Unbeknownst to many people, the definition of “race” has been revised several times in the past century. The lack of knowledge could account for why, in the 21st century, so many demonstrate a misunderstanding of the word “racism.” For many people, racism is simply the act of showing hatred or discrimination to the members of “a different race.” This type of thinking, however, is rooted in an archaic understanding of the meaning of “race” itself. The misunderstanding also permits a number of people to operate under a racist mindset and conduct racist behavior and not feel as if they are racist. What’s worse, perhaps, is that there are still several things in our culture that seem to give credibility to false beliefs about race and racism. The U.S. Census, for instance, asks questions about “race” without any disclaimer. Racist terms like “interracial marriage” and “mixed race children” are still widely used in radio, television, and public discussions. Stand-up comedians still capitalize on racial stereotypes to draw a reaction from the audience. I even saw a blog article the other day called “Name The Race” in which the writer presented a (supposed) real-world scenario and invited the reader to guess the “race” of the people in question. Such public displays are clearly rooted in an outdated understanding of race, and lead to the perpetuation of racist ideology into a century where it has no place.
Is the dictionary definition of “race” outdated, then? Not at all. In fact, any quality dictionary has carefully worded its denotation of the word “race” to take into account the scientific and social advances affecting the term. Race, as it was once thought to exist throughout the history of the United States until the mid 20th century, is no more. The racial caste system, and the associated illusions of racial superiority and inferiority are understood to have been based on bogus assumptions. Perhaps, more importantly, the supposed differences in biology between those of apparently different racial groups is also known to have been a misconception. For a long time in this country, people perceived the members of the various races as being as different from one another as the members of separate species. The idea that some groups were subhuman, further strengthened the man-made partition between the groups. Even though in 1950, “the United Nations issue[d] an official statement declaring that race has no scientific basis and call[ed] for an end to racial thinking in scientific and political thought,” (Race: The power of an Illusion) and even though in 2000, Bill Clinton, in a world-wide announcement of the completion of the first survey of the human genome, said that “in genetic terms, all human beings, regardless of race are more than 99.9% the same,” some of the old ideas about race continue to play out publicly and privately.
It isn’t enough to think of racism as simply not liking someone of “a different race.” Racism is the belief that the person actually comes from “a different race.” Biologically, there is no other race. In response to discussions on whether Joe Louis was a credit to his race, Jimmy Cannon, famously said, “Yes, he is a credit to his race- the human race.” Whether or not he meant to do so, Cannon’s quote provides a fine example for a proper attitude toward race. Similar language was used by Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, in 2000, when he said “I’m happy that today, the only race we are talking about is the human race.” We need to abandon the misconception that racism is just a belief in racial supremacy, or the use of unfair racial discrimination, and start viewing as racism any comment or behavior that makes it seem as if race exists outside of a cultural mindset. Since “many cultural anthropologists now consider race to be more a social or mental construct than an objective biological fact” (American Heritage Dictionary), we should acknowledge that race is all in our heads.
When I say “in our heads,” I mean the American mind. Although one could argue that slavery, genocide, and various forms of segregation have existed since the beginning of humankind, I maintain, supported by a number of sources, that the American brand of racism is unique. In his 2007 book, Race, Marc Aronson tracks the development of this powerful construct. “The history of the United States is the history of the problem of race,” Aronson states, as he describes how the modern theory of racism began through pseudoscience in 1775, and then, like a serpent in Eden, wove itself into the nation’s verdant beginnings. “It was here in North America, that slavery and race were most firmly joined” (Aronson). From there, it’s easy to see how race, racism, and American culture have lived together ever since. The amazing thing is that so many Americans insist on continuing the traditions of racist thinking, despite new information. In general, Americans like to think of themselves as a group that does not blindly follow oppressive authority. This is why we connect with stories like The Matrix, The Village, and The Da Vinci Code, in which the protagonists fight against powers that suppress knowledge or truth and keep the people in ignorance. In the case of 21st century America, there is no power suppressing the truth. Our minds have the potential to be freer than they have ever been, and yet, as a culture, we volunteer to remain ignorant. In the case of race and racism, we are our own oppressors, and we do not have to be.
