If you’re American, you grew up with the idea of race, whether you liked it or not. This would be self-evident to black people, whose second-class status is impressed on them every day. To white people it might be less obvious, but it’s there. I was a kid during the 1960s, and I lived in an all-white community. My family was liberal. We heard about the civil rights movement on the news; we supported it and voted for politicians who supported it. But the belief in the reality of race was transmitted to my consciousness simply by being in the culture—I couldn’t help having prejudiced thoughts, fear of the “other,” an overriding self-conscious sense of difference, because of the prominent place that race issues occupied in what you might call the national psyche.
When we talk about racism it can mean a lot of different things. There is basic racial fear and prejudice. Then there’s discrimination, which goes hand in hand with the former. Institutional racism is discrimination writ large—the supremacy of a particular race as the assumed and established system of political and economic power. Finally there is racism as an ideology, which posits race as a system of biological superiority and inferiority. All these aspects flow into and mix with one another in various permutations.
For a white liberal or progressive during the last forty years, the standard belief was that no race was superior to any other, that everyone should have equal rights and opportunities, and that racism was a problem that needed to be dealt with. I suppose this was a good start—good intentions must count for something. But it never occurred to most of us to challenge the very idea of race itself. We just assumed that there were different races of people. Well, wasn’t it obvious?
Xenophobia would appear to be as old as humanity, but the ancients don’t talk about race in the modern sense of the word. Herodotus mentions people with dark skin, but doesn’t say or even imply that such people are essentially different than other people—his report that the Ethiopian men were said to be the tallest and handsomest in the world would certainly contradict any notions of superiority. Slavery was usually a result of capture in war. In the ancient world, a slave would often look just like a free man. A slave might be a foreigner, but there was no racial standard at work.
It was only a thousand years later or so, when the Europeans discovered that the world was bigger than they assumed, that the concept of race was born, or at least came into its own. Some historians have said that the Europeans were struck with fear and dread when they saw the black skin of the Africans, along with their unfamiliar dress and customs. I suppose the narrow and repressive nature of Christian culture would contribute to such a response, but it still doesn’t add up for me. No elemental fear of “blackness” can account for what happened. Europeans were familiar with Arabs, Turks, and other Muslim peoples who were often dark-complexioned. There was plenty of fear and hatred there, but it was basically religious, not racial.
What the Europeans saw were people at an earlier stage of political and technological development. This meant that they could be exploited on a scale never before attempted. By enslaving Africans, the Europeans would gain a source of labor that would build huge empires in a very short period of time. For various reasons, it was less practical to enslave the natives of
That which we call self-interest—in the unenlightened sense of a quest for power and wealth—creates in its wake the ideas that justify it. It was to the European’s advantage to believe that Africans, Asians and American Indians were an inferior type of human, because it provided a rationale for what they did. European culture had developed to the degree that it needed rationales. It had not developed to the point, other than in the case of advanced thinkers like Montaigne, that it could tell when it was lying to itself in order to gain an advantage.
A gradual moral awakening led to the abolishment of slavery, but not of the idea of race. Along came various white scientists telling us that the white brain is bigger and better than the black one. We’ve seen an endless succession of theories regarding heredity, eugenics, “survival of the fittest.” Every decade some new book comes out correlating race with intelligence or performance—remember The Bell Curve? It never seems to occur to these “thinkers” and the audience that listens to them, that such theories will always support the dominant social order. If a particular system of supremacy is in place, then statistics can always be produced that seem to establish this supremacy as natural and necessary. Self-interest rules the discourse, and those who argue against it face an uphill battle, because people who enjoy the benefits of privilege and power don’t want to believe that it’s undeserved.
But science can’t be corrupted forever. There’s a stubborn impulse at its core—the search for empirical truth. What we’re seeing now, when we really get down to it and sweep cultural preconceptions aside, is that race is not a valid biological concept. There is no actual, measurable physical phenomenon that corresponds to it. Now, in addition to skin color we think of hair and facial characteristics. They all vary in ways that do not necessarily accompany one another. The latitudinal difference in the intensity of the ultraviolet component of sunlight, which is correlated to skin color, is not directly related to whatever factors have resulted in the type of hair or the shape of the nose, etc. Their significance is merely ethnographic, not biological except in the most general evolutionary terms. When people resided in the same place for a few hundred thousand years, their skin color, their hair, their eyes, developed in certain ways. The people who lived in a somewhat different climate a few mountain ranges away may have had a different skin shade, but similar hair and the same eyes. In the modern world, with more and more contact between different people and regions, these characteristics become more and more diverse. If my mother is Italian and my father is from
I’m not advocating that we stop talking about racism. People who are oppressed because of race have no choice but to pay attention to race. A black person in
There are also, of course, the commonalities of culture that nurture people in their families and communities — similarities of language, customs, ways of thinking; the shared history that every group has. But that’s not “race,” really—that’s the human condition, that’s what culture is.
And white people especially need to talk openly about racism. Right-wing groups try to smother honest speech on this topic, playing on white people’s desire to avoid feeling guilty. It’s not about guilt, it’s about freedom. Race is a shackle of the mind that prevents us from speaking the truth without fear. It constricts our understanding of the human as such. It’s like an ancient taboo that has power only through silence. When we wake up and look around we see centuries of talk about race, about the superiority or inferiority of people, evaporate into the mist of illusion from which it came. It was a huge potent brew of nonsense, hypnotizing us into submission, into accepting the worst aspects of our character, our greed and fear and hatred, as the truth of our nature.