Blackening her face for 125 days was a new aesthetical mode that artist P.S. Jayamol adopted to create a social critique on the discriminated ‘living’ experiences of the Dalit communities. But it seems to have almost backfired on the face of the artist herself. The onus is now on Jayamol to defend her ‘creative social experiment’ which was lauded as a piece of performance art by local as well as international media.
Jayamol’s ‘performance art’ was almost a reaction toward the infamous ‘Rohit Vemula’ incident at the Hyderabad University. Taking ‘black complexion’ as a definitive marker of the Dalit identity, the artist had embarked on her ‘social experiment cum performance art’ by smearing her face and the exposed parts of hands and feet with removable black paint whenever she ventured out of her home/studio.
However, the argumentative Kerala intelligentsia, especially the Dalit intelligentsia, came out strongly against the artistic ‘co-optation’ of the Dalit issues by using her ‘upper caste’ body as a point of departure and made the artist accountable for such superficial ‘sabotage’ of a Dalit ‘agitating and theorising’ spaces. On the other hand, a major section of the artist community questioned Jayamol on the very idea of ‘performance art.’ Their contention was that the artist herself wasn’t clear about whether it was a piece of performance art or a social experiment. They also raised questions via social media regarding the aesthetics of ‘black’ and the politics of the performing body or that of the body in ‘performance.’
Kerala is no longer the same. The issue of ‘black’ taken up by Jayamol could’ve been lapped up by the intelligentsia had it been done a decade before. Today, the Dalit intelligentsia doesn’t allow any such ‘integrationist,’ ‘patronising’ and ‘co-optation’ moves from anybody. For the spokespeople of the Dalit sections in Kerala, no discursive space that has exclusionary tactics or inclusive approach for the sake of democratic norms is acceptable. What they want today is ‘debate’; they no longer want to be spoken at or spoken to. The clear and precise political positions of the Dalit intellectuals have categorically made it clear to Jayamol that while they accept and appreciate her ‘artistic performance,’ the very idea of sabotaging the discursive space that they’ve been creating for so many decades now cannot be allowed for whatever reasons, including the aesthetical ones. The colour Black is not the only marker of a Dalit or a Dalit’s experience. Black is a general marker for Indians, though the upper castes don’t accept this until they face discrimination at the hands of the real White within the country or elsewhere. While Black being a universal derogatory marker of the evil, marking a Dalit or a Dalit experience with the colour black is almost a reductionist approach. According to the Dalit intelligentsia, blackness has transcended to various daily experiences of the Dalit even in their interactions with patronising integrationists.
It would be a reductionist argument if I say that only a Dalit has the right to speak about the Dalit experiences. However, empathy can’t be a replacement for the real experience. Jayamol’s contention regarding her performance is that it was her position/status as a woman that made her at par with the black skinned Dalit. Though we could argue that women are gendered Dalits, there is a Dalit discourse within the gender discourse itself. Feminisms all over the world have debated the multi-layered experiences of women in various social strata and have come to a conclusion that white feminism can’t speak for black feminism; similarly white upper class feminism can’t speak for the white labour class feminism. Even within Black communities such debates prevail. Jayamol has failed utterly while conceptualizing her performance art, as she hasn’t understood the nuances of Dalit and feminist discourses. Simplistic equations like Dalit= black and Dalit= woman made her almost a laughing stock within the cultural communities all over the world. However, I won’t say that Jayamol as an artist doesn’t have the right to ‘perform’ or ‘conduct’ social experiments on caste system in Kerala using a ‘color’ as a marker. While she has the right to do so, she should also be aware that the word ‘color’ or ‘colored’ itself is a marker of race or caste (in India’s case) and it isn’t just white against black, it is white against all the other colors. In Indian context, it is Brahminism against all other castes created by Brahminism itself.
When art is treated as a ‘reaction,’ not really as ‘response’ or ‘assimilated experiential responses filtered through intelligence and feeling via adequate methods and materials,’ many Jayamols would happen in our society. Such reactionary artists, as they are driven by the urgency to ‘react’ rather than to respond intelligently, fail to understand the gravity of the situations. The failure that happened to Jayamol’s art project is because of her ‘reactionary’ approach. This performance was a ‘reaction’ to Vemula’s suicide. Her concerns were extended to the unfortunate incidents like ‘Ooraly’s arrest’ and the ‘rape and murder of Jisha.’ Reactionary artists often grab the opportunity of famous as well as infamous social happenings and attach their ‘art-ivism’ to such developments. That’s why Jayamol’s performance looks like a tacky social experiment meant for a ‘desired result’ masquerading as a piece of performance art process. The reactionary verve of the artist blinded her in seeing how artists like Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abromovic and so on used body as a performance tool much before the social experiments intend to shock and eke out a reaction from the ‘shocked’ or ‘offended’ or ‘don’t care’ audiences.
Jayamol isn’t alone. Reactionary art is the latest fad in Kerala where people are looking for publicity by attaching themselves to the latest social events that demand intellectual solidarity from different sections of the society. This is an outcome of the Kochi Muziris Biennale that has been promoting an art culture which is predominantly spectacular, and supporting capitalist art with a rebellious streak. While claiming its leaning toward political art, Kochi Muziris Biennale runs with the pray and hunts with the hunter.
Before I close this article, I would like to tell the artists in Kerala and elsewhere that art is political only up to the level of the political integrity of the artist himself or herself. Painting Mahatma Gandhi with a blackened tooth or talking about Dr. B. R. Ambedkar doesn’t make an artist political. Mere sloganeering and claiming of a political voice or space also doesn’t make an artist political. Even the party affiliation of the artists does not make them political. Picasso was a Communist Party card holder, but apart from the forced reading of ‘Guernica,’ we don’t identify Picasso as a communist. Reactionaries are never political. Whether they are visible or invisible, accepted or rejected, accommodated or thrown out, Dalit political discourses have been there for over a century now in India, and a reactionary artist just cannot snatch that space for whatever reasons. As a Dalit scholar and leader had put in one of the television debates, ‘Jayamol can wash the black colour by evening, but what about us who can’t wash it off and also have to hand it over to the successive generations like a pollutant?’
As many of you know, I spend a lot of time browsing Tumblr. Though it has a ton of problems (like refusing to shut down blogs being used to harass women, trans folks, and people of color), I’ve had an account since 2008 and it has accompanied me on my journey through college, years in the working world, and now—graduate school while I juggle staying in my field with expanding my horizons. I’ve found brilliant things on there, and while some posts only garner a tiny modicum of attention even if they’re wonderful, other posts can spread like WILDFIRE and go hugely viral. One such post is this one, about an “African birth song,” which almost has 150K notes:
[T]here is a tribe in Africa where the birth date of a child is counted not from when they were born, nor from when they are conceived but from the day that the child was a thought in its mother’s mind. And when a woman decides that she will have a child, she goes off and sits under a tree, by herself, and she listens until she can hear the song of the child that wants to come. And after she’s heard the song of this child, she comes back to the man who will be the child’s father, and teaches it to him. And then, when they make love to physically conceive the child, some of that time they sing the song of the child, as a way to invite it.And then, when the mother is pregnant, the mother teaches that child’s song to the midwives and the old women of the village, so that when the child is born, the old women and the people around her sing the child’s song to welcome it. And then, as the child grows up, the other villagers are taught the child’s song. If the child falls, or hurts its knee, someone picks it up and sings its song to it. Or perhaps the child does something wonderful, or goes through the rites of puberty, then as a way of honoring this person, the people of the village sing his or her song.
In the African tribe there is one other occasion upon which the villagers sing to the child. If at any time during his or her life, the person commits a crime or aberrant social act, the individual is called to the center of the village and the people in the community form a circle around them. Then they sing their song to them.
The tribe recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity. When you recognize your own song, you have no desire or need to do anything that would hurt another.
And it goes this way through their life. In marriage, the songs are sung, together. And finally, when this child is lying in bed, ready to die, all the villagers know his or her song, and they sing—for the last time—the song to that person.
You may not have grown up in an African tribe that sings your song to you at crucial life transitions, but life is always reminding you when you are in tune with yourself and when you are not. When you feel good, what you are doing matches your song, and when you feel awful, it doesn’t. In the end, we shall all recognize our song and sing it well. You may feel a little warbly at the moment, but so have all the great singers. Just keep singing and you’ll find your way home.
Heartwarming. Much inspiration. Wow. So beautiful we could all cry a thousand tiny tears.
SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM, IN A NUTSHELL?
The “African birth song” is a half-baked invention of a White man that essentializes the “African experience” and does not event attempt to give any real details because it relies on collective ignorance about Africa that centers the world on a White axis. The text above does not provide any sources or even NAME this African tribe (though other versions do, but I’ll get into that later). The story uses exotification, the Noble Savage Myth, and people’s ignorance to make others feel warm n’ fuzzy and perpetuate incorrect narratives in the name of New Agey birth BS. This Tumblr post specifically, as many others have when they get reblogged, also uses the image/body of a RANDOM, unnamed indigenous woman from the Himba tribe. The list of problems goes on, because in the eyes of many non-African people, Africa is apparently just one huge jungle where everyone looks and acts the same, and all women run around topless feeling super connected to Mother Earth or something, giving birth in The Most Spiritual Ways We Should All Be Inspired By.
Though this post focuses on Black and Indigenous folks, the same rule applies when discussing all other communities of color: we are not here to be your nameless, faceless inspirational memes. We want to be seen for who we are, and we want our own voices uplifted, not those of White folks who cannibalize our histories and profit off inaccuracies and tall tales.
ORIGINS OF “THE AFRICAN BIRTH SONG” AND ITS VARIATIONS
While the story sounded cool and all at face-value, I knew there was more digging to be done because this smelled pretty fishy. What’s the real root of this “African Birth Song”? Beyond Tumblr and Facebook, I found some other birth/parenting websites linking to this story, and that it has even been translated into Spanish and into Portuguese. It has been called “Your Song,” “The Song of Men,” “Remember Your Song,” “The Song of the Soul,” and more. The Birth Psychology website sources this book (“Welcoming Spirit Home: Ancient African Teachings to Celebrate Children and Community” by Sobonfu Somé) as the origin of the text but, SURPRISE, I looked at it and the book doesn’t actually make mention of this story—though it does describe other ritual birth practices in certain African tribes.
Some don’t even try to source it to a person, and say this tradition comes from Namibia as a whole. Others say it’s rooted in the Himba people (the picture above, and the “featured image” for this post by J. Gerrits, are Himba women), even though the location of that tribe is apparently in an arid area, so there wouldn’t be a “jungle” to go to as the story say. Meanwhile, other Internetters say the source is the “Ubuntu tribe” even though there is, uh, no such thing—Ubuntu is a philosophy. Again, we see a trend: folks ascribing things to peoples they do not know or understand because they sound “appropriate” or “distant enough” to be credible (and again, such credibility relies on assuming the audience is NOT from Africa or any of these communities).
It actually looks like Tolba Phanem doesn’t actually exist, and the person who truly originated this story is a dude named Alan Cohen*, who published it in Issue #33 of Pathways to Family Wellness—”a quarterly print and digital magazine whose non-profit mission is to support you and your family’s quest for wellness.” (If someone does find that Phanem is a real person, do let me know. I found nothing on her that was accurate/unrelated to this “poem/story.” And even the websites that cite very specific sources for this story don’t seem to return any hits or information—AND they also show incorrect facts that I *can* verify easily which makes them less credible from the get-go.)
[*EDIT 4/19/16: Commenters have been kind enough to keep digging and sourcing further. There seems to be another thread to this story linked to a White, Jewish man named Jack Kornfield which you can read about in this comment thread. I reached out to him but never received a response. Seems like HE may have been the originator of this story before Alan Cohen, but there is still no information about legitimate connections to actual tribal practices.]
So there we go. This story is a load of crap being adorned with “exotic” origin stories in efforts to legitimize it. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only person who was skeptical, but not everyone’s skepticism drew them to my same eyebrow-raising and frustration. For example, this person was also skeptical, but much to my facepalming, this was their conclusion:
I’m an artist. A spontaneous, story-singing artist.
