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Racism is Dead, Long Live Racism!

5 August 2007 at 09:55 | 1244 views

In this first of his five-part article, Dr. Charles Quist-Adade, Sociology professor at Kwantlen University College, Surrey, B.C., Canada, sheds light on the enigma, absurdity, and destructive power of race and racism and contend that these twin notions, while illogical and irrational, have real, abiding influence on the collective human psyche and continue to wreak havoc globally. He proposes that the farce and idiocy of these notions be taught to children as early as at the primary school level, because children, especially “White” children, are the first victims of racism. In addition, he suggests that racism and anti-racism are a dialectical process. Therefore, anti-racist education in the new century must go beyond the preaching down, “holier than thou” moralism of the victim groups and the intellectual elite to include all, victims, victimizers, racialized and the “raceless,” “White” and “Non-Whites,” young and old. In other words, the fight against racism, Dr. Quist-Adade insists must leave no one behind, evolving around a rainbow coalition and more. And finally, anti-racist education must be creatively and dialectically praxis-oriented, transcending the classrooms and lecture halls to communities and the lifeworlds of all constituent ethno-racial groups, and transforming social and political structures that distribute valued social goods and resources.

By Charles Quist-Adade, Ph.D.

“Race” and “racism” are paradoxically different things. Race does not exist, at least in the scientific sense. It is a chimera, a phantom. Racism, however, is a powerful reality, an invention that is absurd, illogical, irrational, and nonsensical. Race is a figment of the collective imagination. Racism manifests itself in a destructively powerful way. Yet together the two are interdependent, feeding upon each other.

Yes, the twin notions of race and racism combine to make a powerful concoction, poisoning human relations, maiming, killing, and destroying people everywhere in both hidden and open ways. Sometimes people appear to understand both the absurdity and the power of the twin notions as expressed in the following trite phrases: “Our differences are only skin deep” and “we all belong to the human race.”

These two phrases are often invoked across the “color bar,” either to promote racial harmony or to expose the fallacy of racial exclusiveness. The truth in these two observations is beyond contest. Yet the history of the human race suggests that people use these terms without really meaning the idea behind them.

So, then, what is “race” and what is “racism”? What follows is an attempt to answer this and other related questions: How did “race” and racism happen? What are their effects? How can the notion of “race” be dislodged from popular consciousness? How can racism be dismantled? The question of “race” does not lend itself to easy answers. Yet, I will try.

There is little scholarly consensus on the meaning of the term “race.” However, most social scientists, and indeed biological scientists and geneticists are in agreement that “race” is a human invented concept. Thus, “race” can be defined as a grouping of human population characterized by socially selected physical traits. What this definition points to, is that “race” is a social construct (society’s invention). What we see/know as “race” is based on a small set of physical characteristics-skin colour, hair colour and texture, facial features-superficial manifestations of eons of genetic mutations and gene-environment interactions. (See Kuper, (1965); UNESCO (1965): 341-64; Davies, 2001)

In other words, race is neither natural nor biological. Instead the concept was artificially and arbitrarily created by human beings. It also means that “race” is not genetically predetermined or divinely created. In other words, what constitutes race is like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.

How can that be, you wonder. Your eyes do not deceive you. There are indeed physical differences among the human populations we call racial groups-“Black,” “White,” “Yellow,” “Brown,” “Red.” A Chinese man is obviously as different from a Portuguese man as an Englishman is from a Nigerian Ibo man. However, what our eyes see as physical differences are only superficial traits, differences brought about by geographic and climatic adaptations.

An Ibo man is darker than an English man simply because he lives in the tropics and is closer to the equator, with plenty of sunshine. His darker pigmentation is the result of the presence of high levels of melanin, a molecule that protects his skin against the ultraviolet rays of the sun. Without melanin acting as a shield from the sun, the Ibo man would burn or contract skin cancer. The Englishman’s lighter complexion, in contrast, signifies the presence of Vitamin D, an organic chemical that helps him absorb the little sunshine available to him or her in a colder environment. This also helps him to absorb calcium, a chemical element needed for strong bones and to prevent rickets or softening of the bones.

