Lived Realities and the Concept of Race

Etno_icon
From Wikimedia Commons, User: Xil

Some people perceive women to be inferior to men and sexually available to whoever wants to have a go at them. They then behave as if this were true. Women’s inferiority is a “lived reality” to those people. Yet nobody says, “We need to acknowledge women’s inferiority and sexual availability because we need to talk about rape.” To get at the root of the problem, we need to understand that some people believe that women are inferior and/or sexually available, not that this is factually true. It might even be useful to question the meaning of a category like “women” (which many people have done more or less successfully).

On a related note, the divine right of kings used to be a “lived reality,” meaning that people (including the kings) experienced it as real and lived their lives accordingly. Yet nobody today would argue that we have to acknowledge the divine right of kings in order to understand historical political systems or even how people experienced them. No, we would simply agree that people believed in the divine right of kings and behaved as if it were real, thereby contributing to their own oppression and that of others.

Thus far, we can agree.

Many people perceive arbitrarily divided groups of people to be different based on physical characteristics. Somehow, our logic changes in this case and we come to the conclusion that, “We have to acknowledge race.” We don’t. We have to acknowledge racism.

By acknowledging race as a useful ontological category, we are telling the racists they are right, that there are concrete, observable differences that indelibly separate groups of humans from one another in insurmountable ways. We are saying that lines can be drawn to distinguish these groups in clear-cut ways. We are saying there is an objective reality to the perception of race. We are saying “Race is real, but we shouldn’t treat people differently because of it.” With good intentions, we are trying to make racist views less damaging, instead of rejecting them altogether. In short, we are accepting racism as a valid worldview, just one that needs to be tweaked.

If we acknowledge that some people believe in race and that it creates problems without accepting the premise of race, then we are refusing to give any credence to the underlying assumption of racists. We already have useful concepts that work much better than “race.” As a starting point, I suggest “genetic ancestry,” “historical community,” or “shared cultural experience.”

Can we really assert that a right-leaning politician in India has much in common with a retired performance artist in the United States just because they have the same skin tone? Does a social worker in Ireland readily relate to a Zimbabwean farmer who fled to Zambia during the civil war? My guess is no. “Race” has become shorthand for too many conflicting ideas. If we want to talk about oppression and lived realities, we need a better, more precise vocabulary to say what we really mean.

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Mansplaining and Feminist Chromosomes

"Battleofthesexes" by Welleman - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain
“Battleofthesexes” by Welleman – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain

Mansplaining” is an increasingly nebulous term used in some feminist circles to criticize men who condescend to women by relaying their apparently superior knowledge in self-important ways. From my understanding, the term is applied most commonly in situations where the woman already knows a lot about the topic at hand, but the man assumes that she doesn’t and that what he has to say is more pertinent.

In many cases, the topic is sexism or misogyny or, you know, feminism.

It seems obvious that women would know more about women’s rights or experiences of sexism than men, doesn’t it? How could a man possibly have anything to say about it that a woman wouldn’t already know?

I hope the rhetorical device is apparent in the above two questions. Asking how a man could possibly know more than a woman on a specific topic is essentializing to both genders. But the problem runs deeper than that. It may be the case that many people distrust experts in a number of realms, and rightly so! Science is a method, not a religion to be taken at face value, and questioning every claim is integral to its progress. (So is accepting solid evidence, but that’s for another day.)

But yes, there have been many scientists who failed at their projects because they refused to consider laypeople’s knowledge about their own lifeworlds. It’s a give and take. Other so-called experts from educators to politicians have intentionally deceived or accidentally misled those in their care.

It’s not a perfect world and experts aren’t immune to hubris or other human pitfalls.

Wait, so are the men who start telling women about so-called women’s issues exhibiting hubris and a false sense of expertise? Or are women who throw the mansplaining label around claiming absolute authority for themselves with a de facto rejection of anyone else’s perspective?

The old saying goes, “Everybody you meet knows something you don’t.” If we actually interacted with one another on that basis, communication would improve in all directions.

Formal experts have studied and trained, and they’ve often spent years researching issues by examining and deconstructing primary and secondary evidence of many kinds. They know something.

Laypeople have also gained years of experience, sometimes their own, sometimes an accumulation of social knowledge that has been passed down from one generation to the next. They also know something.

Both so-called experts and so-called laypeople have some knowledge that the other can’t immediately access.

Can a middle-class social theorist discover a fact about the systemic roots of poverty that someone living in the ghetto might not have known? Does a light-skinned person who suffered from genocidal attacks in Rhodesia have to kowtow to the opinion of someone whose ideas of racialized discrimination are based purely on North American definitions of being black?

Is a person with a penis incapable of knowing anything about women’s issues? Can a man not read a book or watch the news or talk to women or even other informed men and come to a reasonable, respectable conclusion about rights or sexism or feminism?

Does being a male feminist mean shutting up and listening while the women talk?

Before entering any discussion, let’s take a moment to acknowledge everyone’s unique positionality in the world. I know what I know and you know what you know. The goal is to question what we know, as much as possible, so that we can all get closer to some semblance of truth. Of course, like everyone, I might mistakenly wax polemical for a while, until someone more informed shuts it down or at least provides evidence that forces me to embrace more nuance in my stance.

Women’s experiences are crucial to understanding feminism and sexism and misogyny. Assuming women don’t know about economics or astrophysics is sexist and insulting. In addition to personal experiences, many female feminists have spent years studying social issues and engaging in empirical research on which they base their knowledge and arguments.

So have male feminists, like Michael Kimmel. I agree that being condescending and silencing others is reprehensible. But it’s not “mansplaining,” a trait somehow unique to men, nor is it shared by all men (although there are men who automatically assume their own superiority to women, of course).