I work in the abstract and unproven, the ethereal and profound.
I make up stories and songs all of the time.
And they’re true.
They are invented and (sometimes) nonsensical, and maybe they never happened, but at the heart and at the center, they are true.
Because when we hear them (or tell them), we can imagine and believe that they really happened.
Or wish that they had.
This is a true story.
On some level, I get it. I used to do a lot of art, and I am surrounded by artists, writers, and storytellers. I know not everything that gets written down has to be non-fiction, and that we can spin stories out of grains of truth and blah blah blah. I get it. But to use THAT as an excuse for writing racially busted stories, and especially those that go viral on social media? No. Your art is not an excuse. Your art does not exist in a vacuum. Your art is not separate from the systems of racism and oppression in which we live, and to be an artist is not to be exempt from cultural critique and social responsibility. If you want to tell a story about healing, restorative justice, song-singing, and birth, then make it stand on its own merits and power instead of being lazy and using some nameless, faceless “tribe” to help make it sound more legitimate.
CONNECTIONS TO REALITY & HEALING/JUSTICE
So is this “African birth song” remotely related to actual tribal birth practices in Africa? Or indigenous work around healing? Sort of. Does the idea of being “in tune with our song” sound deep, and like it would be amazing to find ways of achieving justice that don’t just rely on punitive measures, but instead look beyond that and aim for reintegration and accountability? Heck yes. But none of that erases the racist mess I describe above. However, let’s leave that behind for a bit so we can look at what connection this actually has to reality.
Because I don’t know much about birthing practices in Africa, and I doubt I could do ANY sort of justice to an entire CONTINENT in a single blog-post, I’ll focus on the healing/justice portions.
Here’s a quick explanation of what healing circles are all about and where they come from. Though there are not a ton of studies about them as far as “evidence-based research” goes, there are some folks working on this kind of thing (example!), and I was honored to meet a group of them at the 2014 National Sexual Assault Conference.
RESTORATIVE JUSTICE, TRANSFORMATIVE JUSTICE, AND COMMUNITY ACCOUNTABILITY
The line “The [group] recognizes that the correction for antisocial behavior is not punishment; it is love and the remembrance of identity” encapsulates a big part of the RJ, TJ, and CA models. While different organizations may have different definitions of these concepts and how they relate to each other, at its core, the ideas behind these models and principles are that a) communities as a whole must be involved in eradicating violence, b) perpetrators of violence should not just be “passively responsible” for their actions, and c) healing must be directed by survivors and those impacted by the violence. Finally, a tenet of TJ (though not always RJ) is the idea that we must transform—not merely slightly modify—our societal structures that currently enable violence and set up punishments for it.
Here’s a great resource that explains both TJ and CA with text, graphics, and a list of resources. It also gives credit where credit is due (read: to groups like Incite! Women of Color Against Violence and Generation Five for their work theorizing, writing, and operationalizing these concepts). This other resource also gives more historical background on it because our current police state wasn’t always what it is now, and this one discusses how the RJ model has been co-opted by the criminal justice system in certain ways (and thus how TJ can be an alternative to that).
Another slew of resources aggregated by Critical Resistance on addressing harm, accountability, and healing. It lists books, toolkits, zines, websites, articles, and more. While CR focuses on the prison industrial complex (PIC), this list of tools is about multiple forms of violence, including sexual assault, DV, state violence, and so on.
Here’s the Creative Interventions Toolkit, which “embracing the values of social justice and liberation, is a space to re/envision solutions to domestic or intimate partner, sexual, family and other forms of interpersonal violence.”
The Revolution Starts at Home is a fabulous book, and here’s an excerpt on these kind of strategies from a grassroots lens.
Here’s another CA wheel that focuses on domestic violence and explains what kind of actions should be taken by men, media, educational systems, the justice system, clergy, etc. (though it’s heteronormative and presents men as the only batterers).
I think the ideas about healing and community-building in this story are awesome, but Mr. Cohen is not the originator of the concepts AND he’s using a racist, colonialist, tired ol’ lens to share his regurgitated opinion. Thus, I think that while this story has some good nuggets in it, there are WAY better resources and texts out there to illustrate these concepts in ways that are historically accurate, relevant, and non-oppressive. We ALL deserve better than this story.
[Added 2:15 pm EST] While this may seem small to some of you, this is part of a larger trend—this is a pattern, not a story in isolation. If you’re an educator, activist, teacher, parent, speaker, power-wielder of some sort, imagine incorporating this into a lesson about media literacy in a classroom, so students can find appropriate sources of information for projects. Imagine incorporating this into a workshop about birthing practices if you work with expecting parents. Imagine bringing this into a discussion about POC solidarity, or a lecture about art and social responsibility, or a class about international feminism.
I’m an award-winning activist and presenter known for big earrings and building bridges. My perspective is one that focuses on intersectionality and maximizing kindness in the world. I’m trained as a sexuality educator, social worker, and nonprofit management professional. In short, this boricua is trying to make the world a better place using many strategies. And spreadsheets. Lots and lots of spreadsheets.
All quotes are direct quotations from The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. They are taken from his writings and statements during the years he spent working as an attorney in South Africa, before he went back to India in 1915 to fight for independence. Note: “Kaffir” is an offensive term in South Africa considered on par with “n*gger” in the U.S., though in Gandhi’s time some historians claim it was considered more neutral.
Indians Dragged Down to the Kaffirs
Before Dec. 19, 1894: “A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.”
Kaffirs Pass Their Lives in ‘Indolence and Nakedness’
Sept. 26, 1896: “Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”
Kaffirs Would Not Work
Oct. 26, 1896: “There is a bye-law in Durban which requires registration of coloured servants. This rule may be, and perhaps is, necessary for the Kaffirs who would not work, but absolutely useless with regard to the Indians. But the policy is to class the Indian with the Kaffir whenever possible.”
Indians ‘Infinitely Superior’ to the Kaffirs
Before May 27, 1899: “Your Petitioner has seen the Location intended to be used by the Indians. It would place them, who are undoubtedly infinitely superior to the Kaffirs, in close proximity to the latter.”
Indians Shouldn’t Be Taxed Like Kaffirs
May 24, 1903: “The £3 tax is merely a penalty for wearing the brown skin and it would appear that, whereas Kaffirs are taxed because they do not work at all or sufficiently, we are to be taxed evidently because we work too much, the only thing in common between the two being the absence of the white skin.”
Indians Forced to Live with Too Many Kaffirs
Feb. 11, 1904: “I venture to write you regarding the shocking state of the Indian Location. The rooms appear to be overcrowded beyond description. The sanitary service is very irregular, and many of the residents of the Location have been to my office to complain that the sanitary condition is far worse than before. There is, too, a very large Kaffir population in the Location for which really there is no warrant.”
Calamity Coming for Johannesburg
Feb. 15, 1904: “I feel convinced that every minute wasted over the matter merely hastens a calamity for Johannesburg and that through absolutely no fault of the British Indians. Why, of all places in Johannesburg, the Indian Location should be chosen for dumping down all the kaffirs of the town passes my comprehension.”
No Mixing Kaffirs With Indians
Feb. 15, 1904: “Of course, under my suggestion, the Town Council must withdraw the Kaffirs from the Location. About this mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly. I think it is very unfair to the Indian population and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen.”
Kaffirs Less Advanced
Sept. 9, 1906: “Even the half-castes and Kaffirs, who are less advanced than we, have resisted the Government. The pass law applies to them as well, but they do not take out passes.”
Even a Kaffir Policeman Can Accost Indians?
June 4, 1907: “Are we supposed to be thieves or free-booters that even a Kaffir policeman can accost and detain us wherever we happen to be going?”
Kaffirs Can Be Pleased With Toys and Pins
Feb. 2, 1908: “The British rulers take us to be so lowly and ignorant that they assume that, like the Kaffirs who can be pleased with toys and pins, we can also be fobbed off with trinkets.”
Kaffirs Are Uncivilized Animals
July 3, 1907: “Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilised – the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals. Each ward contains nearly 50 to 60 of them. They often started rows and fought among themselves. The reader can easily imagine the plight of the poor Indian thrown into such company!”
Indians Must Stay Away From Kaffir Women
Dec. 2, 1910: “Some Indians do have contacts with Kaffir women. I think such contacts are fraught with grave danger. Indians would do well to avoid them altogether.”
The traditional Easter Week foot-washing ceremony by the pontiff is meant as a Catholic gesture of service.
Pope Francis has visited a refugee centre to wash and kiss the feet of Muslim, Orthodox, Hindu and Catholic refugees — a gesture of welcome at a time when anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment has risen after the Brussels and Paris attacks.
Francis celebrated the traditional Easter Week foot-washing ceremony at a refugee shelter in Castelnuovo di Porto, outside Rome, inaugurating the most solemn period of the Catholic Church’s Easter season.
The Holy Thursday rite re-enacts the foot-washing ritual Jesus performed on his apostles before being crucified, and is meant as a gesture of service.
Francis was greeted with a banner reading “Welcome” in a variety of languages as he processed down a makeshift aisle to celebrate the outdoor Mass.
A fraction of the 892 asylum seekers living at the shelter attended, though others milled around nearby and filmed the event on their smartphones.
Vatican rules had long called for only men to participate in the ritual, and past popes and many priests traditionally performed it on 12 Catholic men, recalling Jesus’ 12 apostles and further cementing the doctrine of an all-male priesthood.
But after years of violating the rules outright, Francis in January changed the regulations to explicitly allow women and girls to participate.
The Vatican said on Thursday that four women and eight men had been selected. The women include an Italian who works at the centre and three Eritrean Coptic Christian migrants. The men include four Catholics from Nigeria, three Muslims from Mali, Syria and Pakistan, and a Hindu from India.
The new norms said anyone from the “people of God” could be chosen to participate in the ceremony.
While the phrase “people of God” usually refers to baptised Christians, the decree also said that pastors should instruct “both the chosen faithful and others so that they may participate in the rite consciously, actively and fruitfully”, suggesting that the rite could be open to non-Catholics as well.
The charge of “racist” represents a scalpel that has been substantially dulled in recent years. The result is an inability to cut cleanly around the cancerous tissue of racism. The term has been co-opted by well-meaning social justice advocates, and is no longer reserved for people who treat members of other groups as inherently inferior to members of their own group. Nor is it used to identify people who fail to treat members of other groups as the individuals that they are. Instead, “racist” is casually hurled at anyone who expresses ideas that have been emblazoned on an intellectual “no-fly list.”
This is not to say that the charge of racism lacks punch. Most reasonable people want to avoid being called a racist, or having people think that they are racist. Perhaps nowhere is this more pronounced than in the modern academy. Scholars are well aware of how damaging a charge of racism can be to a career. Luminaries like E.O. Wilson, Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein, Hans Eysenck, and the Nobel Prize winner James Watson have all brushed up uncomfortably against charges of racism. At universities around the country, students and faculty brand almost any belief about the biological basis of group differences as “scientific racism.”
To suggest that races might possess slightly different temperamental, cognitive, and other psychological traits, and that some of these differences are partly genetic in origin, is to violate a powerful — perhaps the most powerful — academic taboo. The incendiary nature of the subject seems to flow largely from the fear that discussing biological group differences will foster racial prejudice among the general public. Indeed, people bent on quantifying human worth have erected racial hierarchies, propped them up with pseudo-scientific theories and folk understandings about group differences, and conscripted them into service towards reprehensible ends. History, in places, is a wasteland of tragedy when it comes to the treatment of minority individuals. Yet, the reprehensible treatment of minority groups currently, or in the past, does not constitute empirical evidence that race is a fiction, or that differences in the psychological constitutions across racial groups are purely environmental in origin.
It is true that assertions about group differences can be motivated by malice. But group differences either exist, or don’t, regardless of whatever motivations are in place to seek them out. In the parlance of scientists, “it’s an empirical question” whether groups differ, on average.
