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This month’s Ranter is Táňa Geršiová
At least since the 1942 publication of Montaghu’s Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race, research has shown time and time again that there is no biological foundation to the concept of ‘race’. Yet humankind seems strangely keen to keep it alive.
The identity politics of the twenty-first century has seen much of our day-to-day language change. Many words referring to minority groups or women have become unacceptable, mainly for their historic connotations. As we shed (for better or for worse) ‘the offensive stuff’ in the first wave of what I call the language purge, I suggest that in the second wave, we get rid of the lies.
The debates regarding the concept of race are fascinating. Scholarly journals are alive with discussion over whether or not to continue to use the term as a concept in academic discourse. All of these arguments are, however, based on an underlying fact that has somehow missed the wider audience. ‘Race’ – referring to different human subspecies based on individual genetic and phenotypical (visual) features – is a lie. It simply does not exist. According to researchers Dorothy Roberts and Sarah Tishkoff of the University of Pennsylvania, there are more genetic variations within perceived ‘races’ than there are between them. People would have as much luck dividing each other into racial categories based on lactose intolerance, or the length of their toes, as they would be using someone’s nose shape or skin colour as racial determinant.
Yet some persist in arguing that you can tell somebody’s race by their physical features. It’s true that quite often you know where somebody is from by simply looking at them. But just as often, you can’t. We have all been in that situation. You see a stranger ask the guy with an afro where he’s from:
“Glasgow”, he says.
“No – but I mean where are you really from?”
Casual racism aside, it may still be difficult for some to accept that we are living in the age of a global society. Skin colour no longer equals nationality and nationality cannot equal race. Yet in everyday discourse, these falsehoods persist. People blur the lines of colour, nationality, religion, and culture. Consider this: the Irish were once thought of as a distinct ‘race’, one that could be identified by their apparently visible features. The Jews – people of the Judaic religion – were racialised by the Nazis. Being a Jew became a bundle of hereditary traits which, again, were said to be identifiable based on physical features. Being Jewish, however, isn’t biological, and to believe such a thing is preposterous – just like believing the same about Christians, Muslims, or Buddhists.
Take Meghan Markle, the shiny new addition to the Royal Family, as an example. Before I was told she identified as ‘mixed-race’, I simply thought she was just a woman with a nice tan. Markle has a black mother and a white father, which in the terminology we use today means she is identified as ‘mixed-race’. In an interview where Markle addresses the racist abuse she has received since her engagement, she asserts herself as proud of her identity.
On one hand, identifying with pride as mixed-race stands up to imposed stereotypes and racism. It allows someone like Markle to gain ownership of their identity and reframe racist language into the language of empowerment. In turn, others are encouraged to do the same, and take a stand against hatred. A community can gain a sense of shared identity and can relate to one another because of their shared experiences of hatred and discrimination. In this way, to call yourself mixed-race is empowering. Think of the most contemporary example of this type of empowerment success: the Black Lives Matter movement. This has succeeded in bringing people together under the umbrella of a shared experience of racism; an experience of being visibly identifiable by the shade of their skin.
Race, much like gender or sexuality, is a term that helps people understand themselves, their experiences, and their identity. And even though race does not exist in ‘real’ terms, people experience it as real. For example, a racist believes that you can evaluate people’s skills based on skin colour or hair type; the darker the shade, the more negative the connotations. Such assumption may lead them to employ a white person, even though another candidate – a person of colour – may have the same, or even better qualifications for the job. Consequently, a person of colour fails to get the job not because of the reality of their race, but because of the belief that they display real biological traits. In another situation, being seen as black can make you seem physically threatening in the eyes of some. Thus, the experience of race is real, even though race itself isn’t.
This is why researchers of the American Sociological Association are careful not to dismiss the use of race – at least not in academia. For them, it is a social fact, rather than a ‘fact’ that is real in any essential sense. It is real in its consequences. Employing the concept of race allows researchers to study the effects of ‘racism’. This is vitally important, as research continues to show the disproportional rate at which people of colour are being killed by police officers, have worse prospects to accessing proper health care, and are less likely to expand wealth over a lifetime in comparison to white people. We know this precisely because researchers are able to employ the concept of race and study its effects.
So, what is the problem? If using the terminology of race is useful for oppressed people to rally behind in self-identification, and also for researchers to gather data that shows the visible signs of racist oppression, should we stop using it?
And here lieth the race paradox. Accepting the ‘race’ label, even in its empowering form, means accepting the underlying notion that such a thing as ‘race’ exists. To call yourself one race or another means accepting the terms of a fake deal: that human kind is divided into different physical classifications. Whether the implication is that these are equal in capability and worth is irrelevant – it is the mere acceptance of the underlying notion that matters.
None of this is new, of course. In 1991 Britain ran the first census that included the question of ‘ethnicity’ rather than race. But these forms use the term ‘ethnicity’ as just a euphemism for race, a category determined by skin colour and national identity, with some cultural connotations added to the already confusing mix of terms and concepts everyone knows, but no one really understands.
Returning to the example of ‘white-passing’ Meghan Markle, a debate has sparked over whether so-called ‘colorism’ may be a better determinant of someone’s experience – and thus their identity. The argument here is that black people of ‘lighter shades’ are likely to have an easier time navigating white dominant societies, as they represent the ‘acceptable’ or ‘non-threatening’ version of black. Think Mariah Carey, Barack Obama, or pre-Lemonade Beyoncé.
A solution has been proposed by the sociologist Robert Miles, who spent his entire career advocating for the concept of race to be removed from academic discourse. Racism, Miles argues, should be the focus of research instead. He has shown that research which involves studying the disparities between people considered of different ‘races’ can be done without using the terminology itself. Of course, his views have been met with varying degrees of criticism. Such is the minefield that is the world of the social sciences.
Some very smart people have hit a dead-end with this issue. Personally, I do not have definite answers for the debate on the academic utility of the concept of race, or whether research into related issues can be conducted without it. Nor do I suggest that the solution to racism is purely linguistic. Or that people of colour cause their own oppression by using the word ‘race’.
What I do know however is this: language has an immense power to shape our reality. The way we talk about things every day – the words we choose – create consequences for actions that could have been interpreted differently if other linguistic constructions had been employed. We must try harder to understand the repercussions of the words we use. Race is not real, and that is why it should not be treated as such. Let’s ditch it in 2018.
Táňa Geršiová is a graduate of the University of Glasgow. She is currently completing a Master’s degree in Global Security at the same university. She can be contacted at: email@example.com