And it’s not only about gender – some men speak that way to other men, as do some women to other women. Some queer and trans people do it to one another, and to cis people and vice versa. People with lighter skin do it to people with darker skin and the reverse is equally true. If you have differently shaped eyes, or a different accent, the condescending tones might come out. (And, by the way, so-called “white male Westerners” don’t have a monopoly on arrogance.)

Having a certain type of chromosome or physical appearance doesn’t make you an expert. And it certainly doesn’t give you the right to drown out another person’s voice.

Before we engage in a shouting match, let’s take some time to listen. Everyone’s positionality has taught them something we don’t know. And some people know a lot, while others know a little. Some people can spout statistics, while others can tell us how something feels.

So if we each know something, maybe we can let go of our egos and put the parts together. That way we can all become smarter.

Says Who?

In a scene from the movie Freedom Writers (2007), a character named Victoria is the only dark-skinned student in her high-school English class. The teacher starts a discussion of the The Color Purple by asking Victoria to share “the black perspective” on the book.

Erin Gruwell
Erin Gruwell, teacher of the original Freedom Writers

This episode was inspired by the real Freedom Writers’ Diary (1999), in particular one entry by Joyce Roberts.

When I was born, the doctor must have stamped “National Spokesperson for the Plight of Black People” on my forehead; a stamp visible only to my teachers. The majority of my teachers treat me as if I, and I alone, hold the answers to the mysterious creatures that African Americans are, like I’m the Rosetta Stone of black people… “So Joyce, how do black people feel about Affirmative Action?” Poignant looks follow. “Joyce, can you give us the black perspective on The Color Purple?”

How the hell should I know what the black perspective is on Affirmative Action or The Color Purple? What is it, magic? Black people read, and poof, we miraculously come to the same conclusion? The only opinion I can give with some degree of certainty is my own.

Let’s go over that last sentence again: The only opinion I can give with some degree of certainty is my own. Unless they’ve done some solid, long-term, in-depth research, no one can claim to express other people’s views (and even then, it’s limited to the topic at hand).

You know that politician or activist who you never agree with but who relentlessly claims to speak for “the people?” You know that they don’t, because they don’t speak for you. Or what about celebrities? Someone like Pamela Anderson might make a valid point here and there, but that doesn’t mean she represents a consensus among all animal activists or Vancouver Islanders or 48-year-olds or people with breasts or Russian ancestry.

So why is it that we sometimes think a shared “racial” status confers legitimacy on a spokesperson? No matter how appealing their ideas are, they only speak for themselves and maybe a few of their direct supporters.

The notion that shared skin colour equals a shared perspective is ludicrous. An elderly, urban, wealthy Jamaican woman with a doctorate in physics and a transgender child will not have the same worldview as a single male Canadian oil sands heavy machinery operator with a hefty student loan debt and a love of physics.

Yes, they both like physics and they both have dark skin, maybe even exactly the same shade. But they can’t speak for each other and everyone else with those characteristics, as if their minds and experiences are interchangeable. Also, who’s to say that their shared skin colour – or even their similar (or dissimilar?) experiences of discrimination – are the key elements that form their identity and relationship to the world?

A black (white/Latino/Asian/aboriginal/etc.) person is a social type, much like a politician, an entrepreneur, a public intellectual, a feminist, or an activist. There is no essential quality of “blackness” that is shared among all people with dark skin, just like there is no essential quality of “politician-ness” or “activist-ness” that lets us know right away what that person is like and how they see things.

What’s the exact shade variation that determines when a person is no longer “black” but “brown” or  “red” or “white” or something else? Or maybe ancestry determines your race. How many ancestors do you need to belong to a certain category? What if you have five different ancestral lines (or even two)? How do you choose which one is your race, let alone someone else’s? How far back can you go to justify your inclusion in a racial category? How far back do you need to go to justify your ancestors’ inclusion? Have we encountered the infinite regress fallacy again?

“Whiteness” is generally the unmarked racial category, meaning that when we think of race, we often think of “non-whiteness.” This difference means that most people don’t assume that a person with light skin speaks on behalf of all other people with light skin. But as soon as someone with dark skin speaks up, we have Joyce Roberts’ situation above, where they have become the spokesperson that “hold[s] the answers to the mysterious creatures that African Americans [or whatever] are.”

There’s so much wrong with this notion that I can’t elaborate on it all here. But the crux of the matter is that we need to challenge “the conventional presumption … that any black individual’s participation in public life always strives to express the will of the racial collectivity” (political scientist Adolph Reed, Class Notes, p.81) – as if a “racial collectivity” could even be delineated in any kind of concrete way.

And of course this applies to all groups, not just racialized ones. A male and a female Canadian oil sands heavy machinery operator with student loans and a love of physics probably have a lot in common with each other, even though their gender doesn’t match up. Class lines, experiences of inequality, personal interests, family relationships, type and level of education and many other factors intersect to shape a person’s identity and outlook.

So instead of assuming that we know (or don’t know!) something about a person or group based on one thing, let’s stop prejudging, whether the judgement is ostensibly positive or negative. In either case, it’s probably off base.

As an extension of this stance, let’s stop supposing that a “First Nations leader” or a “black intellectual” speaks on behalf of everyone who gets lumped into the same racialized category or labelled as the same social type. Their view is no more or less representative than that politician you dislike. Let’s examine their merits on a case-by-case basis.

In other words, let’s just get to know people on a human level and see what we have in common and what we can learn from one another. Surely it’ll be more rewarding than the divisive essentialism that “race-ists” would have us believe in.