taking off the color blinders
September 18, 2004 8:39 PM   Subscribe

If you can't define it, it's meaningless. It's meaningless.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 8:49 PM on September 18, 2004

That's because there is no scientifically supportable meaning for the term "race" as the word is used today. This is not ambiguous or open to debate any longer. It is a closed question.

The contemporary conception of "race" is that superficial characteristics, particularly skin pigmentation, reliably correlate to genetic relatedness. This has been proven false.

The issue in contention, however, is that because a) the term "race" is still useful in some contexts; and b) it is an undeniable social reality in many places, there is the big problem of what to do with this troublesome and misleading word.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:58 PM on September 18, 2004

it is an undeniable social reality in many places

I'll deny that! Class and wealth is a reality, beliefs are a reality, and of course appearance is a reality. But as you say, appearance and race aren't at all reliably connected. My half-sister looks entirely black, and I look entirely white. We're different "races", despite being brother and sister, simply due to the genetic lottery. It's not a useful term any more, except when election time comes around.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 9:09 PM on September 18, 2004

I don't know, I think the right direction to go is to steer society away from looking at the world in terms of race, but because people still define you and your sister as being two different races makes it, unfortunately, a social reality.
posted by Quartermass at 9:20 PM on September 18, 2004

If race doesn't exist, then what's with all the Asian/Black clubs and societies? Just sayin'.
posted by reklaw at 9:43 PM on September 18, 2004

Race is real. It shows fairly clearly what continent you were originally from. To say race is useless as a metric for a person is one (rather uncontroversial) thing, but to claim it doesn't exist is like saying some regional variation in a species of moth doesn't exist; there may be borderline examples and cross-breeding but that doesn't make it impossibly muddled.
posted by abcde at 9:54 PM on September 18, 2004

> The contemporary conception of "race" is that superficial
> characteristics, particularly skin pigmentation, reliably correlate to
> genetic relatedness. This has been proven false.

So where is that coded/kept that people consistently get a skin of a certain color? Or oversized ears or blue eyes for that matter...
posted by NewBornHippy at 10:16 PM on September 18, 2004

if my name was Race Creedculler, i'd be without regard, too.
posted by quonsar at 10:24 PM on September 18, 2004

Wow. That's a dilly of a pickle.

So there's no biological definition of race because there's no genetic evidence of race?

The Wikipedia article on race is interesting.
posted by bitpart at 10:50 PM on September 18, 2004

EB supplied my typical responses to this issue (thanks, EB) so, then :

I love this post.

The whole concept of "Race" should shrivel up :

"Well it’s a god-given fact (that
You can’t go back)
It’s a god-given law that
You’re gonna lose your maw
It’s a god-given fact you gotta
Buy’em by the sack
It’s a god-given law that
You’re gonna get small
May be just another rap but
You’re running out of sap
Well you better take the rap
Dying under daddy’s cap
It’s at the top of the list
That you can’t get pissed
It’s rule #1 living right isn’t fun
Time-tested and true you
Gotta pooty poo-poo......



Also - Pale Ashkenazi Jews and many Africans share a similar resistance to Typhus, Malaria and Tuberculosis (I hope I recall this disease roster correctly) - and the consequent downsides as well, such as Tay Sachs disease...or so Jared Diamond tells me.

Just saying.
posted by troutfishing at 10:56 PM on September 18, 2004

Let's ditch race once and for all and focus on persecuting people based on their height, like God intended.

By "God" of course I mean Jesus Christ, who stood a proper 5 foot 11.
posted by dong_resin at 11:03 PM on September 18, 2004

I'm just shocked by how many times that article contained the word white.
posted by jon_kill at 11:08 PM on September 18, 2004

It shows fairly clearly what continent you were originally from.

Oh, rubbish. I've lived my whole life in California. What color am I?
posted by SPrintF at 11:10 PM on September 18, 2004

Also, there are some pretty nasty folks still obsessed with crackpot notions of "race" as well as with some more advanced notions of specific genetic groupings that allow, possibly, for the development of "Ethnic Weapons" (also, see Metafilter 33592)

dong_resin - well, try substituting "genetic weaknesses" for "height" there and you're on to something.

"....Jesus Christ, who stood a proper 5 foot 11" - I could be Jesus!
posted by troutfishing at 11:21 PM on September 18, 2004

I've lived my whole life in California. What color am I? - Avocado ?
posted by troutfishing at 11:22 PM on September 18, 2004

It shows fairly clearly what continent you were originally from.