It might even surprise us which direction these differences take. For example, many in the media focus on black/white differences in outcomes and infer that all of them result from racism, or “structural oppression.” But they often (deliberately?) omit the fact that Americans from South and East Asia perform better on a variety of metrics than other groups. Asian Americans have slightly higher SAT scores and higher incomes than Americans of European descent. And in every country in which they are represented, Ashkenazi Jews are disproportionately productive, innovative, and creative. Is it plausible to argue that such statements about Jews or Asians are racist? Hardly. In fact, failure to acknowledge the possibility of genetic differences in intelligence has led some to search for bizarre explanations of Jewish success, like supernatural sorcery or global conspiracies.
Many academics deny that races exist at all, thus sidestepping any need to think critically about the causes of group differences. The basic idea is that these categories have been used (and in some places continue to be used) as socially constructed tools of oppression. So, the argument goes, acknowledging biological differences between groups like races (or sexes) should be rejected outright because of the bad consequences it might produce.
Pause momentarily, though, and consider whether it would really even matter to you, in your daily life, what caused the differences between groups — genetics, environments, or some combination of the two? Would that knowledge inform, or should it inform, how you treat the neighbor who lives beside you?
If to avoid being a racist, one has to maintain that all groups are the same (or that differences only emerge from one or two socially acceptable causes), then we are going to have to spend a great deal of time lying to ourselves and ignoring the world we confront every day.
None of this diminishes the fact that racism is real, and that it has an ugly history. But many people, especially intellectuals, go to elaborate lengths to explain every possible difference between groups by appealing to a discriminatory culture. If the outcome is different, one group must be oppressing the other group. Maybe they’re right, but that should be settled by investigation rather than by assumption.
So, What is Racism and Who Are the Racists?
If believing in the reality of race, or the existence of race differences, is not equivalent to racism, then what is? The issue seems to have everything to do with the worth placed on individuals. If an individual is assigned more or less worth depending only on the racial group they identify with (or are identified with by outsiders), that is racism. By using this definition, we avoid the worries about both group differences and race differences. Group differences will either exist, or not, and they’ll be caused in part – or not at all – by biological factors, and none of that will alter the worth of the individual in question.
We are not arguing that racism has vanished, or that racists don’t exist. We’re making precisely the opposite argument. There are racists out in the world. They assign the same level of worth to everyone from a given group.
John McWhorter recently wrote an essay relevant to the current discussion. As McWhorter notes, at some point the term “’racist’ starts to come off as a mere angry bludgeon used by a certain set of people committed to moral condemnation and comfortable with shutting down exchange.”
Our search for cultural tumors must be constrained. If everything is cancer, then nothing is.
Jonathan Anomaly is a Lecturer at Duke University and Research Assistant Professor at UNC Chapel Hill
Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. Follow him on Twitter @fsnole1
Most people believe that race exists. They believe that Denzel Washington is an African American, that George Clooney is a Caucasian, and that George Takei is an Asian.* Many intellectuals, however, contend that this belief results from an illusion as dangerous as it is compelling. “Just as the sun appears to orbit the earth”, so too do humans appear to belong to distinct and easily identifiable groups. But, underneath this appearance, the reality of human genetic variation is complicated and inconsistent with standard, socially constructed racial categories. This is often touted as cause for celebration. All humans are really African under the skin; and human diversity, however salient it may appear, is actually remarkably superficial. Therefore racism is based on a misperception of reality and is as untrue as it is deplorable.
With appropriate qualifications, however, we will argue that most people are correct: race exists. And although genetic analyses have shown that human variation is complicated, standard racial categories are not arbitrary social constructions. Rather, they correspond to real genetic differences among human populations. Furthermore, we believe that scientists can and should study this variation without fear of censure or obloquy. Racism isn’t wrong because there aren’t races; it is wrong because it violates basic human decency and modern moral ideals. In fact, pinning a message of tolerance to the claim that all humans are essentially the same underneath the skin is dangerous. It suggests that if there were real differences, racism would be justified. This is bad science and worse morality. Promoting a tolerant, cosmopolitan society doesn’t require denying basic facts about the world. It requires putting in the hard work and effort to support the legal equality and moral dignity of all humans.
Race exists, but variation is complicated
Scholars who have assailed the concept of race have forwarded three general arguments against it. Although the arguments are worth consideration, they do not ultimately show that race is a useless or fictional concept. The first two objections are aimed at a straw man, and the last, we will contend, is entirely wrong.
(Objection 1): Human variation is clinal or gradual, not discrete. Skin pigmentation, for example, does not come in four, five, or seven distinct colors, but varies gradually from very dark near the equator to very light in Northern Eurasia.
This charge against the validity of race is undoubtedly correct: a lot of human variation is gradual, not discrete. However, we are not familiar with any prominent proponent of the usefulness of race who would disagree with this contention (assuming they actually understand the evidence). The famous German intellectual and early theoretician of human variation, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1775), who is often accused of clumsily categorizing humans into discrete racial groups,contended that, “no variety [of human] exists …so singular as not to be connected to others of the same kind by such an imperceptible transition, that it is very clear they are all related, or only differ from each other in degree.”
For a period of time, polygenism, or the belief that the races arose from separate creations, was popular, but it was widely discredited by genetic and archaeological evidence clearly demonstrating that modern humans originated in Africa (a view promoted by Darwin, who also happened to believe that human races existed). Today, most researchers would agree with Blumenbach, including, for example, Nicholas Wade, who recently wrote a book about race that provoked a furious backlash. In that book, Wade asserted that “because there is no clear dividing line, there are no distinct races — that is the nature of variation within a species. Nonetheless, useful distinctions can be made” (p. 92). This is the key point: although the argument that human variation is continuous rather than discrete is correct, it does not vitiate a sophisticated understanding of race. It only refutes a platonic conception that few contemporary scholars take seriously.
This claim is true in a circumscribed sense, but is largely irrelevant to the question of whether population group differences are biologically meaningful. As pointed out by Jeffry B. Mitton and A.W.F. Edwards, the original finding that genetic diversity among human races is insubstantial compared to genetic diversity within races was based on a peculiar way of measuring genetic variation. Roughly speaking, the original claim about genetic diversity was based on analyses at single genetic loci (spots on the chromosome where genes are located) and not on analyses that considered the correlated structure of multiple genetic loci (many locations). Failure to consider multiple loci assures that broad, distinct patterns of allele (gene) frequencies get lost in the noise of diversity at single loci. This sounds painfully abstruse, but the basic point is this: patterns that are nearly invisible for individual genes become visible if one examines multiple genes at the same time (i.e., looks at gene 1 + gene 2 + gene 3 + gene 4…et cetera).
Consider a simple but illustrative example.a Imagine that a friend is describing an animal one adjective at a time (e.g., “big,” “furry” et cetera). You are trying to guess the animal. At first, it is difficult to guess because there are many “big” animals, and there are many “big” and “furry” animals. But as her description continues, it gets much easier to guess correctly because each adjective adds to the prior adjectives. The information that allows you to guess correctly does not reside in any one adjective but in the list of adjectives strung together (“big,” “furry,” “antlered,” “white tailed,” “hooved,” “spritely,” “brown,” et cetera). The same holds for population groups. Each genetic locus, like each adjective, is relatively uninformative; but a string of 200 or 300 loci is very informative.
Empirical studies bear this logic out. The geneticist Hua Tang and her colleagues, for instance, found that self-reported ethnicity corresponded almost perfectly with genetic clusters from 326 microsatellite markers (a microsatellite marker is a piece of repetitive DNA in which a series of DNA base pairs are repeated). Other studieshave demonstrated even more power to identify people’s ancestry accurately. These studies illustrate that, whatever the meaning of the claim that there is much more variation within than among races, researchers can, if they use the appropriate procedures, distinguish human ancestral groups from each other with remarkable accuracy. The significance of these genetic differences among groups is entirely an empirical question.
(Objection 3): Human racial classifications are arbitrary. For some purposes, categorizing by skin color is useful; for other purposes, categorizing by, say, antimalarial genes, is useful. These classifications, although equally valid, lead to radically different racial categories. Thus, one particular classification scheme is no better than the other and none are particularly illuminating.
By any reasonable understanding of the word “arbitrary,” this claim is incorrect. Perhaps the most prominent proponent of this argument is the gifted and persuasive writer Jared Diamond, who wrote, “There are many different, equally valid procedures for defining races, and those different procedures yield very different classifications” thereby ultimately concluding that we shouldn’t codify human differences into arbitrary racial taxonomies. Diamond is absolutely correct that there isn’t a divinely mandated procedure for correctly classifying human variation. It does not then follow, however, that racial categories are entirely arbitrary, created at the whim of self-interested researchers or racial bigots. Of course, social interests absolutely do affect some racial classifications within a society, but that is a complicated subject we can’t fully explore here (see endnote).
Group categories are constrained by commonly accepted principles such as coherence, parsimony, and predictiveness. Classifications that are incoherent or that have little predictive value are not valid. There will be some flexibility about classification, but not the anarchic freedom Diamond’s arguments seem to suggest. One might, for example, propose classifying Scandinavians with Nilo-Saharan speaking ethnic groups in East Africa because both can digest lactose into adulthood. But, such classifications would violate the principle of parsimony. These groups diverged from each other before developing the ability to digest lactose into adulthood, evolved on separate continents, and do not share other visible traits such as skin pigmentation and hair texture. Therefore, it makes little sense to categorize them in the same ancestral group.
Race, then, is not a platonic essence and racial groups are not discrete categories of humans. Instead, race is a pragmatic construct that picks out real variation in the world (which corresponds to shared ancestry) and allows people and scientists to make useful inferences. In this way, racial categories are like film categories (e.g., drama, horror, comedy). Film categories are certainly real in the sense that they offer predictive power. If one knows that A Nightmare on Elm Street is a horror film, one can be reasonably certain that it will be dark, scary, and violent. But film categories are not immutable essences that perfectly sort movies into distinct types. A genre-based satire like Scream, for example, does not snugly fit into any of the traditional film categories. It might be horror; it might be comedy; it might be some previously unknown combination of the two. Furthermore, there aren’t a fixed number of film categories. The amount and the granularity of film categories depend upon the interests of the people using them. Your friend might use four (horror, comedy, drama, and science fiction), whereas Netflix might use an apparently limitless and startlingly specific supply. (See Daniel Dennett’s book for a variety of points and related examples centering on the topic of species).
The same principles apply to racial categories. If one knows that Thomas is a Caucasian, one can be reasonably sure that Thomas has relatively light skin, and that he has recent ancestry in Europe. But racial categories, like film categories, aren’t immutable essences that perfectly sort humans into distinct groups. There aren’t a fixed number of racial categories, and the number researchers use is partially a matter of convenience. One might start with five continentally based categories (i.e., Caucasians, East Asians, Africans, Native Americans, and Australian Aborigines) and then add more categories as one’s analysis becomes more granular (e.g. Ashkenazi Jewish, Mizrahi Jewish, and so on). These categories aren’t real in some metaphysical sense, but they are useful, and they do have predictive value. In this, they are like many other constructs in the social sciences such as self-esteem, intelligence, and agreeableness. They represent traits that cluster together; they predict outcomes; and they can be quantified.
The Ethics of Race
Although the argument that racial categories are fictitious and useless is ostensibly a scientific one, it has been promulgated by progressives to combat racial bigotry. After all, if race is an illusion, then racism is as unreasonable as the fear of ghosts. This would allow researchers and intellectuals not only to denounce racism, but also to mock racists for their basic misunderstanding of biology. But what if meaningful race differences do exist? Should intellectuals continue to promote a false narrative because it serves laudable social ends? This dilemma can be avoided entirely if intellectuals promote a narrative of tolerance that is not attached to an empirical claim. Racism is wrong because it violates the dignity of individual humans. This dignity is not predicated on the biological uniformity of the human species, but rather on the unique worth, esteem, and integrity of all individuals.
