Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Is Race a Racist Concept?

This is a tricky and sensitive subject, and I want to say at the outset that any form of discrimination or vilification based on race, age, gender, sexual orientation or any of the many other characteristics that differentiate between individual human beings or groups of human beings is completely abhorrent to me. Human beings are terrified of difference. They will latch onto any real or perceived difference in order to group people into “us” and “them”. Having an “enemy” appears to serve the dubious purpose of cementing together the group, the tribe, the gang. I have no doubt that at times in my life I have been as guilty of this type of discrimination as every other human being on the planet, certainly in the schoolyard if not later in life.

What this suggests to me, first of all, is that the dividing of people into groups is itself already part of the problem. As far as race is concerned, I would suggest that, from a biological and genetic point of view, the concept is, at the very least, questionable. The jury is still out on this as far as genetics is concerned, and probably will be for some time to come. This is one area where research is very unlikely to be “objective” (one of many, actually – perhaps one of all). It is quite possible that I, as a so-called Caucasian, have more in common genetically with some people of African or Asian background than with some other people of Caucasian background. The fact that one Caucasian has red hair and blue eyes, while her neighbour has black hair and brown eyes, may indicate more genetic difference between them than between either of them and a person from Asia or Africa. I emphasise that it may indicate that. There are many unknowns here. Of course, even if it were to be definitively demonstrated that so-called racial groups really could be clearly differentiated genetically, why would this really matter? Would it matter any more than knowing that a red-haired person differed genetically from a brown-haired person? Or that I am genetically different from you? Many traits are heritable. Race, assuming that it exists and is, indeed, heritable, is only one of those. And perhaps not a very important one. For me, emphasising the differences between races is as silly as emphasising the differences between short people and tall people. Most of us are actually somewhere in between. I would also suggest that most of us are somewhere in between when it comes to race. The similarities between people of different so-called races are much, much greater than the differences, just as is the case with short people and tall people.

I would argue further that it is actually the cultural differences between peoples in different parts of the world (or even in the same part of the world) that are actually the causes of conflict, rather than so-called race per se. That certain cultures happen to coincide geographically with certain “racial” groupings is probably just that: coincidence. Even if everyone on the planet was racially identical, such cultural and historical differences would still arise, and would still cause conflict and give rise to vilification of the “other”.

It is probably very naive of me to wish that we would stop this type of categorising. I don’t want us to ignore our differences, because it is our differences that make us interesting to one another. If we were all the same, there would be nothing new to see or experience in the world, nothing new to learn. Difference is good. Categorising is another thing entirely. Categorising is, by definition, limiting. People are categorised on the basis of very limited criteria. To categorise me as Caucasian and you as Asian or African is to segregate us into boxes based on very superficial and even trivial criteria. Suppose I have an orange dog and a blue dog, and an orange cat and a blue cat. If I were to put the orange dog and the orange cat into one box and the blue dog and the blue cat into another, it seems clear to me that I would have made a fundamental categorical error.  I have categorised them based on something which is in no way definitive of what they actually are. Perhaps the same is true of this thing we call race.

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