Except that it doesn't - Someone from North America or West Africa might look very similar, but they know they are from different continents. (The only time I have ever heard the phrase "go back to Africa" was from a black Canadian to an African refugee in Canada.)

What you mean is that it can show where some of your ancestors may be from. Unless, of course, you are my cousins, whose mother is mixed-race Canadian and father is white Irish, and from the fun of genetics, they look like they might be Persian or maybe northern Indian.

What people mean when they say that race is not a biological category is that human appearance exists on many spectrums - traits like skin colour, hair, features, etc. don't work categorically. Culturally, we have said that people who share traits X, Y and Z are this race, but this can easily fall apart (as the example of my cousins show - they look South Asian just though the roll of the genetic dice, with no South Asian ancestry). As for genetic markers (such as propensity for certain diseases) go, these follow geneologies, not race. Someone with certain ancesters, no matter what they look like, can carry those genes. (On Preview - what troutfishing said.)

How race works as a cultural category is much more interesting. I think it is really just one of many ways to divide people, sometimes more important (dominating all other categories), sometimes less (even not applying, except in the idea of tribe or ethnicity). The importance of race - or indeed, what is thought to be a race - changes in response to what other groups a society is exposed to. I study early modern British history - 16th to 18th centuries. The English were aware of races like Native Americans, and Black Africans - and in the colonies were beginning to think of themselves as "white" in contrast. But in Britain, categories like Protestant (as opposed to Catholic), or English (as opposed to Scottish) were far more important. I don't even know if the average person could have even conceived of themselves as "white" - because everyone in their world was pink. Even if they met a non-white person (there were black people, free and slaves, in Britain), it might be such an unusual experience, that it doesn't create any sense of identity in contrast.* Their identities were focused around their religion, their county, their nationality (as well as gender, social class, etc) - if they met someone of another race, that would be mostly likely to be someone Irish. (Race is used interchangably with nationality in this period - thus "English race", "German race" - but I think the Irish were more racialised (as inferior in development) - more of a contrast drawn, than with the Scottish, for example.)

I have always thought that the sense of race as a social category increases with exposure to people of different races, but in certain circumstances - that is, exposure to communities segregated by race, where what one looks like marks out who they would know and talk to - who is "us" and who is "them". I moved recently from Toronto (very multi-cultural and at least 50% non-white) to New Haven, a north-east US city with large minorities (even majorities?) of black and Hispanic people.** But the city is very divided - the professors, students and clerical workers at the local university (where I am a student) are in majority white. Faced with this contrast, I have found myself becoming much more concious of race than I ever had been in my life, because it is often a marker of the divide between university and local. (And yes, black and hispanic students do have trouble because of it.)

*Othello is noted as being dark - but also as non-Christian - and people argue about which characteristic is more important, esp since the 16th cen was one in which religious identity was something you fought civil wars over. I would have to read the play more carefully before I could say what I thought.

** This was also very interesting, since Hispanic is only an ethnic category in Canada, like being French or Italian. I have a friend whose parents are from Equador who goes from being white to being Hispanic when she crosses the border.

posted by jb at 11:54 PM on September 18, 2004

I do have a crazy anecdote about race: A friend of mine is South African, and was telling us about some of the laws regarding the definition of race that existed under apartheid there. He says that they had a pencil test - if you could stick a pencil in your hair, and it wouldn't fall out, then you were not white. Of course, this does mean that my Irish/Italian roommate with pasty white skin but also masses of thick red-gold curls could have been defined as non-white in South Africa. My mother's sister probably has the curls to do this as well, though her ancestry is all Scottish/English - and the rest of her family has straight or wavy hair.

Families were divided on the basis of this - children were taken from their biological parents to be put with families "of the same race". It flies in the face of all logic, whether you believe in race or not - and yet, this was done, over and over again. Your future, made or broken by how curly your hair was.

(on the lighter side, maybe perms weren't so popular.)
posted by jb at 11:58 PM on September 18, 2004

One thing that I emphasize in my explanations of this that I rarely, if ever, find other people even mentioning is that what people think that "race" means could have possibly been true—it just happens that it's not.

Human populations could have been isolated from each other for sufficient lengths of time for distinct, generalized differences in appearance related directly to a genetic divergence to occur. (Ugh, bad sentence.) To use the vulgar (and disturbing and ignomious historied) example, humans might have had distinct "breeds" as, say, dogs do. This is what people think race means, and this is what they think is true. It's not.

