Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Think Differently About Race

Relying on racial categories holds us back from developing.
 by Fadzai Nova


How would you describe a person? Usually categories such as gender, age, profession and ethnicity come to mind. This is normal; in order for a human being to better understand his or her environment, there is a need to place things into categories. When it comes to classifying human beings, however, problems arise when a hierarchy is placed within the specific category. For example, in the classification of gender, inequalities are rife because there is a common perception that men are better than women instead of simply being different. This results in patriarchy and misogyny, and delays social progress.

Race is used to classify humans into groups which are usually determined by skin colour and cultural or ethnic affiliations. In D.R Williams’ book Race and Health: Basic Questions, Emerging Directions he writes "the idea that race is important because of a notion of genetic homogeneity has been thoroughly debunked." Unlike gender, where clear biological differences can be scientifically observed, racial categories show no significant genetic or biological differentiation in order to validate these classifications.

Race, when viewed simply as another way of describing a person’s skin tone, is also unstable as descriptions of skin colour differ depending on geography; a light skinned biracial woman may be viewed as black in one country and classified differently in another, for example.

Race is an illusion; it attempts to justify differences which are purely superficial, and to turn these into meaningful divisions within society. It exists simply as a social construct, and is significant merely because society provides the term with meaning, even though these classifications and the meanings we attach to them are scientifically groundless. Nonetheless, just because a social construct is not scientifically stable, does not mean that it has less power or impact than a biological construct. Race is still a powerful idea that results in disparate access to opportunities and resources, and is linked to prejudice and violence in many parts of the world.

In his article Four Simple Reasons Smart People Shouldn't Believe in Races, Guy P. Harrison provides the perfect analogy for race: he encourages the reader to think of the world divided by land and sea, and asks how many oceans there are in the world. Most people would rely on what they were taught in school and say five: Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Southern and Arctic. But Harrison writes that the natural answer is one; nature did not divide the ocean, human beings did. In relation to this analogy, individuals belong in the same category. Race is not a naturally occurring subspecies of human beings, it is rather a creation based on arbitrary characteristics, which we allow to determine who we are and our place in society.

In fact, ‘race’ is a relatively modern term and not an archaic concept. Ancient societies did not separate
people because of physical differences of skin colour; differences in communities were constructed around religion, class, status and language. Race was originally a term used to refer to speakers of the same language, and then progressed to denote nationality. In the 17th century, it came to relate to noticeable physical traits. From the 19th century, the term was often used to describe genetic variations in the human population. This new classification was the basis of events such as the Atlantic slave trade and apartheid, where race took form as justification for describing social inequalities as 'natural'. Different races were ranked as inherently superior or inferior to each other, based on alleged shared inheritable qualities and characteristics, to fuel cultural, political, ideological and legal divisions and inequalities in society. Even though practices and principles of racism are universally condemned by the United Nations in the Declaration of Human Rights, racial discrimination and prejudice is still prevalent today.

Modern society aims for racial cooperation - a quick fix - rather than addressing the root of the issue which is race as a core belief. When John Wayne said, “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t feel guilty about the fact that five or ten generations ago these people were slaves,” and celebrities like Justin Bieber are caught saying the N-word, or when members of society have racially-driven fallouts, voices appear to call for acceptance and understanding between races rather than addressing race as a misguided belief. This is why society continues to struggle with racial discrimination today.

There is no doubt that diversity exists, and we are vastly different in our cultural, mental, physical, emotional and psychological frameworks, but race has no influence on our abilities despite what stereotypes aim to perpetuate. This concept needs to be filtered out if society has any hope of moving forward. This may not immediately translate to a utopian image like the ones we see in university brochures, and cultural inequalities will most likely continue for a long time, but in order to assist social progress, people living in the 21st century should aim to challenge their beliefs and think differently.