Furthermore, high-minded narratives about the similarity of humans and the unreality of race are unlikely to convince the average person. Abstruse analyses of fine-grained genetic differences among populations of Africans, for example, will likely not prevent most people from clumping Africans into one group and Caucasians into another. And, in fact, such folk classifications do correspond toshared ancestry and discernible genetic variation. People see race because race exists, not because they are dupes of an oppressive mythology.
We are not naive about the dangers of candidly discussing human racial variation. It is doubtless true that demagogues and charlatans have used real and imagined data about racial differences to support abhorrent policies and to foment racial strife. And it is also doubtless true that the suggestion that racial groups may vary on socially valued traits contradicts contemporary egalitarian norms. However, studying and discussing racial variation is also potentially rewarding. It might promote the development of better, more personalized medical treatments and public policy interventions; and it would certainly increase our understanding about the evolutionary history of our species. Furthermore, not candidly discussing human racial variation is also potentially dangerous.
Denying the reality of race leaves a vacuum for extremists to exploit. If moderates and progressives refuse to discuss human racial variation, then only the most extreme and often deplorable people will. We can assure you that if we don’t talk about it as research scientists, it will not prevent racial demagogues from using it to support ugly and intolerant social policies. And it will also cede the scientific high ground to those demagogues, compelling moderates and progressives to resort to semantic games or purposeful obfuscation and straw man arguments.
Most people believe that there are human races. They believe this not because they have a sophisticated understanding of genetic variation or human evolution, but because they see and categorize perspicuous phenotypic (and possibly behavioral) differences. Although many intellectuals have contended that these differences are largely superficial and distort underlying genetic realities, most research suggests that there are meaningful genetic differences among racial groups and that these differences are largely consistent with common racial classifications. Race is as real and useful as other constructs in the social sciences such as neuroticism, self-esteem, and intelligence. Therefore, with appropriate care and caution, scientists can and should study racial variation. This argument may appear alarming to people concerned about racial justice. But it doesn’t need to be. Tolerance and cosmopolitanism don’t require the leveling of diversity; they require the celebration of it. Race exists, but racism does not have to.
Bo Winegard is a graduate student at Florida State University. Follow him on Twitter @EPoe187
Ben Winegard is an Assistant Professor at Carroll College. Follow him on Twitter @BenWinegard
Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University. Follow him on Twitter @fsnole1
*It is important to note that the social constructionist arguments about race are nuanced and are worth considering. We also recognize that much of the concern over race stems not from classifying individual ancestries, rather it stems more from worry over the attempts (both past and present) to “rank” racial groups based on some purportedly “objective” criteria of worth. Ranking groups is a pointless and meaningless exercise, and we concur that it can produce tremendous harm. Yet, describing the biological underpinnings of race, attempting better to understand how natural selection might have sculpted those differences, and ultimately trying better to grasp the evolutionary heritage of our species so that we might have a more complete understanding of our legacy, is a worthy scientific enterprise. Most importantly, despite that we spend very little space to discussing the social construction of race, this should not be interpreted as a failure to recognize the nuance embedded in social constructionist arguments. We were simply limited in the space we could devote to it.
a To our knowledge, we have yet to see a similar example applied specifically to race.
In this edited extract from his new book, acclaimed writer Ta-Nehisi Coates discusses the history of race in the US in the form of a letter to his teenage son
The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are. I think of that summer that you may well remember when I loaded you and your cousin Christopher into the back seat of a rented car and pushed out to see what remained of Petersburg, Shirley Plantation, and the Wilderness. I was obsessed with the civil war because six hundred thousand people had died in it. And yet it had been glossed over in my education, and in popular culture, representations of the war and its reasons seemed obscured. And yet I know that in 1859 we were enslaved and in 1865 we were not, and what happened to us in those years struck me as having a certain amount of import. But whenever I visited any of the battlefields, I felt like I was greeted as if I were a nosy accountant conducting an audit and someone was trying to hide the books.
I don’t know if you remember how the film we saw at the Petersburg battlefield ended as though the fall of the Confederacy were the onset of a tragedy, not jubilee. I doubt you remember the man on our tour dressed in the grey wool of the Confederacy, or how every visitor seemed most interested in flanking manoeuvres, hardtack, smooth-bore rifles, grapeshot, but virtually no one was interested in what all of this engineering, invention and design had been marshalled to achieve. You were only 10 years old. But even then I knew that must trouble you, and this meant taking you into rooms where people would insult your intelligence, where thieves would try to enlist you in your own robbery and disguise their burning and looting as Christian charity. But robbery is what this is, what it always was.
At the onset of the civil war, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies – cotton – was America’s primary export. The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi river valley and they made their riches off our stolen bodies. Our bodies were held in bondage by the early presidents. The first shot of the civil war was fired in South Carolina, where our bodies constituted the majority of human bodies in the state. Here is the motive for the great war. It’s not a secret. But we can do better and find the bandit confessing his crime. “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,” declared Mississippi as it left the union, “the greatest material interest in the world.”
But American reunion was built on a comfortable narrative that made enslavement into benevolence, white knights of body snatchers, and the mass slaughter of the war into a kind of sport in which one could conclude that both sides conducted their affairs with courage, honour and élan. This lie of the civil war is the lie of innocence, is the Dream. Historians conjured the Dream. Hollywood fortified the Dream. The Dream was gilded by novels and adventure stories. I, like every kid I knew, loved The Dukes of Hazzard. But I would have done well to think more about why two outlaws, driving a car named the General Lee, must necessarily be portrayed as “just some good ol’ boys, never meanin’ no harm” – a mantra for the Dreamers if ever there was one. But what one “means” is neither important nor relevant. It is not necessary that you believe that the officer who choked Eric Garner set out that day to destroy a body. All you need to understand is that the officer carries with him the power of the American state and the weight of an American legacy, and they necessitate that of the bodies destroyed every year, some wild and disproportionate number of them will be black.
Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labour – it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest. And so enslavement must be casual wrath and random manglings, the gashing of heads and brains blown out over the river as the body seeks to escape. It must be rape so regular as to be industrial. There is no uplifting way to say this. I have no praise anthems, nor old Negro spirituals. The spirit and the soul are the body and brain, which are destructible – that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton, and these created the first fruits of the American garden. And these fruits were secured through the bashing of children with stovewood, through hot iron peeling skin away like husk from corn.
It had to be blood. It had to be nails driven through a tongue and ears pruned away. It had to be the thrashing of a kitchen maid for the crime of churning the butter at a leisurely clip. It could only be the employment of carriage whips,tongs, iron pokers, handsaws, stones, paperweights or whatever might be handy to break the black body, the black family, the black community, the black nation. And the bodies were an aspiration, lucrative as Indian land, a veranda, a beautiful wife, or a summer house in the mountains. For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies were the key to a social club, and the right to break bodies was the mark of civilisation. “The two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” said the great South Carolina senator John C Calhoun. “And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” And there it is – the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.
You and I, my son, are that “below”. That was true in 1776. It is true today. There is no them without you, and without the right to break you they must necessarily fall from the mountain, lose their divinity, and tumble out of the Dream. And then they would have to determine how to build their suburbs on something other than human bones, how to angle their jails toward something other than a human stockyard, how to erect a democracy independent of cannibalism. But because they believe themselves to be white, they would rather countenance a man choked to death on film under their laws. And they would rather subscribe to the myth of Trayvon Martin, slight teenager, hands full of candy and soft drinks, transforming into a murderous juggernaut. And they would rather see Prince Jones followed through three jurisdictions and shot down for acting like a human.
It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country. It breaks too much of what we would like to think about ourselves, our lives, the world we move through and the people who surround us. The struggle to understand is our only advantage over this madness. By the time I visited those battlefields, I knew that they had been retrofitted as the staging ground for a great deception, and this was my only security, because they could no longer insult me by lying to me. I knew – and the most important thing I knew was that, somewhere deep with them, they knew too. The struggle is really all I have for you because it is the only portion of the world under your control.
I am sorry that I cannot make it okay. I am sorry that I cannot save you – but not that sorry. Part of me thinks your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe themselves white divides them from it. The fact is that despite their dreams their lives are also not inviolable. When their own vulnerability becomes real – when the police decide that tactics intended for the ghetto should enjoy wider usage, when their armed society shoots down their children, when nature sends hurricanes against their cities – they are shocked in a way that those of us who were born and bred to understand cause and effect can never be. And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees that is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.
I am speaking to you as I always have – as the sober and serious man I have always wanted you to be, who does not apologise for human feelings, who does not make excuses for his height, his long arms, his beautiful smile. You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people feel comfortable. None of that can change the math anyway. I never wanted you to be twice as good as them, so much as I have always wanted you to attack every day of your brief bright life in struggle. The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.
Walter White. Chairman of the NAACP. Black dude. (The Walter White Project)
Andrew Sullivan and Freddie Deboer have two pieces up worth checking out. I disagree with Andrew’s (though I detect some movement in his position.) Freddie’s piece is entitled “Precisely How Not to Argue About Race and IQ.” He writes:
The problem with people who argue for inherent racial inferiority is not that they lie about the results of IQ tests, but that they are credulous about those tests and others like them when they shouldn’t be; that they misunderstand the implications of what those tests would indicate even if they were credible; and that they fail to find the moral, analytic, and political response to questions of race and intelligence.
I think this is a good point, but I want to expand it. Most of the honest writing I’ve seen on “race and intelligence” focuses on critiquing the idea of “intelligence.” So there’s lot of good literature on whether it can be measured, its relevance in modern society, whether intelligence changes across generations, whether it changes with environment, and what we mean when we say IQ. As Freddie mentions here, I had a mathematician stop past to tell me I needed to stop studying French, and immediately start studying statistics — otherwise I can’t possibly understand this debate.
It’s a fair critique. My response is that he should stop studying math and start studying history.I am not being flip or coy. If you tell me that you plan to study “race and intelligence” then it is only fair that I ask you, “What do you mean by race?” It’s true I don’t always do math so well, but I understand the need to define the terms of your study. If you’re a math guy, perhaps your instinct is to point out the problems in the interpretation of the data. My instinct is to point out that your entire experiment proceeds from a basic flaw — no coherent, fixed definition of race actually exists. The history bears this out. In 1856, Ralph Waldo Emerson delineated the significance of race:
It is race, is it not, that puts the hundred millions of India under the dominion of a remote island in the north of Europe. Race avails much, if that be true, which is alleged, that all Celts are Catholics, and all Saxons are Protestants; that Celts love unity of power, and Saxons the representative principle. Race is a controlling influence in the Jew, who, for two millenniums, under every climate, has preserved the same character and employments. Race in the negro is of appalling importance. The French in Canada, cut off from all intercourse with the parent people, have held their national traits. I chanced to read Tacitus “on the Manners of the Germans,” not long since, in Missouri, and the heart of Illinois, and I found abundant points of resemblance between the Germans of the Hercynian forest, and our Hoosiers, Suckers, and Badgers of the American woods.
Indeed, Emerson in 1835, saw race as central to American greatness:
The inhabitants of the United States, especially of the Northern portion, are descended from the people of England and have inherited the trais of their national character…It is common with the Franks to break their faith and laugh at it The race of Franks is faithless.
Emerson was not alone, as historian James McPherson points out, Southerners not only thought of themselves as a race separate from blacks, but as a race apart from Northern whites:
The South’s leading writer on political economy, James B. D. De Bow, subscribed to this Norman-Cavalier thesis and helped to popularize it in De Bow’s Review. As the lower-South states seceded one after another during the winter of 1860-61, this influential journal carried several long articles justifying secession on the grounds of irreconcilable ethnic differences between Southern and Northern whites. “The Cavaliers, Jacobites, and Huguenots, who settled the South, naturally hate, contemn, and despise the Puritans who settled the North,” proclaimed one of these articles. “The former are a master-race; the latter a slave race, the descendants of Saxon serfs.” The South was now achieving its “independent destiny” by repudiating the failed experiment of civic nationalism that had foolishly tried in 1789 to “erect one nation out of two irreconcilable peoples.”
