. this puzzle gets more complicated when mixed-race folks have children of their own.
perhaps a socio-historical theory of race is more intuitive. African-American philosopher W. E. B. Du Bois posited the classic theory of this kind. he claims that
[Race] is a vast family of human beings, generally of common blood and language, always of common history, traditions and impulses, who are both voluntarily and involuntarily striving together for the accomplishment of certain more or less vividly conceived ideals of life.
in this excerpt, Du Bois constitutes race out of shared history and traditions as opposed to shared genes. shared “blood” becomes secondary, shared ideals become primary. this, to me, is closer to how we conceive of race today. think about how we attribute certain behavioural similarities to “brown parents”. these similarities have everything to do with history and culture, and nothing to do with genes.
other socio-historical theories of race point out that one’s blackness, for example, was sometimes entirely determined by state laws, meaning that race was legally (not biologically) determined. up until the late 20th century, you could be black in one state in the US and white in the other.
i've provided the briefest possible sketch of this debate: there are other approaches to finessing the ontology of race. many academics consider the biological view entirely obsolete, and restrict themselves to debating socio-historical theories of race. but academia is a silo, and real-world discourse still refers to race as a biological thing. it’s messy!
my opinion: irrelevant, except that this is my blog
i lean strongly towards the view that the concept of race was invented for various social and economic purposes. mainly, colonizers and slavers justified their actions by insisting on a racial hierarchy. while there’s no doubt that there are identifiable physical differences between humans, these differences have been exploited and built upon specifically for profit. moreover, there aren’t “hard” biological differences between races. even back in the 18th century, every race was considered a part of the human species.
apart from the arguments i laid out, there are various reasons to understand racialization as a social process. denizens of the American South, for instance, took themselves to be of a different race, a superior one, to their Northern counterparts. similarly, the Japanese, who invaded China, certainly assumed that they didn’t belong to the same race.
for a long time, South Asian immigrants in the West were considered black. back home in Pakistan, India or Bangladesh, these immigrants didn’t classify themselves as such. clearly, societies make wildly different racial distinctions. and if races were in fact present in nature, the demarcations would’ve been obvious, not constantly shifting, perennially reinvented.
so…is race cancelled?
it is not.
if we want to phase out inequality and injustice, we need to use race constructively, as a tool. we need race-based reparations in various forms. think of how gender was once an insurmountable barrier to wealth and recognition: much has changed on that front. hopefully, affirmative action coupled with attitudinal change leads to similar progress with respect to race. once we’ve reached a point where there’s no going back, we can dispense with the notion of race, simply conceiving of people as culturally rather than “racially” distinct.
Nietzsche said of historically formed concepts that they are like
ropes held together by the intertwining of strands … [we must] disentangle the various strands that have become so tightly woven together by the process of historical development that they seem inseparable.
in the context of race, peoples’ physical attributes are carefully intertwined with social attributes. we need to disentangle these strands in order to dismantle the structure of race.
most of us can’t be on the frontlines, whether at protests or parliaments, but we can each do our bit. and that might just be to learn a little more every day.