Thursday, May 17, 2012

Race is in your head, not in your skin

Race is in your head, not in your skin

Alright... I've had this thought/argument in my head for a while and I have even shared it with a few people but I have refrained from making the argument explicit up until now.

I here argue that the idea of "race" or "racial groups" is a concept which is pertinent to our minds and how we classify things but it is not an objective thing in the world; which is to say, "race" is a concept that reflects how we are interpreting our sensory experience, not a part of our sensory experience itself. 

This is an important distinction.  Nearly unanimously, people will speak about "race" as if it is a quality perceived by the observer in the person (object) in question; "she is white" or "he is black" or "he is Asian" or "she is Latina" are all statements that are purportedly expressing an essential or intrinsic quality of the person (who is the object of the statement) in question.  However, none of these qualities are part of our sensory experience, or intrinsic qualities in the objects themselves, but are expressions of our interpretations of the world.

Imagine we line up a random 10,000 people.  We ask 1,000 people to identify the "race" of each of our 10,000 random people.  Do you think that we will have the result of near unanimity between our 1,000 identifiers/evaluators?  I think that the obvious answer is 'no'.  The diversity of 10,000 random people, will naturally bring out the subjective nature of the interpretation which is required to "identify" or more accurately evaluate, another person's "race".  Which is to say, "race" is not something we use to describe an objective part of our sensory experience but is actually, a subjective evalutation or interpretation of what we experience.

What if one of our evaluators looks at someone who appears similar to Tiger Woods?  Will all 1,000 of our evaluators identify him as strictly "black"? Or will some evaluate him as "mulatto" or "Latino" or "part-Black, part-White, part-Asian"?  I think that the results of the experiment are obvious {but I would be interested in anyone would would actually conduct such an experiment to confirm my hypothesis}; the evaluators might be in general agreement over the general population of our 10,000 random people, but they would no way be in complete agreement, and therefore there must be something subjective having to do with the assessment.

Of course, there is a sense in which, such an experiment, could entirely beg the question; as such an experiment could be structured in such a way as to *assume* that there was some sort of objective standard to determine which persons, belonged to which category of "race", to know whether the evaluator had made an appropriate evaluation, or had not made an appropriate evaluation.

Some might respond to this thesis, that there could be certain genetic markers which could serve as the basis of an objective standard of "race".  Certainly, there may be some genetic marker or combination of genetic markers that could form the basis of an objective description of something pertaining to the idea of "race" but I think that such a proposal would beg the question as well, as any such selection of a genetic marker combination is necessarily an arbitrary selection; we have merely decided to take this marker, and not that marker and asserted that it has some basis for an idea of "race".  Another complicating factor is that such a genetic marker standard may have no strong correspondence with genetic expression and then the interpretation of the human mind using sensory experience to interpret the effects of that genetic expression. So for instance, someone with a long-distant progenitor hailing from Africa centuries ago, could have the arbitrarily selected genetic markers we have selected as representing an objective standard for 'black' but by all accounts the person's unique genetic expression may present in such a way as no one would be able to discern this genetic difference.

However, I would submit further, that though concept of 'race' is an subjective interpretation of experience, it is by no means meaningless but says something meaningful to the individual who uses the concept.  If someone says, "I am Asian" they seem to be saying something about how they personally see themselves in the context of other people, who they would also categorize into the set of "Asians" which may have meaningful connotations of history, tradition, and culture OR it may exclude all of these but take some other personally selected criteria. 

Those persons who have have an alleged mix of "racial heritages" are an interesting test case of our concept of "race".  A person who is "part" one "race" and "part" another "race" often choose to identify themselves with one or the other; and the more complex the "mixing" the more likely that one is not going to identify with the lesser "proportions".  A person who is "part" "Asian" and "part" "Black" may identify only as "Black" or perhaps, identify only as "Asian" and still yet, they may identify as a "Black-Asian" or "Asian-Black" or any number of possible designators to describe to others, as to how they self-identify themselves.

I offer as a suggestion, that when someone says that they "are" of a particular "racial" group, that in the spirit of E-prime or other more conscious (specific) language scheme, we rather than interpret some self-referential objective quality to the speaker herself, we rather interpret a self-identification of a subjectively defined grouping.

 When someone says, "I am white" , what I would like to suggest, is that we may interpret this expression this way, "I have a subjective/personal understanding of what it is to be 'white, such that I feel/believe that I belong to the set of those I consider 'white' and this has some personal meaning to me."

To see race any other way, to arbitrarily define race according to our own preferences, is to tell people what they are ("You are Latina" or "She is black" or "They are Asian"), if those people agree with our identification, if they do in fact identify with what they consider to be the racial group they belong to, then no conflict arises, but what if some one says to a woman who had a 'white' mother and a 'black' father, What are we to make of someone else, saying of the female in question, "You are black."?  Can she not, with good reason, deny this conclusive/absolute statement has objective reality?  Perhaps she might respond, "No, I am mulatto" or "No, I am both white and black" or she might she not say, "No, I do not identify with 'black' or any other racial designation, I am just me."?  I think she can, and moreover, I think we should be respectful of her personal identification or even non-identification with any group or set.

While 'race' is not an objective-descriptor of some feature of the world, it is a subjectively determined designation, and therefore, when a person says, "I am Asian." They have told us something that is meaningful to them and thus it can have a meaning for us, that is: "I self-identify myself as belonging to a group of persons, that I personally designate as 'Asian'."  That is to say, a person's personal identification is a meaningful statement, even if it doesn't describe an objective-reality, it describes a personal/subjective-reality.

After all, who are we to tell other people, what they are?

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