Similarly, in 1899 William Z. Ripley wrote The Races of Europe, which sought to delineate racial difference through head-type:
The shape of the human head by which we mean the general proportions of length, breadth, and height, irrespective of the ” bumps ” of the phrenologist is one of the best available tests of race known. Its value is, at the same time, but imperfectly appreciated beyond the inner circle of professional anthropology. Yet it is so simple a phenomenon, both in principle and in practical application, that it may readily be of use to the traveller and the not too superficial observer of men.
To be sure, widespread and constant peculiarities of head form are less noticeable in America, because of the extreme variability of our population, compounded as it is of all the races of Europe; they seem also to be less fundamental among the American aborigines. But in the Old World the observant traveller may with a little attention often detect the racial affinity of a people by this means.
Two years later, Edward A. Ross sought to apprehend “The Causes of Race Superiority.” He saw the differences between the Arab “race” and the Jewish “race” as a central illustration:
It is certain that races differ in their attitude toward past and future. M. Lapie has drawn a contrast between the Arab and the Jew. The Arab remembers; he is mindful of past favors and past injuries. He harbors his vengeance and cherishes his gratitude. He accepts everything on the authority of tradition, loves the ways of his ancestors, forms strong local attachments, and migrates little. The Jew, on the other hand, turns his face toward the future. He is thrifty and always ready for a good stroke of business, will, indeed, join with his worst enemy if it pays. He is calculating, enterprising, migrant and ambitious
Our notion of what constitutes “white” and what constitutes “black” is a product of social context. It is utterly impossible to look at the delineation of a “Southern race” and not see the Civil War, the creation of an “Irish race” and not think of Cromwell’s ethnic cleansing, the creation of a “Jewish race” and not see anti-Semitism. There is no fixed sense of “whiteness” or “blackness,” not even today. It is quite common for whites to point out that Barack Obama isn’t really “black” but “half-white.” One wonders if they would say this if Barack Obama were a notorious drug-lord.
When the liberal says “race is a social construct,” he is not being a soft-headed dolt; he is speaking an historical truth. We do not go around testing the “Irish race” for intelligence or the “Southern race” for “hot-headedness.” These reasons are social. It is no more legitimate to ask “Is the black race dumber than then white race?” than it is to ask “Is the Jewish race thriftier than the Arab race?”
The strongest argument for “race” is that people who trace their ancestry back to Europe, and people who trace most of their ancestry back to sub-Saharan Africa, and people who trace most of their ancestry back to Asia, and people who trace their ancestry back to the early Americas, lived isolated from each other for long periods and have evolved different physical traits (curly hair, lighter skin, etc.)
But this theoretical definition (already fuzzy) wilts under human agency, in a real world where Kevin Garnett, Harold Ford, and Halle Berry all check “black” on the census. (Same deal for “Hispanic.”) The reasons for that take us right back to fact of race as a social construct. And an American-centered social construct. Are the Ainu of Japan a race? Should we delineate darker South Asians from lighter South Asians on the basis of race? Did the Japanese who invaded China consider the Chinese the same “race?”
Andrew writes that liberals should stop saying “truly stupid things like race has no biological element.” I agree. Race clearly has a biological element — because we have awarded it one. Race is no more dependent on skin color today than it was on “Frankishness” in Emerson’s day. Over history of race has taken geography, language, and vague impressions as its basis.
“Race,” writes the great historian Nell Irvin Painter, “is an idea, not a fact.” Indeed. Race does not need biology. Race only requires some good guys with big guns looking for a reason.
Don’t worry, black people! This is how we treat everyone who is not a savarna Indian male.
Masonda Ketanda Olivier’s brutal murder, 15 minutes before his birthday, has been all over the news. But Olivier’s death is only one in a string of attacks on black people in India. On May 29, six more black people hailing from Uganda, South Africa, and Nigeria were attacked in Mehrauli in three different incidents. The alleged motivation for these attacks is that the victims committed the crime of playing loud music and drinking publicly, privileges that are apparently only reserved for rich South Delhi boys in SUVs with “Jatt Pride” and “Gujjar4Eva” stickers.
Earlier this year, a mob in Bengaluru brutally attacked and stripped a Tanzanian woman because she happened to be driving down a road where a Sudanese man had run down a local half an hour prior. Different gender, different nationality, no relation to the accident, but I guess when you’re a mob looking for someone to lynch, being black is crime enough.
Anti-blackness has always been a problem in India, but in typical desi fashion, it’s something we’d rather sweep under the carpet. After the Bengaluru attack, one DailyO columnist claimed it wasn’t racist because, basically, we’re not white so we can’t be racist. The Minister of State for Culture and Tourism Mahesh Sharma dismissed Olivier’s murder by saying “even Africa is not safe”, a statement so blasé that it makes me wonder if he’s actually human. And when envoys to India from 42 African nations protested the racist violence by boycotting Africa Day, Sushma Swaraj responded by saying that the government is launching a sensitisation programme to reiterate that such “incidents embarrass the country.” That’s right. Racist violence isn’t the problem here; it’s the fact that such headlines might besmirch the government’s India Shining 2.0 narrative. Meanwhile, in a time-honoured tradition, Delhi residents lay the blame squarely at the victims’ feet because they disregard “local culture”, something Indians neverdo when they’re abroad or even visiting other parts of the country.
Anti-blackness is so pervasive in our society that even Gandhi in his early years was a proponent, separating the South African Indian community’s struggle for freedom from that of the Zulus and writing that “about the mixing of the Kaffirs (blacks) with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly.” Much of this relates to a historical identification with European – and later American – elites, as Indians dealt with the experience of colonisation by pretending that at least they’re higher up the ladder than blacks. For Indians who continue to aspire to be counted alongside the largely white elites of the first world, internalising the racist attitudes of that elite is only natural. Combine this with our indigenous form of “colourism”, inspired by the caste system and the association of fair skin with Brahmins and other upper-caste elites, and you’ve got a country that treats darkness like a disease, at best. At its worst, it leads to dehumanisation and eventually, violence.
Much of the blame for this lies with Indian pop culture and media, which have consistently reinforced such toxic ideas in the Indian mainstream. Enough has been written about fairness cream ads and the colourism they promote, but I feel compelled to mention Pond’s 2009 epic in five parts “White Beauty”, which features an artificially “darkened” Priyanka Chopra’s struggle to win back her ex-beau Saif Ali Khan from a much fairer Neha Dhupia. Then there’s the series of ads for Parle’s LMN drinks, which feature black men in loincloths in the desert trying their best to get a sip of water, a perfect example of egregious racism that didn’t generate a tenth of the outrage the recent Coldplay video did. But these would all be outdone by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s print ad for a jewellery brand that featured her decked up as a white colonial aristocrat under a red parasol held up by an emaciated black child. Racism, colonial aspirations and an endorsement of child-slavery, all rolled up into one particularly offensive package. Well done, Ash.
It is perfectly acceptable to use Snoop Dogg to lend authenticity to Bollywood rap songs and shamelessly rip off black music for decades, even as we use black stereotypes for slapstick punch lines.
To be fair to our advertising industry, they’ve been late-comers to the racism game. Bollywood, as ever, has been the pioneer. Whether it’s the routine use of darker-skinned – and more recently, black – actors as nameless thugs, the ignorant stereotyping of Africans as primitive tribals, or the persistent use of “blackface”, our film industry pulls no punches. I’m not sure how the racist American minstrel tradition of blackface made its way to Bollywood, but you can see it in songs like Mr India’s “Hawa Hawai”, and the incredibly offensive video for Vishwatma’s “Saat Samundar Paar”.
More recently, there’s the National Award-winning Fashion, in which Priyanka Chopra plays a model whose descent into drugs and depravity finally hits rock bottom when she wakes up one morning next to *gasp* a black man! (Co-incidentally, Priyanka would go on to star in Quantico and complain about the racism she faced in the US. Of course.) And no discussion of racism in Indian cinema will be complete without this horrendous over-the-top scene from 2000’s Hadh Kar Di Aapne, which is more racist than a KKK rally. I can’t explain this one, you’ll just have to watch and then fight the urge to hunt down and kill everyone involved with this scene.
This knee-jerk racism hasn’t, of course, stopped us from appropriating black culture when convenient. It is perfectly acceptable to use Snoop Dogg to lend authenticity to Bollywood rap songs and shamelessly rip off black music for decades, even as we use black stereotypes for slapstick punch lines. Even in articles deploring such racism, our media uses the grossly inaccurate coinage “African nationals”, reducing a racially and culturally diverse continent to one skin colour. And before you pat yourself on the back for being more enlightened than that, let me point out that your supposedly liberal social circle isn’t much better.
My Facebook feed is full of people making fun of contemporary African American Vernacular English (AAVE) slang like “bae” or “on fleek”, even as they happily use words like “cool” and “hip” – which also come from black American culture, but have been sanitised by decades of white usage. Then there’s the electronica producer I know from Delhi, who regularly used to bring hashish back to Bombay to sell to his fellow students. He was trying to defend the 2014 raids on Khirki Extension’s black residents by AAP’s Somnath Bharti, who accused them of running a drugs and prosecution racket. This supposedly “culturally literate” producer told me that the raids were warranted, because whenever he and his friends called for coke at their parties – usually playing techno, a style of music with origins that are decidedly black and political – it was always a black dealer who turned up. Bravo, my friend! I couldn’t dream up a better example of Indian racism and hypocrisy if I tried.
The reason I’m going on about this is that accepting our racism problem is the only way we will begin to think about solving it. Our unwillingness to acknowledge this racism (one of my cousins explained his attitude by resorting to that oldest of racist apologetics – genes) means that this violence is only likely to grow worse. But, as this online webcomic points out, there is a bright side. As India grows increasingly intolerant, our treatment of black people increasingly aligns with the way we treat other India’s disenfranchised minorities. Don’t worry, black people in India! We’re only treating you as we treat the rest of us. At least those that aren’t privileged savarna males.
Bhanu Kappal: Bhanuj Kappal writes about music, culture, and anti-nationals. After doing a bunch of odd jobs in the culture industry, he’s now decided to be a freelance journalist, and live at the mercy of newspapers’ accounts departments. Will write for food.
Glenn Beck excels at expressing adventurous thoughts in memorable language, but he outdid himself when, one morning last summer, he offered a diagnosis of President Obama. He said, “This President, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture. I don’t know what it is.” (The context was one of the summer’s most entertaining reality shows—the one starring the black Harvard professor and the white police officer who arrested him.) In September, Beck sat for an interview with Katie Couric, and she asked him a deceptively simple question, which had been posed by a Twitter user named adrianinflorida: “what did u mean white culture?” Whatever adventurous thoughts this query inspired, Beck did not seem eager to share them. “Um, I, I don’t know,” he said. Finally, after two minutes of temporizing, he arrived at a nonresponsive response that was both honest and sensible: “What is the white culture? I don’t know how to answer that that’s not a trap, you know what I mean?”
Often, the most appropriate answer to that question is a joke, or a series of jokes. In 2008, a canny young white Canadian named Christian Lander started a blog called “Stuff White People Like,” which soon became a best-selling book bearing the same title; it listed a hundred and fifty of white people’s favorite things, from recycling to the Red Sox. (This magazine made the list, too, at No. 114.) Lander’s tone is faux-anthropological but wide-eyed: “Bike shops are almost entirely staffed and patronized by white people!”; “After learning that a white person is pregnant, it is a good idea to provide a list of recipes for placenta.” His “white people” are wealthy, urban, youngish, and thoroughly blue—they “hate” Republicans, and although Obama hadn’t yet won the Democratic nomination, he placed eighth on the list. (Coffee was No. 1.)
