The Banality of Race

note: I will be blogging on my recent book club readings on Smedleys’ book, Race in North America. These are just main concepts and notes, and not indicative of complete arguments. All quotes are from the Smedleys. All other text are personal philosophical musings.

Race is a relatively recent concept in human history. That many people think it is an essential part of human identity, or that ‘everybody belongs to a race’, reflects how deeply entrenched race ideology has become in the general social imaginary. It feels like race is as old a concept as human, sex, or even class. But this is not so. (This is a good example of how humans have the tendency to project back upon past memories, negativity affected in the present, thereby coloring the historical past with all sorts of inadequate ideas, reinforcing a coercive power at the core of one’s identity– the unquestioned sovereignty and selection of one’s fetishized memories– that guards against cognitive dissonance.)

How has the concept of race become embedded into our everyday lives? For the same reason that binary thinking, or ego formation, is as natural to us as breathing– out of habit and conditioning. In other words, “It is a particular worldview perpetuated as much by the continued use of the term in our daily lives and in the media as it is by the stereotypes to which so many of us have been, often unconsciously, conditioned.” (5) Like so many other essentialized concepts, race is sustained by habit and an addiction/adaptation to master narratives.

How the concept of race developed:
Out of pejorative difference.  It began during European expansion, conquest, exploitation and enslavement of populations beginning in the 16th century of non-European people groups. Competition between European nations and the realization of their power to dominate others affected the way Europeans perceived indigenous peoples. As they established colonial empires, they began to develop a way to differentiate, describe and categorize others as a way of managing the then suddenly heterogeneous population. Because this method of managing the population became useful, race as a concept took root for those who could profit from its use. It’s all but impossible to understand race apart from its policing function of carving up society into sub-sections thereby making it easier to survey, manage and control different groups.

The people of conquered areas “did not participate in the invention of race or in the compilation of racial classifications imposed upon them and others. To the extent that these people utilize the idiom today and operate within its strictures, they have inherited and acquiesced in the system of racial divisions created for them by the dominant Europeans.” (14)

Smedley asks, if modern science increasingly argues that ‘race’ does not exist, “how can public attitudes and understandings retain the notion of their verity and the belief that sciences has proved their reality?” (This echoes Deleuze’s question about people living in the midst of capitalist empires: why do people pursue their slavery as if it were their freedom?) In other words, why do people hang on to certain ideologies as if they were absolutely true, when in fact all evidence points to the contrary? Anti-intellectualism is clearly at work when ideologies are utterly unaffected by contradictions and inconsistencies– this is a consequence of fundamentalism married to American pragmatism.

There is a disjunction between scientific discourse on race and social reality. Even as scientists deny the existence of race as a biological category, they cannot escape its influence on everyday life.

Race is a term that expresses pejorative difference. One would be hard-pressed to assign a positive value to it without recourse to binary logic. The concept of race delineates inequality, dividing the social landscape into disparate territories and tribes, under the guise of pejorative kinship, membership, belonging, or however one wants to parse it. The underlying assumption is that these differences are absolutely unresolvable, meaning they cannot be overcome under any circumstances– here, differences trump commonalities. There is black, and there is white, and never the twain shall meet.

“Race is a way of looking at the kaleidoscope of humanity, of dividing it into presumed exclusive units and imposing upon them attributes and features that conform to a ranking system within the cultures that are defining the races.” (20)

If we wanna get away from the notion of race as a biological myth and focus on it as a social construct then it would help to ignore actual phenotypic differences among humans. Except, this is hardly possible. Because clearly physical differences are connected to the origin and persistence of race categorization. “Race originated as the imposition of an arbitrary value system on the facts of  biological (phenotypic) variations in the human species. It was the cultural invention of arbitrary meanings applied to what appeared to be natural divisions. The meanings had social value, but no intrinsic relationship to the biological diversity itself. Race was a reality created in the human mind, not a reflection of objective truths. It was fabricated as an existential reality out of a combination of recognizable physical differences and some incontrovertible social facts: the conquest of indigenous peoples, their domination and exploitation” etc. (20) It is a peculiar American phenomenon where physical/phenotypic variations in the way different people look is connected to a hierarchical classification system that has its historical roots in violence and oppression. However, race does not necessarily have to refer to biology or even physical features. A good example comes from western Europeans who in the 19th century created their own notion of race, not out of phenotypic differences, but out of class and ethnic parameters.

“It is not the presence of objective physical differences between groups that creates races, but the social recognition of such differences as socially significant or relevant.” (23) Race ideology today persists regardless of differences in skin color and physical traits. The extent that phenotypic differences are relevant to the concept of race is only a symbolic gesture stuck in the social imaginary.

5 elements of race ideology in N. America:

  1. A universal classification of human groups based on superficial judgments on phenotypic and behavioral differences.
  2. The ranking of these human groups against each other, imposed hierarchically and by those in power at the time.
  3. “The belief that the outer physical characteristics of human populations were but surface manifestations of inner realities.” (25)
  4. The notion that all these qualities were inherited– physical features, behavior, capabilities, and social status. Innate and inborn.
  5. “The belief that each exclusive group (race) was created unique and distinct by nature of God” so that these differences were believed to be fixed and unalterable and never overcome.

