Preface: I am taking a class in Race and Racism this semester with Sally Haslanger at MIT, fulfilling my deepest desires of having classes in philosophy count towards my degree. I figured I would cross-post my weekly responses and thoughts here, so that you may read them and form a few thoughts of your own.
This week’s readings in Race & Racism class have already brought a few new points to my mind concerning this topic, especially on the classification of “race” itself. Now, being a non-white person living in America (although the same likely applies for people of all colors, non-colors, whatever you may choose to designate yourself as) I have already spent a good deal of time (say, about 22 years) rolling this idea of “race” around my brainspace. The events of this summer certainly brought it to the forefront.
Still, in all this time, about 8,000 day’s worth minus a few years of color-blind babyhood, I never really challenged the idea of race itself as a classifier. That, I took for granted. It was handed to me on the first day of grade school: Look, you are the Asian kid in class (there was one other, a boy, I think, so if you want to be specific, I was the Asian Girl); those are the Black kids, these are the Hispanic kids, and I guess, everyone else is White. Racism is bad; everybody knows that, but yea, you’re definitely the Asian kid. Don’t call someone fat, but there’s nothing wrong with saying that someone’s White or Black, it just is.
This is what philosopher Blum (I’m not a Racist, But…, 2002) calls the “popular account”, and it is, he is very clear to state, wrong. Wrong as in false, but also wrong in the sense that it is morally detrimental. What’s wrong with racial thinking? There are a few key points:
1.Racial thinking divides us. It creates “moral distance” among those of different races. i.e. it becomes easier to antagonize the man who is not of my “type”. (102)
2. At the same time, it falsely groups us into categories all too easily stereotyped (103).
3. It suggests that we can’t escape our “racial fate” (i.e. “All Asians are good at math and like engineering”… oops) (104)
4. and finally, racial categories “evoke associations of superiority and inferiority of value”.
I think point 3 is especially important as it leads to the idea of racial immobility, i.e. you are born Asian and you die Asian because your parents are Asian, and this becomes especially harmful when considering statements 1, 2, and 4, unlike all the bad things that class categorization brings, because whereas in some places there is an idea of class mobility, really, I can’t think of many people who might believe in race mobility for a single person (at least not in America), unless they resemble closely enough another. It doesn’t matter how “whitewashed” I am, even if my entire adoptive family is white, if I wake up one morning and declare “I am white!” the person next to me might say in reply: “go the f–k to sleep”.
However, I am not sure that I am completely onboard with Blum’s rejection of racial thinking on a moral stance. It is true that there are many oddities to racial classification that suggest it to be unsound without an implicit cognitive model of race, i.e. why choose skin color and not some other physical attribute (such as hair color), why narrow the world down to essentially 5 races established a long time ago in the 18th century when there are many other groups that are quite distinct, (in fact, I admit I always considered race to be a genetic aspect, and was thoroughly surprised to learn that in fact there is very little genetic distinction between them (Does Race Exist, Bamshad & Olson, 2003)).
But I do not think it is the categorization and classification of people into races itself that is at fault, but how we do this and the assumptions we make while doing so. It is in fact precisely points 1-4 that are what’s wrong with our thinking of race itself, and not the acceptance that race exists. I am not sure there is such thing as a post-racial world. Colorblindness could be in fact, harmful.
Blum points out our reluctance to classify people by race as a hint to the incorrectness of the action, but if we did not associate certain races with negative traits then we might not hesitate so much, just as we might not feel it as taboo to point out, simply, that someone has brown or black hair, which is a way of categorization. Maybe at this point, the use of race is far too entrenched with negativity and harm that there is no more way to use the concept without hurt, but again, this is not in the categorization itself but the attributes we have prescribed to our method of doing so and the categories.
Whether or not race exists biologically, the worst possible thing would be for us to fear acknowledging that it is a very real thing in society. Even in my own conversations, I see this fear of speaking about race, fear of acknowledgment, fear of saying the word itself. This is what creates boundaries between us, not race, the concept.
Maybe the idea of race is all in our head… but that does not make it any less of a reality.
Tags: haslanger, racial thinking, racism