Which means that Lander isn’t really talking about white people, or, at any rate, not most of them. In fact, he sometimes defines “white people” in opposition to “the wrong kind of white people,” because his true target is a small subset of white people, a white cultural élite. Most white people don’t “hate” Republicans—they have voted Republican in every Presidential election since 1968. A few months ago, a different and more demographically precise portrait of white culture arrived, bearing a fulsome blurb (“Revelatory!”) from Lander himself. The author is a black journalist named Rich Benjamin, and his book, “Searching for Whitopia” (Hyperion; $24.99), chronicles the years he spent in overwhelmingly white enclaves across America, from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to Forsyth County, Georgia. The people he meets tend to be politically conservative, and although they talk readily about the urban blight they left behind, they talk much less readily about race. Many in Idaho seem to agree with Helen Chenoweth-Hage, the late congresswoman, who responded to a question about the region’s lack of diversity by means of an ingenious euphemism. “The warm-climate community just hasn’t found the colder climate that attractive,” she said. Benjamin hears many disavowals of racism, and he has to drive an hour north of Coeur d’Alene, to a tiny Christian Identity church, in a town called Sandpoint, just to find someone willing to say, “I’m glad I’m white.” Even that statement, delivered from the pulpit, is swiftly followed by a disclaimer: “The Indian, the Mexican, and the black can be proud of what they are, too.”
Benjamin did most of his research toward the end of the Bush era, and perhaps he now wishes he had waited a few years. Obama’s election was a transformative moment for blacks in America, but it has also proved to be a transformative moment for whites. As a whole, white people voted for Senator McCain, and, with the growth of the anti-Obama backlash, especially in the form of Tea Party protests, the whiteness of the Obama opposition has become a political issue. Keith Olbermann, of MSNBC, called the Tea Party movement “a white people’s party,” and asked, in reference to the various marches and rallies, “Where are the black faces?” (The most adroit response came in the form of a YouTube video highlighting the all-white lineup pictured on the MSNBC Web site.) When Jon Stewart introduced a “Daily Show” segment on the Conservative Political Action Conference, he got a laugh from his studio audience by calling it a “festival of whites.” (Stewart’s show ranked thirty-fifth on Lander’s list.)
The organizers of the Tea Party rallies have made a point of inviting African-American conservatives to address the crowds. But there’s no denying that the Tea Party protesters tend to be white. Should we pretend to be surprised? Judging from exit polls, black voters made up about 1.1 per cent of the McCain electorate, which is lower than the historical average, but not by much. (In 1984, when President Reagan was reëlected in a landslide, black voters accounted for only about 1.5 per cent of his total.) American politics has been segregated for decades; the election of a black President only made that segregation more obvious.
But what of it? Why is it that, from Christian Lander to Jon Stewart, a diagnosis of whiteness is often delivered, and received, as a kind of accusation? The answer is that the diagnosis is often accompanied by an implicit or explicit charge of racism. It’s become customary to suppose that a measure of discrimination is built into whiteness itself, a racial category that has often functioned as a purely negative designation: to be white in America is to be not nonwhite, which is why it was possible, in 1961, for a white woman from Kansas living in Hawaii to give birth to a black baby. In a marvellously splenetic essay, “On Being White . . . And Other Lies,” James Baldwin argued that America had, really, “no white community”—only a motley alliance of European immigrants and their descendants, who made a “moral choice” (even if they didn’t realize it) to join a synthetic racial élite. And, in the nineteen-nineties, a cohort of scholars took up Baldwin’s charge, popularizing a field of research that came to be known as whiteness studies. In 1994, the white labor historian David R. Roediger published an incendiary volume, “Towards the Abolition of Whiteness.” Paying special attention to unions and strikes, he traced the unsteady growth of American whiteness, a category that eventually included many previous identities that had once been considered marginal: Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish. “It is not merely that whiteness is oppressive and false; it is that whiteness is nothing but oppressive and false,” he wrote. “Whiteness describes, from Little Big Horn to Simi Valley, not a culture but precisely the absence of culture. It is the empty and therefore terrifying attempt to build an identity based on what one isn’t and on whom one can hold back.” In his view, fighting racism wasn’t enough; white people who wanted to oppose oppression would have to do battle with whiteness itself. Nearly two decades later, amid a rancorous debate over our first black President, the idea of abolishing whiteness seems no less tantalizing—and no less remote.
In a wide-ranging new book titled “The History of White People” (Norton; $27.95), Nell Irvin Painter, a black historian of America, starts at the beginning, or near it. Her narrative opens in ancient Greece, with Hippocrates, who published his ethnography of the known world around 400 B.C. In assaying the tribes of Europe, he praised the “ferocity” of the mountain-dwellers, but he was less impressed by tribes who live where there is “a larger proportion of hot than of cold winds”—the warm-climate community, a few millennia ahead of schedule. “They are rather of a dark than of a light complexion,” he wrote, adding that “courage and laborious enterprise are not naturally in them.” In time, “ancients” like Hippocrates were seen as archetypes of racial purity and excellence. Painter quotes the eighteenth-century Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater, who delivered a plaintive verdict: “The Grecian race then was more beautiful than we are; they were better than us—and the present generation is vilely degraded!”
Like many of his contemporaries, Lavater was a devout craniologist, and it was through craniology that whiteness was given scientific validation. In 1793, a German anthropologist named Johann Friedrich Blumenbach received a skull from a colleague which he considered particularly pleasing; it had belonged to a woman from Georgia, in the Caucasus region, and Blumenbach declared that it was typical of the “Caucasian” race, a super-category that came to include most of the peoples of Europe. As Painter explains, Blumenbach was making an argument from beauty, and his belief in Caucasian beauty had a notable pedigree: decades earlier, Kant had noted that “Circassian and Georgian maidens have always been considered extremely pretty by all Europeans who travel through their lands”; the fact that these “maidens” were enslaved by the Ottomans was part of the appeal. The Caucasian race begins with an evocation of bondage, and the skull of a young Georgian woman helped seal the connection between whiteness and weakness. It is a delicate race, always on the verge of being overrun or adulterated, dethroned or debunked. The supposed perfection of whiteness makes it vulnerable: every flaw and quirk, every tangled bloodline and degraded specimen, is seen as an existential threat, poised to undermine the whole project.
In eighteenth-century America, whiteness came to connote the opposite of slavery. Whiteness in America was primarily Anglo-Saxon—Thomas Jefferson argued for American independence by adducing the example of “our Saxon ancestors”—but not exclusively so, and the presence of immigrants from elsewhere in Europe eventually nudged American race theorists toward a more miscellaneous idea of whiteness. In 1856, Ralph Waldo Emerson published “English Traits,” which includes a strange and suggestive chapter called “Race.” In it, he portrays the essence of whiteness as an elusive spirit. For a time, Norway had it, and Painter notes Emerson’s “affection” for the bloodthirsty old Norse sagas: “A pair of kings, after dinner, will divert themselves by thrusting each his sword through the other’s body, as did Yngve and Alf.” But even these brutes were, in their own way, as delicate as Circassian waifs. Somehow, the glorious moment passed—a few too many “piratical expeditions,” he suspects—and “the power of the race migrated and left Norway permanently exhausted.” Around the same time, in his journal, Emerson was experimenting with a more ambitious theory. “The Atlantic is a sieve through which only or chiefly the liberal adventurous sensitive America-loving part of each city, clan, family, are brought,” he wrote. “It is the light complexion, the blue eyes of Europe that come: the black eyes, the black drop, the Europe of Europe is left.” This is a powerful notion: America as a magical siphon, extracting whiteness from Europe.
Emerson is a high point in “The History of White People.” As the theorists and theories pile up, Painter starts to seem, like nineteenth-century Norway, a bit exhausted. She isn’t helped by the format she has chosen, which divides a long and circuitous story into a textbook-like series of three-page biographical sketches, and she often sounds bored by the now obscure race men she profiles: William Z. Ripley’s 1899 magnum opus, “The Races of Europe,” is “nonsense” that “could not survive a careful reading”; early twentieth-century Anglo-Saxonist theories are “blather.” One needn’t disagree with her judgments to wonder about her strategy: the tone and the format conspire to make these architects of whiteness hard to distinguish, and harder still to care about.
An odd thing about “The History of White People” is that there’s not more history in it: Painter underplays the social and political developments that were far more influential than the grand theories of whiteness. She mentions America’s one-drop rule only in passing. (The rule held—and, for the most part, still holds—that any person of mixed black and white ancestry is black, no matter the mixture.) And readers will have to search the footnotes to learn about the 1790 Naturalization Act, which made citizenship possible for any “free white person” of “good character” who had lived in America for at least two years. Long before it had any sort of coherent cultural or historical identity, whiteness in America was a broad, loosely defined political category, which is precisely why so many scholars knocked themselves out trying to fill in the details.
Painter aims for the conceptual heart of the race, but Roediger, the eminent abolitionist of whiteness, has always been more interested in its margins and boundaries. In 2008, just in time for the dawning Obama age, he compressed his decades of scholarship into a pithy little book, “How Race Survived U.S. History,” which has just been published in paperback (Verso; $19.95). He is alert to the shifting legal status of whiteness, and he underscores the 1691 Virginia law that banned “negroes, mulattos, and Indians” from “intermarrying with English, or other white women.” (Again, one of the defining qualities of whiteness is that it needs protection.) He also tells the story of Charles W. Janson, a British businessman who came to America in 1793 and, sometime during his thirteen-year visit, offended a white domestic worker by asking to speak with her master. “I have no master,” she said, adding, “I’d have you to know, man, that I am no sarvant; none but negers are sarvants.” Janson was shocked by “the arrogance of domestics in this land of republican liberty and equality”—shocked, that is, by a country where even the maids had something to be proud of, and someone to be prouder than.
The end of the Civil War was a perilous moment for whiteness. Roediger writes that, in America, “scientific racism”—the sort of grand theorizing that Painter chronicles—emerged “in the context of the pro-slavery argument and as a response to abolitionism.” Whiteness survived emancipation by becoming more muscular and more self-referential: where once whiteness offered a specific legal benefit—it meant that you were unenslavable, a non-“sarvant”—now whiteness had to be its own reward. Roediger writes that some poor white laborers in the South started wearing brimless wool hats, to distinguish themselves from ex-slaves, who customarily wore straw hats. (According to one contested etymology, the sunburn such laborers suffered gave rise to the term “redneck,” which conflates race and class.) And he tracks the insurgent whiteness of the Ku Klux Klan, founded after the end of the war and revived in 1915, the year of D. W. Griffith’s blockbuster “The Birth of a Nation,” which portrayed Klansmen as heroic defenders of white virtue. (The pivotal scene involves a white woman on a cliff, who tells her black pursuer, “Stay away or I’ll jump!” He doesn’t; she does.) “The Birth of a Nation” included intertitles with brief history lessons from President Woodrow Wilson, and Roediger quotes the most famous card, which marks the transition from war to Reconstruction: “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation . . . until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”
That astonishing sentence comes from Wilson’s “History of the American People,” but it’s not really a sentence at all: the ellipsis marks the removal of nearly seven hundred words. In Wilson’s original, the apologia for the Klan is meant to echo the eighteenth-century argument for American independence:
The white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes and conducted in the interest of adventurers: governments whose incredible debts were incurred that thieves might be enriched, whose increasing loans and taxes went to no public use but into the pockets of party managers and corrupt contractors.
The film depicts a clash between whites and blacks (one of the main villains is an ambitious mulatto politician), but, in this passage, “ignorant negroes” are a secondary concern, a mere symptom of a greater problem. In Wilson’s telling, Klan violence serves to defend white rights against “adventurers” from the North—that is, against other white people.
In the twentieth century, the struggle to define and defend whiteness was often presented this way, as an intra-racial struggle—white people against “the wrong kind of white people.” The race theorist Lothrop Stoddard warned against “racial impoverishment,” and enumerated the “alien stocks” that were taking over Rhode Island: “Poles, Polish and Russian Jews, South Italians, and French-Canadians.” Because of the legal tradition begun by the 1790 Naturalization Act, courts were often asked to judge the whiteness of immigrants from all over the world— Afghans and Armenians, Persians and Portuguese—and judges appealed to common sense, or to the anthropological entity known as the Caucasian race. But who counts as Caucasian? Madison Grant, in “The Passing of the Great Race,” a supremely pessimistic work of race theory first published in 1916, admitted defeat: “The term ‘Caucasian race’ has ceased to have any meaning, except where it is used, in the United States, to contrast white populations with Negroes or Indians or in the Old World with Mongols.” Grant was right that the putatively scientific term “Caucasian” was becoming interchangeable with its colloquial counterpart, “white”; both referred to a category that was growing simultaneously more inclusive (of Europeans) and more exclusive (of “Negroes” and “Mongols” and others).