BASTIONS OF RACISM
The following are a number of things in American culture that seem to help perpetuate misconceptions about race, and permit the continuation of racist thinking.
The U.S. Census
Some of the questions on the 2010 the U.S. Census asked about “race.” Without a doubt, this information is used to accomplish some good things. It helps provide information and resources to civil rights organizations, and it helps to observe the progress of groups that have been oppressed by racial discrimination in the past (and the present). The problem with asking people to check one or two boxes on “race” is that it helps to perpetuate the idea that “race” exists. The word “race” is too tied up with other connotations and misconceptions. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. said in “Writing ‘Race’ And The Difference It Makes,” “The sense of difference defined in popular usages of the term “race” has both described and inscribed differences of language, belief system, artistic tradition, and gene pool, as well as all sorts of supposedly natural attributes such as rhythm, athletic ability, cerebration, usury, fidelity, and so forth. The relation between “racial character” and these sorts of characteristics has been inscribed through tropes of race, lending the sanction of God, biology, or the natural order to even presumably unbiased descriptions of cultural tendencies and differences.” There are still many Americans who connect skin color, nationality, or ethnicity to such characteristics, and when they see the census use the term “race” they can’t help but feel confirmed in their beliefs. The U.S. Census makers, then, should not ask about “race” but, perhaps, ethnicity, or nationality of family heritage. The same information could be gathered without leading people to see the country as a collection of separate “races.”
So where does the U.S. Census draw its ideas about racial categories? In the 21st century, racial categories are not determined by science or pseudoscience, but by governments. And racial classifications of people are determined by the individuals themselves. In other words, the U.S. Census decides the categories, and you get to answer by checking the box next to whatever you think you are, or whatever you want to be. If your genealogy contains members of multiple ethnicities, nationalities, or skin colors you can check one box, two boxes, or “other.” If, for some reason, your genealogy is dubious, you can check the box next to whatever people have told you you are (which was probably based on how you look). Do we need any more proof that race in America is made up?
Words Like “Caucasian”
The word “Caucasian” is still used interchangeably with “white.” Yet, the term is rooted in the work of Johann Friedrich Blumenbach who assumed that the beautiful people of the Caucasus Mountains were “the original human beings” and that other races developed later “as people moved and fell away from their original and pure form” (Aronson). How has this term, as a label for whites, remained in use for so long? It has even seems to have met the criteria of 1980’s and 1990’s political correctness. How? I even hear the term used casually, next to “African American” and “Asian,” and, yet, hardly anyone would think to note the intrinsically racist properties of the word “Caucasian.”
Eventually, all words used to label a “race” will be found insufficient. It’s amusing in some ways, and sad in others to hear well-meaning people trip up over such terms, in everyday conversation. I clearly remember the following conversation between two friends who were watching a BBC science-fiction series: “Who killed the alien?” “The African American guy.” “He’s not African American, he’s British.” “He’s British?” “Yes. Listen to his accent.” “Well, am I supposed to say he’s African British?” “No, I think you just say ‘British.’” Somewhere hidden in their conversation is just more evidence that race is a construct.
Assumptions Of Racial Characteristics
One of the most stubborn misconceptions in American culture is that certain abilities are connected to one’s supposed race. This type of thinking is rooted in the very definition of racism and yet many find it acceptable to insist that one color has rhythm, another color is smart, and another color can’t jump. Unfortunately, race continues to be the default explanation for why a group is good or bad at something. The problem here is that many are unaware (or do not acknowledge) that whatever genetic properties might help someone be good at something are not at all tied to the genes that determine skin, hair, and eye color. If a large population is better at one thing than another population it is probably something in the culture itself that has created the difference. One might claim, for instance, that an unbelievable number of Canadians are good at hockey. This is not because they are white, and it’s not because they were born members of a special race of Canadians. It may, however, be because Canadians live where there is ice and ice skating, and where the culture itself is very enthusiastic about hockey as a form of entertainment, with parents taking young children to hockey games and practices. Similar explanations may be found wherever a group is noted have some unique ability. The important thing is to ask, “What are the cultural factors that contribute to this group’s success?” and not to assume that there must be some sort of racial factor.