The folk myth of ‘race’ spread during European expansion and colonialization of non-European lands and peoples, and as these people were conquered by Europeans, the classification system of race was imposed upon them along with the myths of their differing capacities– all inferior to the gold standard of ‘white’. Because ‘race’ offered a way of structuring and organizing society based on ‘natural’ and divinely assigned inequalities (19th century science in concert with various state governments conspired to legitimize this structural inequality by turning it into law) it was strategically adopted, broadcast and championed as an irrefutable, commonsense and God-given worldview by those who were in the business of empire-building. Fast forward to today, “the idea of race continues in large part because of its value as a mechanism for identifying who should have access to wealth, privilege, loyalty, respect, and power, and who should not.” (27)

The difference between ‘culture’ and ‘ethnicity’:

  • Culture.
    learned behavior (not innate or inborn) that varies independently of physical traits of those with these behaviors
    – shared elements such as traditions, religion, history, name, language, laws and customs acquired by a people group belonging to the same society, that see themselves in distinction from other groups
    – culture is determined by one’s immediate and lived location– space and time. Space: where you are in the historical period that you are. Time: when you are where you are. So, broadly speaking, America in the 21st century.
  • Ethnicity.
    – Those who are perceived by others and themselves to have the same culture.
    – So my (Dan’s) ethnicity is North American. NOT Chinese. Because the cultural customs (activities, history, language, etc.) that I have lived in all my life are North American, and not Chinese. (However, this is just a general example that disrupts ‘obvious’ perceptions. Indeed, I am neither fully one or the other, I am mixed. But society, for political and economic reasons, absolutely does NOT want this idea of hybridity to enter the social imaginary as a positive idea. Thanks to globalism and cyber-technologies, culture is increasingly becoming monolithic, where at the same time it’s becoming increasingly difficult to just identify with ‘one’ culture– we are mixing/complexifying at an unprecedented rate, and the vast majority of the First World is coagulating under one totalizing cultural narrative…that of capitalism.)

“Biophysical traits should never be used as part of the definition of ethnicity. Every American should understand this explicitly, since there are millions of physically varying people, all sharing ‘American culture’ (ethnicity), who know little or nothing about the cultural features of their ancestors, who may have arrived here from almost anywhere.” (29)

Because we’re so conditioned to think in terms of race, and because race is a pejorative term, we’re conditioned to only perceive others in terms of their difference. Because of this Americans are highly incapable of perceiving the similarities that are common to Americans. (common notions are concealed by ideologies of pejorative-difference such as identity politics, thereby inhibiting us to move beyond the negative)

Racism Defined.
Unlike ethnocentrism, racism has nothing to do with cultural differences; rather, racism is about the belief that physical features determine one’s behavior, and that this is the person’s essence, meaning nothing a person can do can change the fact that they are born ‘inferior’. Racism is the foreclosure of a body’s capacity to be affected, based on physical traits, colorism be damned. A lot of what passes as ‘racism’ is click-bait riddled news these days, further exacerbating and reinforcing an anti-intellectual or ignorant worldview that interprets violence or power disparity, be it local or systemic, as racially motivated. Sure, people can hold racist views insofar as such views are indexed to biological determinism. But to jump to the conclusion that a white police officer killing an innocent black person is racism, is a gross oversimplification at best that ignores the nuances of evidence. Such a tragedy could be explained in terms of hate, ignorance, fear, and the like; but racism? The question here that needs to be asked is why are we so quick to invoke to our aid that which is at the root of an oppressive representation of who we are? That race is a foregone conclusion in these kinds of cases, is indicative of the actual racism– the notion that a white officer could not have acted by any other motivation other than race. We’ve clearly internalized and normalized a fictive worldview, and in-so-doing inhibit our own capacity to think outside these self-imposed parameters. Here, again, Deleuze’s echo of Spinoza rings salient: “why do we pursue our servitude as if it were our salvation?”

“Race signifies rigidity and permanence of position and status within a ranking order that is based on what is believed to be the unalterable reality of innate biological differences. Ethnicity is conditional, temporal, even volitional, and not amenable to biology or biological processes.” (31) In other words, ethnic characteristics can change depending on historical and geographic shifts, because culture and customs change over time. But race does not change because it is believed to be a God-given and fundamentally unalterable condition.

The negative ramifications of a dominant racial worldview are:

– The belief that race is inborn, that one’s social status and behavior can never change and is inherently fixed (essentialism). This plays a role in understanding why there continues to be such a wide disparity of power in society despite all our alleged liberalism.

– It perpetuates the mindset of exclusion and pejorative difference (or binary thinking in terms of us vs. them) and inhibits people from seeing commonalities between each other.

– It in turn gave more power and credibility to the Christian worldview that justifies, by recourse to morality, perpetrating violence on others who are different.

For sure, the meaning of words shift over time. But rather than simply accepting at face-value the myriad of contradictory ways ‘race’ is used in discourses today, by tracing how the term has shifted through history helps us better understand not only what ‘race’ means today, but what forms of coercive power it takes on in different contexts.

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