But the borders of whiteness were never quite defined, let alone sealed. In an immigration report from 1911, a government commission declared that an “Arabian” was by definition Caucasian, a judgment that some of today’s politicians might want to appeal. The boundaries of whiteness have often reflected the imperatives of U.S. foreign policy. And there remains something particularly fraught about the whiteness of Italian-Americans, which has been contested for centuries. Roediger notes that “ ‘Guineas,’ an old marker for African Americans originally signaling their origins on the West African slaving coast, came to be applied widely and pejoratively to Italian Americans.” Now, of course, “guinea” has given way to “guido,” an anti-Italian-American slur that has been co-opted by its targets. The instructive MTV reality show “Jersey Shore” followed a group of self-described “guidos” and “guidettes” living in a beach house in New Jersey. In this tribe, the bond between skin color and identity had been decisively severed (with help from a nearby tanning salon), and it was discovered that not all the stars were of pure Italian heritage. One of them, known as Jwoww, posted a clarification on her Twitter page: “I’ve said a billion times I’m a spanish/irish!! Its a life style not an ethnicity or race the term ‘guidette’!!”
In current debates about whiteness, no identity is more destabilizing than “Hispanic.” The 2010 census explains that “Hispanic origins are not races,” and yet in America the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” indicate a population that is often viewed as a racial minority. (When Anglos in America think of the Latino “race,” they are often thinking of the identity known in much of Central and South America as mestizo, which refers to mixed-race descendants of Europeans and various indigenous groups.) In “Searching for Whitopia,” Rich Benjamin is surprised to find himself drawn into conversations with white residents about illegal immigration, especially from Mexico. “For the first time in my life, I am treated like an innocent bystander to the ‘scourge’ of race and poverty,” he writes. “Latinos now take the heat.”
In 1963, when George Wallace was inaugurated as the governor of Alabama, he told the crowd that he was standing in the “heart of the great Anglo-Saxon Southland,” and he issued his famous rallying cry: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” But when Wallace campaigned against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he stated his case more circumspectly, saying, “This civil-rights bill will wind up putting a homeowner in jail, because he doesn’t sell his home to someone that some bureaucrat thinks he ought to sell it to.” Wallace professed to be defending the common “homeowner,” presumably white, against the faceless “bureaucrat,” also presumably white. It was possible for Wallace to portray himself as a defender of the white race without mentioning race at all.
This was not a new strategy. Throughout history, the power of whiteness has often been linked to its invisibility: white supremacy lurked in seemingly race-neutral language, unmentioned and therefore incontestable. (Think of the Constitution, which tacitly condoned slavery—“importation” of “persons”—without mentioning race.) The success of the civil-rights movement had the paradoxical effect of strengthening this pernicious tradition by making white pride taboo; white politicians had to rely on increasingly subtle forms of coded speech. Roediger is impressed and disturbed by President Reagan’s appeal to working-class white voters, which stemmed, he says, from a “sure command of divisive code words such as ‘state’s rights,’ ‘welfare moms,’ ‘quotas,’ and ‘reverse racism.’ “
The problem with a fixation on “code words” is that you can start to see them everywhere. At one point, Roediger analyzes the politics of America in the nineteen-seventies through the prism of “such racial ‘code words’ as crime, busing, welfare, and taxes.” Taxes! Is there any hotly debated political topic that couldn’t be considered, in some context, a code word? (Glenn Beck recently argued that “social justice” and “economic justice” are “Marxist code words”; it would be hard to prove that they aren’t or never have been.) And is there any way for a white politician to criticize a black President in front of a disproportionately white audience and be certain that he or she isn’t, however inadvertently, appealing to a sense of racial solidarity?
These are the questions that liberals have been asking of the Tea Party movement, a decentralized libertarian-influenced conservative movement that has cast its opposition to President Obama as an opposition to runaway government spending, runaway public debt, runaway taxation. (The movement’s unofficial motto turns “tea” into an acronym: Taxed Enough Already.) There have been race-related controversies. A white activist in Houston was photographed holding a sign that said, “Congress = Slave Owner. Taxpayer = Niggar”; he was swiftly disavowed by the Houston Tea Party Society (even though, strictly, he was calling himself a “niggar”). At the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, the former congressman Tom Tancredo voiced his regret that “we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country,” which reminded some commentators of the schemes that disenfranchised black voters during Reconstruction. (Tancredo declined to apologize, saying that he wanted only to combat “civic ignorance.”) And two African-American congressmen say that they heard someone shout a racial slur during the recent Capitol Hill rally against the health-care bill.
More often, though, the Tea Party movement has been relatively disciplined in its focus on spending and taxing. Conceivably, arguments about health-care reform have been advanced in bad faith, in the hope of stoking white racial resentment. But the other possibility is more unsettling: maybe health-care reform is merely one more topic on which Americans’ opinions correlate, however loosely, with race. Certainly it’s hard to assess the protests without also assessing the politics. Those aggrieved (mainly) white folks look a lot different if you think they’re speaking out against fiscal malpractice.
Because explicit formulations of white-identity politics are taboo, we have no non-pejorative way to talk about the disproportionate whiteness of the Tea Parties. (We don’t even have a good way to measure it. Keith Olbermann included “Hispanics” on the list of people he didn’t see represented in Tea Party crowds, but, really, how could he tell?) Supporters of the Tea Parties can’t decide whether they should refuse this identity, by highlighting black speakers and attendees, or defend it, by suggesting, as Beck did, that anti-white racism is a serious worry. In fact, Beck’s slippery concern with racism—outrage over false charges of anti-black racism, combined with outrage over anti-white racism—seems central to a certain kind of white-identity politics. This professedly anti-racist argument is about as close as anyone comes to articulating a mainstream political agenda that is explicitly pro-white.
In the Warner Bros. movie “The Blind Side,” Quinton Aaron plays Michael Oher, a black football prodigy who is adopted by Leigh Anne Tuohy, a white materfamilias, played by Sandra Bullock. Early on, Michael explains why his new surroundings feel so strange. “I look, and I see white everywhere,” he says. “White walls, white floors, and lots of white people.” They—the white people—are the film’s true subject; Michael remains a sweet but silent cipher. (The real Michael Oher is now a lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, and before the movie’s release he told the Baltimore Sun that he was “not in a hurry to see it.”) The Tuohys’ whiteness is expressed as a series of red-state signifiers: they are Republican and Christian and they live in Tennessee; Leigh Anne’s husband is played by the country star Tim McGraw. There is even a reference to anti-white racism: when the cute young son, known as S.J., complains that a “Chinese” kid was picked, instead of him, to play the Indian chief in the school play, he wonders whether “multicultural bias” might have been at work.
At times, the movie seems to be building toward the familiar moment when the whites atone for the past by confronting their unexamined racism, but that moment never arrives. Instead, a climactic scene has Leigh Anne facing off against a black thug from Michael’s old neighborhood. He insults her with a racial slur (the “s” word—“snowflake”), and threatens her family; she responds by threatening him right back. “You so much as cross into downtown, you will be sorry,” she says, adding that she knows the district attorney and belongs to the National Rifle Association. This kind of threat, a Southern white woman telling a black man to stay in his own neighborhood, has a long and dismal history, but Bullock delivers it with verve, and without a trace of self-consciousness. (No doubt the scene helped her win her Academy Award.) Leigh Anne is refreshing, because there’s no trace of anxiety in her white identity—for her, it’s neither something to live down nor something to live up to.
Is white identity shifting? Painter thinks so. She argues that “being white these days is not what it used to be,” partly because a number of nonwhites have joined the cultural and (more important) economic élite. But she concludes pessimistically, reminding readers that “poverty in a dark skin endures as the opposite of whiteness.” It might be more accurate to say that “poverty in a dark skin” is one of the opposites of whiteness, because, as Roediger’s book demonstrates, the white-identity project has often been conceived in populist terms, as a defense of scruffy local values against the wealthy alien élite. This form of white-identity politics, far from being undermined by the election of President Obama, was strengthened by it. Apparently, a black President born to a white mother can represent the opposite of whiteness, too.
A tension between élitism and anti-élitism is central to white identity, and always has been. The old race theorists couldn’t decide whether the spirit of whiteness was best reflected in the noble refinement of royalty or in the rude vitality of laborers and soldiers. Often, white identity has reflected both traditions at once, as with Emerson’s beloved Scandinavian kings, who conducted themselves like drunken brigands. The “white people” in Lander’s book are rich snobs who view themselves as rebels, resisting the culture of corporate greed in vague solidarity with the world’s poor. The “whitopians” in Benjamin’s book consider themselves “folksy” salt-of-the-earth types, no matter how much money they have accumulated. And “The Blind Side” is a perfect distillation of white identity as anti-élitist élitism: Leigh Anne’s husband owns nearly a hundred fast-food franchises; he’s white-collar, in a blue-collar kind of way.
Roediger and Painter are right to remind us that whiteness was built over centuries on a foundation of deceit and confusion and disguised political imperatives. But neither seems fully to grasp the ways in which this artificial category has, over the years, come haltingly to life. Yes, whiteness is a social construct, and not (as race scientists used to think) a biological essence—but then so, too, is every collective identity. It’s getting easier to talk about “white culture,” maybe even white politics, without knee-jerk sarcasm or, for that matter, knee-jerk sympathy. And it’s getting easier to imagine an American whiteness that is less exceptional, less dominant, less imperial, and more conspicuous, an ethnicity more like the others. In the Obama era—the Tea Party era—whiteness is easier to see than ever before, which means it’s less readily taken for granted. If invisibility is power, then whiteness is a little less powerful than it used to be.
Demographers predict that, sometime before the middle of this century, non-Hispanic white people will cease to be a majority in America. This doesn’t mean that there will be a white “minority”—whites will continue to be the country’s most populous racial group for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t mean that white is the new black—the two races have never been symmetrical, and never will be. And it doesn’t mean that whiteness is innocent of history—you can’t tell the story of whiteness (or, for that matter, blackness) without talking about racism. But, if the old race theory was brutally reductive, there is something reductive, too, about the idea that whiteness, for all its paradoxes, isn’t real. The history of human culture is the history of forgeries that become genuine, categories that people make and cannot simply unmake. So we should probably stop thinking of whiteness as an error, and start thinking of it, instead, as a work in progress. Historians have sometimes framed the treacherous history of whiteness as the slow death of an idea. Perhaps it’s time we start viewing it, instead, as the slow birth of a people.
Race realism is one of the intellectual foundations of White Nationalism. Race realism is the thesis that racial differences are objective facts of nature, which pre-exist human consciousness, human society, and even the human race itself—since there were different species and subspecies before mankind emerged.
Nature must be understood in contrast to conventions—like human languages and laws—which do not exist independent of human consciousness and society.
As objective facts of nature, racial differences cannot be safely ignored. Nor can natural racial differences be transformed simply by altering legal or linguistic conventions. Conventions can only alter racial realities by guiding human action to change nature itself. For instance, if we institute eugenic or dysgenic incentives, this will change the genes of future generations.
The opposite of race realism is the idea of the “social construction of race,” which holds that racial differences are not objective facts but rather shared social conventions, which may vary from time to time and from place to place, like languages and table manners.
The social construction of race is one of the intellectual foundations of racial egalitarianism, for if race is socially constructed, then so is racial inequality. This offers the possibility that racial inequality can be replaced with equality simply by altering social conventions, like laws and language.
The Basis of Race Realism
The basis of race realism is sense experience. Different races appear different from one another. Different subraces appear different from one another. Racially mixed children appear different from pure specimens. Even races that appear superficially similar—like Australian aborigines and African blacks—appear to be different on closer inspection. Careful observers do not confuse the two. Racial differences are not just a matter of “skin color,” but of morphology and behavior as well, all of which can be observed empirically.
