Jon Stewart recently called racism as one of “America’s most devastating and urgent issue(s).” This statement resonates with the recent controversies surrounding Rachel Dolezal and police brutality. It is certainly horrific to witness a police officer mutilating a Black child. The moral bankruptcy of this kind of systematic oppression requires no sophistication to understand. What of Rachel Dolezal? Could we put her case in the same box of rotten apples? In this essay, I will argue that her case must be considered as distinct from the systematic oppression of minorities.

If one browses through the liberal media, it’s easy to find articles either criticizing Dolezal or appealing to tolerance. Although I am more sympathetic to the latter, I do not believe that the call for tolerance is truly apt for addressing the demons this case brings up. I say so, for demons do not correspond to the us-them psychology that has plagued mankind with wars and racism. Instead, they coincide with linguistic laxity. i.e.– we do not care to know what ‘race’ is.

In our daily lives, we treat many as Black, White, Latino, or Asian. It is almost essential to constructing social niches and personal identities, yet we do not seem to care whether the demarcation is a valid one or not. For instance, when a man’s features appear as sub-saharan African, we call him Black, even if he is only a quarter African. As long as he can talk the talk and look the part, we do not care whether the name we refer to him by conforms to the bulk of his genes. We enjoy talking about the problems that arise from ‘race,’ but we do not enjoy distinguishing non-race from race. We do not partake in the rigorous linguistic clarification that Wittgenstein once asked of us. We have forgotten a valuable lesson of Longfellow’s :

In the days of art 

Builders wrought with greatest care

Each minute and unseen part,

For the Gods are everywhere.

Surely, one cannot demand the level of rigor that Wittgenstein practiced from all of us. Nevertheless, words as significant as ‘race’ must be put to the test. We cannot let laxity keep feeding us obscurity.

Despite the laxity displayed by the ordinary usage of ‘race,’ we have “wrought” some notions “with greatest care.” For example, ‘gender’ is now treated as a matter of social or personal identity, whereas its biological connotations have been carried onto ‘sex’ altogether. Such separation of the biological from the social seems to be the key to solving the confusions caused by our linguistic laxity. As I’ve noted above, our confusion comes from the failure to differentiate the social from the biological: a half-Black person would be considered as Black by many. It is not wrong to consider that person Black, if he truly identifies himself as such. However, we still need to hold onto the biological definition for medical purposes. Thus, comes the biological-social division.

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6 thoughts on “On Race

  1. There is no biological or medical definition of race in current use by scientists. We’re all the same species, and skin color is an evolutionary adaptation to regional climate. Race is entirely and solely a cultural construct.

    But yes, we do get into confusions over the arbitrary separation of kinds of people by observable physical differences, even though the concept has no validity beyond what you assign to it. It’s all in your own head, and in the eye of the beholder.

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    • Well, there is a biological difference between sub Saharan African descents, Northern European descents and Mongolian descents. Some are lactose intolerant and some aren’t. Some have eyes that fit certain environments better. Some used to be resistant to small pox, some weren’t. The distinction certainly has medical usage.

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      • No, measuring medical conditions by race has proven worse than useless for diagnoses. Sure, people with lighter skin are more prone to cancers from sun damage. But things like lactose intolerance aren’t correlated to skin color alone. It’s a minor difference in appearance, not really medically valuable. Vital signs, blood types, anatomy and physiology are what they are for all humans.

        They used to try and quantify racial differences and use them in 19th Century medicine, and it pops up again under situations like the Nazis, but all those centuries of attempting to define race biologically did was prove that humans are humans, far more alike than different in any meaningful, scientifically applicable way.

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      • The notion of ‘race’ I refer to isn’t skin color. It’s genes or genetic ancestry. i.e. Sub Saharan vs. Mongolian. The dark past of treating these differences does not logically make anything similar to it as equivalently immoral. That’s bad logic. ‘My ex boyfriend was psychotic. He was black. The delivery guy is black. Therefore, he is psychotic.’ Resistance to small pox is nothing trivial. Also, one’s genetic ancestry makes some more likely to be alcoholic. The list goes on.

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