Such adaptation to geographic and climatic conditions is a survival mechanism for everyone. Long periods of adaptation to geographic and climatic conditions ensure the interaction between genes and the environment. In other words, mutation took place in the “original” Englishman and “original” Ibo man in their efforts to survive in the polar and tropical regions respectively. In time, they passed on these survival genes to their offspring. Thus, the Englishman and his offspring became paler in their complexions, while the Ibo man and his descendants became darker. This explains why the farther people are from the equator toward the North Pole, the lighter their skin complexions. Skin color, from say Sudan to Iceland, is thus a continuum from dark to pale, with no clinical way to pinpoint where the “Black” race ends and where the “White” race begins.

But that does not explain why the Ibo man became a member of the so-called Negroid or “Black” race and the Englishman became a member of the so-called Caucasoid or “White” race. The Ibo man did not call himself a “Black” man until somebody defined him so. This is what I meant when I insisted at the beginning of this article that race is a social construct. Somebody made the Ibo man “race man.”
It is those who turned the Ibo man into a “Black” man and the Englishman into a “White” man who gave birth to the idea of racism-the systematic means of denying access to resources and opportunities to a group based on their skin colour and/or ethnicity. (Myers, 2006:18). In other words, some people created the concept of race at one point in time and produced ideas to justify the concept. What this also means is that race and racism are modern inventions.

Thus, contrary to what most people have been made to believe, the twin notions of “race” and racism are not a natural part of humanity. Rather, “race” is a social, historical and cultural construct. Historian Ira Berlin tells us in an interview for the PBS (Public Broadcasting System) video documentary (Race: The Power of an Illusion ) that: "In early American society, people distinguish themselves by religion; they distinguish themselves by nationality; they distinguish themselves by family. And however they distinguish themselves, they arrange themselves in a hierarchical order in which a few are on top, and many are on the bottom... Hierarchy is providential; it’s a way that God ordered the world."

According to another historian Gary Nash (1999), when Jamestown colonist John Rolfe took his new bride, Pocahontas (who had converted to Christianity), back to London in 1616, they caused an uproar among the lords and ladies and dukes and earls of the Court of King James. Not because Rolfe, an Englishman, had married an Indian, but because Pochahontas, a princess, had married a commoner. (Race) Kupperman (2000) points out that, as for physical distinctions, native Americans were most struck by the English colonists’ beards and their smell. The colonists wore the same clothes for weeks, were covered with lice, and rarely bathed. The English didn’t describe the Indians’ color as red in the early days, but rather as tanned or tawny.

Race as a Modern Idea
“Race” has not always been with us (Snowden, 1970; Johnson, 2006). “There was a time before [‘race’] and racism. (Johnson, 2006:14) The term, according to historians, was first used in the 15th century by an English poet to refer to a line of British kings. Other historians trace the beginnings of the term to about 1580, when it was introduced into the English language to denote a group of people with common descent. Increasingly, the term came to refer to various nations, such as the “German race,” the “British race,” the “Russian race,” etc.

The modern use of the term can be traced to the 19th century and the advent of the European "Enlightenment" movement. European Enlightenment scholars, with their preoccupation with positivism or the application of science in the study of human society, led the way to scientific racism, i.e. the classification of the human “species” into subgroups or categories, in the same manner that faunal and floral (plant and animal) types were pigeon-holed by biological scientists. (Orbe, 2001)

The pioneer in this field was the Frenchman Francois Bernier, who classified the human “race” into four categories, namely Europeans (including South Asians, North Africans, and Native Americans, excluding Lapps), Far Easterners, Sub-Saharan African, and Lapps (Gosset, 1963; Lasker & Tyzzer; 1982, Montagu, 1964, 1997; Spickard, 1992).
After Bernier, a long line of the so-called naturalists emerged, including Georges Cuveir, James Cowels Prichard, Louis Agassiz, Charles Pickering, and Johann Friederich Blumenbach, each with his own number of racial groups.
The most influential of all these “race categorizers” was the Dutchman Blumenbach, who identified five “races” (Gould, 1994).

1) the Caucasian or White race, into which he lumped the greater part of European nations and those of Western Asia

2) the Mongolian or Yellow race, occupying Tartary, China, Japan, etc

3) the Ethiopian, or Black race, inhabiting most of Africa, except the north), Australia, New Guinea, and other Pacific Islands

4) the American, or the Red race, which occupies North and South America

5) the Malayan, or Brown race, which occupies the islands of the Indian Archipelago