Note that I do not claim that racial realism is based in science. People were aware of racial differences long before the emergence of science. Science comes along only later, to explain observable racial differences. Scientific theories are, moreover, verified or falsified based on their ability to explain observed racial differences. Observable racial differences are, therefore, the Alpha and the Omega of racial science. Thus the foundation of race realism is sense experience, not scientific theorizing.
This is important to understand, because it implies that problems with theories of race do not in any way alter the perceptible differences between races.
It is also important to understand that race realism is the default, common-sense position of all mankind. We observe differences between races, subraces, and hybrids—human and otherwise—before we learn words to communicate and classify them, and before we create theories to explain them.
I vividly remember my first experience of a non-white: a waiter in the dining car of a train. I was 4 or 5 years old. I was especially taken by the contrast in color between the back and the front of the man’s hands. When he went away, I asked my mother what I had seen, and she told me that he was not just a white man turned brown, but a different kind of man called a “Negro.” But I already saw the differences before I was told the name and explanation. Indeed, I asked for an explanation because I saw the differences. My mother and I certainly did not construct the differences that were apparent to all.
Given that race realism is the default, common-sense position, proponents of social constructivism need to offer arguments for their claim. In this essay, I criticize four arguments for the social construction of race, which I characterize as follows: (1) the argument from the social construction of knowledge in general; (2) the argument from changing racial classifications; (3) the argument from continua; and (4) the argument from the silence of science. This is not an exhaustive list, nor is this a “scholarly” survey and critique. I chose these arguments simply because they are commonly used in middle-brow online debates. I conclude by treating the thesis of the social construction of race as a social construct itself, exposing the political agenda and power relations behind social constructivism.
1. The Social Construction of Knowledge in General
One argument for the social construction of race is a simple deduction from the general thesis that “All knowledge is socially constructed.” This is a philosophical thesis about the relationship between mind and reality, which holds that there is no single correct account of any aspect of reality, but rather a plurality of equally valid accounts which are relative to the contingent circumstances of different communities. For instance, there is the scientific account of the origin of the species, and there is the Biblical account, both of which are products of different communities, and there is no neutral standpoint or criterion that allows us to claim that one approach is better or truer than another.
I believe that this sort of relativism is philosophically incoherent in itself. But it also fails as a justification of the social construction of race because, in a sense, it proves too much. For if everything is a social construct, the concept loses all utility. Social construction only makes sense if there is a contrast term, namely objective natural facts.
But if everything is a social construct, then we have to ask: is the social construct racemore like the social construct money or the social construct gravity? Because it is in society’s power to change money, but it is not in our power to change gravity. A philosopher who defends the idea that gravity is a social construct still leaves the lecture hall by the door rather than the window because he knows that one ignores some social constructs at one’s own risk.
The social constructivist clearly wants race to be like money rather than gravity, but if everything is a social construct, he needs to offer an additional argument to prove that racial inequalities can be abolished by social fiat.
2. Changing Racial Classifications
One of the most common arguments for the social construction of race is along the following lines: (1) If racial differences are real, then racial classification schemes will not vary from time to time and place to place. (2) Racial classification schemes vary from time to time and place to place. For instance, the same mixed race individual might be considered black or white in different places and at different times. Therefore, racial differences are not real. And, since racial differences are either real or social constructs, they must be social constructs.
This argument has two main problems.
The first premise is simply false because it elides the distinction between reality and opinion. Racial differences can be perfectly real, but people’s opinions about racial differences can vary widely. Since human beings are fallible, there can be many opinions about one and the same fact. But that does not make the facts any less objective. It just proves that people frequently fail to be as objective as the facts.
The oft-cited example of varying standards of blackness proves nothing about racial realities. First, the very idea of categorizing mixed-race individuals as black or white is problematic, simply because they are mixed. Given that they are neither black nor white, it is not surprising that people make different decisions if they have to classify them as one or the other. Thus it may be arbitrary social convention to say that Barack Obama is a black man. But it is an objective fact of nature that he had a white mother and a black father and is therefore half white and half black.
3. Cutting the Continuum
Another common argument for the social construction of race, and of knowledge in general, depends on the distinction between differences of degree and differences of kind, and runs as follows. (1) If racial differences are real differences of kind, then there should not be a continuum of intermediate types. (2) There are continuua of intermediate types between races. Therefore, there is only one human race, and distinctions between races are not found in nature but constructed by human beings. We carve up the continuum. Nature does not come separated into different kinds.
There are two major problems with this argument.
The first premise strikes me as highly dubious: just because there are continua in nature does not mean that there are no real distinctions between parts of a given continuum. In terms of color, red may shade off into orange, and different cultures might have different words for colors and make finer or grosser distinctions between them. But does this mean that there are no real, observable differences between, say, red and blue?
Evolutionary theory posits the common origin and evolutionary continuity of all life on earth. Does that continuity mean, therefore, that there are no real differences between mammals and birds, or birds and reptiles, or nematodes and human beings? Is the difference between dinosaurs and humans merely a “social construct”? Did dinosaurs not exist before human beings were around to “socially construct” them?
If race is a social construct, is the human race as a whole a “social construct” too? What then is society? What is society made up of before the social construction of the human race? Is society also a social construct, which would seem to get us into an infinite regress (society is a social construct of a social construct of a social construct . . .)? Or is society not a social construct? Is it just a fact of nature? Is it just here? Then why can’t other things be facts of nature, like human beings and dinosaurs?
The second premise is also problematic. Anthropologists claim that all human races descend from common ancestors. But at different points in time, the five distinct human races—Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Congoid, Capoid, and Australoid—branched off and differentiated themselves from both their common ancestors and one another. After developing in isolation for enough time to attain distinctive traits, these races then came into contact with one another and gave rise to mixed populations. But the existence of racially mixed individuals no more overthrows the real distinction between races than the existence of green paint refutes the existence of blue and yellow paint.
4. The Silence of Science
Another common claim of the social constructivists is to claim that science does not give adequate support to the idea of real racial distinctions, thus social constructivism is true. The argument runs as follows. (1) If there are real racial differences, then science will explain them. (2) Science has not explained racial differences. Therefore, there are no real racial differences. Since racial differences are either real or socially constructed, race is a social construct.
This argument has four grave problems.
First, race realism is based on observed racial differences, not on scientific theories of race. Human beings perceived racial differences long before the emergence of science, and we perceive them still, even those of us who are entirely innocent of racial science (as most social constructivists happen to be). Thus the first premise is simply false: the reality of race does not depend on the success or failure of scientific theoriesof race. Theories may rise and fall, but observable differences remain.
As for the second premise: scientists would beg to differ. We can determine the race of an individual from the morpoholgical or genetic analysis of a single bone or strand of hair.
Of course, the social constructivists are not exactly clear about what constitutes the failure of science to explain race, but they generally insinuate that science has either (1) failed to come up with a single differentiating trait possessed by all members of a race and not possessed by other races, or (2) that no such theory has attained universal acceptance.
But the demand for a single essential differentiating trait for each race is arbitrary. Nature does not have to conform to our demands. And the fact that a theory does not attain universal acceptance has nothing to do with its truth, given the variability and fallibility of human opinions. Frankly, I believe that most social constructivists are intellectually dishonest. Thus no theory of objective racial differences will ever gain universal assent, no matter how well founded it may be.
Another problem with this argument is that it overlooks the fact that science is a process that unfolds over time. Thus even if the second premise were true, the conclusion does not follow, simply because science might not have come up with the correct account just yet. But wait.
A final problem with this argument is its assumption that in the absence of a scientific explanation of race, the only alternative is social constructivism. In fact, the default position is race realism based on empirical observation, which does not depend upon scientific explanation at all.
Social Constructivism as Social Construct
Social constructivists typically do not limit their thesis to race. Many claim that all knowledge is a social construct, or even that reality itself is a social construct. Thus it is fair to ask: is social constructivism itself a social construct? If social constructivism is a social construct, this has three important implications:
Like all social constructs, social constructivism is the product of a unique set of historically contingent circumstances.
Since every society is divided into the rulers and the ruled, every social construct will be marked by the agenda of those who hold power.
If social constructivism is a social construct, not a natural fact, its acceptance or rejection is not based on reason and nature but on social incentives: moral and political commitment for the true believers — brainwashing, greed, and fear for the rest.
Social constructivism has a long philosophical pedigree, but today it functions as the metaphysical postulate of egalitarian social engineering projects to equalize the races by revolutionizing European defined and dominated societies. Of course, this revolution cannot produce racial equality, but it can create a new racial hierarchy in which Europeans are subordinate. Social constructivism thus serves the interests of a new emerging social elite, an alliance of rootless plutocrats, non-whites, sexual minorities, and other outsiders, in which the organized Jewish community is the senior and guiding partner. Thus social constructivism is an element of what Kevin MacDonald calls the “culture of critique”: the critique and overthrow of European civilization by Jewish-inspired and dominated intellectual movements like Marxism, psychoanalysis, the Frankfurt School, feminism, deconstructionism, and most forms of postmodernism.
These movements are characterized by pseudo-science, obscurantism, and crass ethno-political advocacy. They acquired their influence not through reason and science but through the subversion of the educational, cultural, and political institutions of European societies. They perpetuate their influence though the indoctrination of the impressionable and the suppression of dissent.
Thus social constructivism cannot be defeated merely by criticizing its astonishingly poor arguments, which in large part are merely tools of self-conscious and cynical deception. If you lop off one argument, the hydra just sprouts another.
Instead, social constructivism must be defeated on its own terms: by altering the social conditions that give rise to it; by changing who rules this society; by disempowering and silencing its advocates just as they disempower and silence their critics. In short, social constructivism must be socially deconstructed and replaced by a new cultural and political hegemony that is aligned with reason, reality, and white interests. And we can do that in good conscience, because social constructivism is a false and pernicious ideology, nothing more.
Race realism is the default position of common sense. It is, moreover, supported by the best biological science. There is no good case for the social construction of race. It would be truer to say that society is a racial construct, meaning that society is the creation of human beings, who exist as part of nature and whose biological traits shape and constrain society and culture. But once society is established, social conventions shape the underlying race by instituting eugenic and dysgenic breeding incentives or simply by legislating the extermination of entire groups. Nature comes before culture, but once culture exists, it turns back on and modifies nature. Only in this specific sense can one say that race is a (partial) social “construct,” although it would be better to drop the misleading language of construction altogether.
1. An excellent basic textbook on race distinguished in terms of observable, morphological features which remains valid to this day is Carleton S. Coon, The Living Races of Man (New York: Random House, 1965). The book is particularly valuable for its many photographs illustrating typical racial, subracial, and hybrid types.
5. An underlying assumption of this argument is that to truly know objective reality, the mind must be passive and reality must simply inscribe itself upon it. Thus if the mind is in any way active in the process of gaining knowledge, we no longer know objective reality but only human constructs. Ayn Rand offers a reductio ad absurdum of this argument, although she mistakenly applies it to Kant: “[Kant’s] argument, in essence, ran as follows: man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others, therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears—deluded, because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them” (Ayn Rand, “For the New Intellectual,” in For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Random House, 1961), p. 33.
6. For an accessible account of racial evolution that remains valid today, see Carleton S. Coon, The Origin of Races (New York: Knopf, 1962). See also Coon’s The Living Races of Man.
7. John R. Baker makes this point in his Race (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 100.
8. For a simple and compelling summary of the science of race, see J. Philippe Rushton, Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective, 2nd special abridged edition (Port Huron, Michigan: Charles Darwin Research Institute, 2000).
9. See Joseph L. Graves, Jr., “The Biological Case against Race,” American Outlook, Spring 2002, p. 31.
10. Kevin MacDonald, The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1998).
11. For a recent and compelling account of genetic and cultural co-evolution, see Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending, The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution (New York: Basic Books, 2009).