Stand-Up Comedy Marketing
One might think of America as the land of a thousand subcultures. In fact, “thousand” may be an understatement. We all know that values, beliefs, heritage, history, tastes in food, and tastes in music can differ from region to region. Another thing that differs is humor. Stand-up comedy might not translate well from one group to another. Jeff Foxworthy’s, “You might be a redneck if…” routine just won’t work as well with some audiences as with others. So often, humor is not universal but cultural. Several years ago there was a somewhat successful attempt to recreate a version of Seinfeld in Pakistan. The show “Zara Dekh Kar” wasn’t affiliated with the original Seinfeld, but the similarities were undeniable. The Pakistani Kramer, though similarly tall and lanky, had to use an entirely different style of physical comedy than Michael Richards’ Kramer. I remember watching the actor demonstrate his technique in a television interview. Certainly, his head nods and facial expressions would have made no sense to American audiences, but in Pakistan they were hilarious. Eventually, the Pakistani Seinfeld, though popular with the public, was cancelled because the Elaine character wore pants. The story, though, just goes to show how humor is cultural.
With this in mind, sometimes stand-up comedy is mass marketed with American subcultures in mind. The unfortunate result is that, to the untrained eye, stand-up DVDs, TV series, and tours seem racially segregated. This might not be so bad except for the fact that when young adults and teenagers watch some comedians’ routines, they come away with a whole slew of racial stereotypes and racist jokes they may not have otherwise encountered. Because these jokes are “funny,” a whole new generation of students is encouraged to adopt the philosophy behind them. Nothing is more heartbreaking or frustrating than hearing a student express a racial stereotype that he learned from a show on Comedy Central. Sometimes satirizing racism can cause racism.
Misconceptions About the Bible’s Definition of Race
Perhaps, even worse than using science or pseudoscience to support racial prejudice is using the Bible to do so. Hardly anyone can deny the influence of the Bible on American culture. Most are familiar with how the so-called “Curse of Ham” and the Bible’s descriptions of slavery have been used to justify a number of atrocities. It is important to note, though, that the Bible itself condones neither racism nor slavery. In fact, if one is careful to examine the principles of Christianity as a whole, the ideas in the Bible present a powerful antithesis to racism. Furthermore, the Bible’s few uses of the word “race” is quite consistent with the most recent definition of the word. I would argue, too, that most racist interpretations of the Bible and its stories were inferred upon it by people seeking to support already fully formed racial prejudices or caste systems. What a pity, to allow an age old text, a great source of wisdom and spiritual direction, to be distorted through the filter of American racism.
One thing the Bible is sometimes used to support is a predisposition against “interracial marriage.” It’s true that the Israelites were commanded not to intermarry with people of neighboring nations. The intelligent pastor is quick to point out that the purpose of the command was to keep the Israelites, who were the designated keepers of God’s law and literature, from adapting to other religious belief systems. There were, however, a few instances in which Israelites did marry foreigners (such as in the story of Boaz and Ruth) and the union was condoned because the both parties were well conformed to Mosaic law. So the issue was never that of “race” but of faith. Even today, Christians are asked not to be “unequally yoked” in marriage, which means that Christians should not marry someone of a different religion or of a radically different level of “spiritual maturity” with in the faith itself.
I hate to hear someone disguise racism by saying something like “I’m not prejudice. I just don’t think people of different cultures should marry.” Yet, who can say what is in the hearts and minds of two people, and who has the power to determine marital compatibility based on cultural background alone? To attempt to do so is nothing but prejudice itself. If a couple is compatible in values, and they want to undertake the adventure of exploring their differences in cultural background, language, perspective, etc. over a lifetime of marriage, then who should stop them? The challenges are not likely to be much different from those in any other marriage.
Aronson, Marc. Race. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2007. Print.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Writing ‘Race’ And The Difference It Makes.” The Critical Tradition. ed. David Richter. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2007. Print.
Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton, 1981. Print.
Race: The Power of an Illusion. PBS.org. Web. 24 Jul 2011.
The entire speech containing President Clinton’s and Dr. Collins’s comments on the completion of the survey of the human genome can be found at http://clinton4.nara.gov/WH/EOP/OSTP/html/00628_2.html