Lived Realities and the Concept of Race

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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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Outrage and Compassion

Gerhard_Merz_in_FernwaldThe world is full of outrage.

It’s normal to get upset when we see someone being treated unfairly, even more so when an entire group of people is oppressed by a system founded on prejudice. The right thing is to speak up and try to make the world a better place.

Social media can be an echo chamber, but it can also be a space for encountering alternative views. Unless we unfriend or unfollow everyone who disagrees with us, we can open ourselves up to a greater awareness of how others think.

I know as well as anyone that some people’s views are unpalatable and hard to deal with day after day. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ageism, classism, fundamentalism,  and a million other things can catch us off guard. Sometimes we’re tired and really just want to look at some cute animals or read the news about our favorite show. Some days, we just want it to go away. We can choose to ignore it or hide it. That’s okay. Contrary to popular belief, silence doesn’t always mean acceptance.

On other occasions, we may be fired up enough to challenge the view with reasoned arguments and solid evidence. We won’t stop until the person admits their view is wrong.

Unfortunately, in the midst of our activist zeal, we sometimes forget about compassion.

Despite what absolute relativists say (if such people really exist, which is doubtful), some views are more valid than others, because they are based on evidence and analysis and experience. I’m not saying that we should respect all views equally, regardless of who they might harm. But I do think that we should respect all people – if not equally, at least to a minimum degree.

There’s a difference between saying “Your view is wrong” and “You’re a dumb person.” It’s also unfair to assume we know how a person feels on an issue (“You shouldn’t be so angry about this”) if they haven’t told you (maybe they’re not angry at all). Also, telling people that how they feel is wrong and that they should feel some other way is about as unhelpful and unproductive as we can get.

Additionally, we should avoid slotting people into categories because of a single aspect of their opinion. The thought process goes something like this: “This person doesn’t like homosexuality, and in my experience homophobic people are generally on the right. Therefore this person is on the right and must also be a creationist Christian, fiscally conservative and more concerned with security than equality.” Wrong. In the Netherlands, for example, the right is not necessarily religious and they openly support homosexuality.

Our biases are just as biased as anyone else’s biases.

Any view must undergo a lot of scrutiny for it to prove its worth and staying power. Our own views are vulnerable to logical fallacies and misinformation, just like other people’s. We need to recognize this before jumping on our high horse. Questioning our own position will help reign in any tendency to arrogance we might have.

At the same time, we need to remember that not everyone has had access to intellectual training or positive mentors or accurate information. Many of our opinions come from emotional experiences, not facts, and those experiences and emotions need to be acknowledged, even if the conclusions are problematic.

Finally, though, the most important thing is that we remember that very few people are bad. At some point, Hitler was an aspiring artist who was kind to dogs. Instead of always focusing on what divides us, we might get further by trying to figure out what connects us. By finding common ground, we will be able to see our shared humanity and trigger empathy.

We can’t expect other people to behave more empathetically toward people they don’t agree with if we can’t do it ourselves. Let’s practice compassion whenever we can. After all, at its root, social justice is about people being nicer to each other. Maybe we can start by being nicer ourselves.

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.