Tag Archives: Africa

What We Mean When We Say ‘Race Is a Social Construct’


What We Mean When We Say ‘Race Is a Social Construct’

In a world where Kevin Garnett, Harold Ford, and Halle Berry all check “black” on the census, even the argument that racial labels refer to natural differences in physical traits doesn’t hold up.

TA-NEHISI COATES | MAY 15, 2013 |  U.S.
The Atlantic


WalterWhiteNAACP.jpgwalterwhitenaacp
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

You can see more of this here.

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.


Ta-Nehisi Coates


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How to Write About AFRICA


HOW TO WRITE ABOUT AFRICA

Binyavanga Wainaina


Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African’s cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care.

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-muchtone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love—take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).

Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank. When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese and Indian traders. Blame the West for Africa’s situation. But do not be too specific.

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.

Describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa’, and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West. The biggest taboo in writing about Africa is to describe or show dead or suffering white people.

Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people’s property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents. Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil).

After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa’s most important people. Do not offend them. You need them to invite you to their 30,000-acre game ranch or ‘conservation area’, and this is the only way you will get to interview the celebrity activist. Often a book cover with a heroic-looking conservationist on it works magic for sales. Anybody white, tanned and wearing khaki who once had a pet antelope or a farm is a conservationist, one who is preserving Africa’s rich heritage. When interviewing him or her, do not ask how much funding they have; do not ask how much money they make off their game. Never ask how much they pay their employees.

Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical—Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces. When writing about the plight of flora and fauna, make sure you mention that Africa is overpopulated. When your main character is in a desert or jungle living with indigenous peoples (anybody short) it is okay to mention that Africa has been severely depopulated by Aids and War (use caps).

You’ll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil nouveau riche Africans and prostitutes and guerrillas and expats hang out.

Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.