The Development of Race (part 2): What is race?

Race and Racism

Before continuing with this story and arriving at the UCU discussion. Let’s take a look at the following two questions:

These questions appear relatively straightforward, and you might know the answer I’ll give you already. Yet in some cases a lot of confusion arises because people are using the same terms differently.

What is race?

There are a lot different views on what race is. These views have changed over time. This makes it clear that like most things in the world, it is a social construct. Although there are some that would argue that race is a biological fact. People who believed this (false) idea in the past created a ‘science’ called eugenics, and its adherents had a field day when Darwin published his theory, for they believe that certain races are inherently (genetically) superior to others. Although eugenic theories have been disproven, they still have a lot of adherents.

People still make judgments about groups of people based on their ‘race’, claiming there is something to that race/culture, what that unique thing is, is often left unsaid, because racism is no longer popular. What is at play when we call a whole nation of people lazy, as in the Greek case (again a claim not borne out by facts)?

When certain people say a certain fenotype (how people look) is a race, (biologically speaking) they are wrong. There is often more genetic difference between people in a ‘race’ than between certain members of different races.

Sometimes there is an association between the prevalence of certain physical features and a geographical region. This is sometimes seen as a racial identifier. However not all people in a group usually possess this feature and it does not qualify them as human beings in any way. Importantly all people have mixed backgrounds and common genetic ancestors.

Next there is the cultural idea of a race, culture here implies a certain way of being, certain behaviors shared by members of a group that make them a distinct entity. This is also a problematic idea, depending on how it is used. There is of course the simple fact of having people be, in this and other senses, what they claim to be, what is called self-identification. In reality however, no group behaves uniformly in the same manner and behavior and customs always change over time.

Perhaps this would not matter, if people only identified themselves as such. However certain identifications impinge on other people. We see ‘culture’ being used a lot as a justification for what is commonly understood by racism. A certain group is then said to have certain inherent qualities in their behavior which are deemed negative.

Finally (although there might be more) there is the political construct of race. Where people identify as a certain race as a political statement, usually for the furthering of a political aim.

So here we have 3 different instances of labels historically applied race means:

  • the biological (fenotype or genotype)
  • the cultural
  • the political

Although I thoroughly believe that race is a social construct, this does not mean it is purely fantasy. What we construct socially becomes a reality. That is part of the reason racism is so hard to battle. It is ingrained into many societal structures. These social constructs take on reality as they are incorporated into society and people are forced to respond to them. We could see the political concept of race as a response to the earlier injustices forced upon people of colour by ‘scientific’ racism and concomitant conceptions of race. Interestingly Whiteness is often not explicitly discussed as such, because it tends to be the norm.  What we consider cultural is the layering of eons of human behaviours and interactions with our environment.

What we see in all these cases, as in the whole of reality, is that the categories we construct are never as clear-cut as we imagine or want them to be. By its very nature, all of reality is in a relationship with everything else, and boundaries are porous. Over time everything becomes everything. To make it less philosophical, there are often intermarriages between different groups (however they are classified), or people start to identify or behave differently. They might also ascribe to any of the above categorizations of race simultaneously in varying degrees to themselves or others. The boundaries between race, culture, religion, nationalism and other group affiliations are sometimes unclear to me, partly because people tend to use them interchangeably. Of course they serve different explicit aims and cover different aspects of (human) reality, but the caveats about the relative ex- or inclusivity of the various racial categories apply to religious and national affiliations as well. They are not static and they are means to make claims about the qualities of people and separate them.

There is a good likelihood that the things we die or kill for today won’t mean a thing to people in the year 6000. Unless of course the internet works like some kind of magical potteresque time capsule forever sending ISIS, Big Brother, Chet Haze and Iggy Azaela together with Gandhi and Mandela into an increasingly hybridic future. But let’s focus on surviving this century first.


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