But it might have been. It is, on its face, not an entirely unreasonable proposition. If it were true, then we could look at the human genome for distinct subgroups of (relatively) closely related people, find those genetic subgroups, and when we cross-check that against how we categorize people's "race", they would match. From the other direction, we could pick two people of the same "race" and we'd find that they are genetically in the same subgroup (they're relatively closely related). This would be the case if, as people commonly suppose, the population of Africa had been isolated from the population of Europe long enough for the two populations to genetically diverge and this divergence manifests in the phenotype as the characteristics we associate with "race". Specifically and most commonly, skin color.

This is what everyone expected we would find when we had the science and tech to actually go and check for this genetic relatedness.

But that's not what we found.

What we found was that sometimes "race" is an indicator of genetic relatedness of populations, but sometimes it's not. In fact, it's not more often than it is.

The most commonly given example is that of the various populations of Africa—of which all the dark skinned populations are commonly classified as the same "race". Yet, genetically, in relative terms some of those dark-skinned populations are far less related to each other than they are to some European light-skinned populations. At the genetic level, dark skinned Africans don't look at all like a single "racial" group. Instead, they look like a bunch of different "races", some closely related and some as distinct from another as the others are distinct from an Asian population. What we call "race" does not indicate that the population shares a genetic heritage.

At this point people often are confused and frustrated because it's obvious to them that the racial differences that are evident to the eye must be the product of genetics; and that the races supposedly reliably "breed" true (if you'll pardon that uncomfortable expression). To understand why this does not prove the correctness of the idea of "race", let's look at a particular characteristic that's not skin color: height.

It happens that in many cases what we call "races" also corresponds to differences in height. And we find that Asians tend to be shorter than Europeans and tend to be more closely related to each other than they are to Europeans. So let's take the average Asian height X. Would you assume that someone else from some other part of the world that happens to be of the height X must necessarily be genetically related to Asians? Would you assume that a population somewhere else in the world with the same average height as Asians must be genetically related to Asians? I'd bet you wouldn't (as you shouldn't.) Well, basically, it's the same with skin color. Distinct populations can have the same skin color without that reflecting a fundamental genetic similarity.

This is the crux of it.

The other thing that leads people astray is that within limited (not global) contexts, "race" often does correspond to genetic relatedness. The oft-cited example for this is African-Americans. As it happens, African-Americans are a genetically related population. That's why they have the sickle-cell anemia propensity in common, for example. But there are African populations, black populations, that don't have that propensity for sicke-cell anemia. Bascially, African-Americans are a distinct genetic population because they share a relatively few common ancestors taken from west Africa in the slave trade. This also means that African-Americans may share other phenological characteristics that correspond to their genetic relatedness. For example, certain kinds of bone structure that allow forensic identification of "race". In the context of the global human population, you cannot reliably identify a fossil's "race" on this basis. Physical anthropologists still do speak in something like these terms; but they do so as convenience and in a technical sense where they understand the limits of what they're saying.

Why haven't human populations diverged into superficially obviously distinct "breeds" the way we see in the cases of other animals? The best (and pretty well-supported) answer to that question is simply that no human populations have ever been isolated enough, long enough, for such a divergence to occur. My impression surveying the literature was that anthropologists were surprised to see as low a level of genetic population divergence as they did. But cultural anthropology and even history show that human populations don't stay very isolated from each other for very long.

Why does this matter so much? Why is it important that the common idea of "race" doesn't correspond to a scientificaly defensible theory? Because aside from the deep sociological implications (all the issues that are in play with regard to "racism" etc.), there's a whole bunch of purely scientific matters where this is very important. For example, epidemological studies that take into account "race". Or (and this example is at the intersection between the scientific and the political) you have something like "The Bell Curve" where there's the explicit argument that intelligence is significantly genetically determined and that this corresponds to "race". Well, given what we know "race" isn't, that argument is necessarily false. Intelligence can't vary according to race via the biological mechanisms assumed because race itself isn't determined by the biological mechanisms assumed. And if that's the case (and it is), then assuming that measurements of intelligence vary according to "race", then we need to be looking for something other than (or in addition to) biology to explain this variation.

"Race" is still a useful idea—and certainly in many parts of the world an inescapable idea—insofar as what we really mean is "ethnicity". Race has a meaning...a cultural meaning.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:20 AM on September 19, 2004

EB I think that may be the first post you've ever written that I really, really enjoyed reading - and that helped clarify my own thoughts on the matter. Thanks. Very much appreciate it.
posted by Ryvar at 2:28 AM on September 19, 2004

Yes, that was great.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 3:04 AM on September 19, 2004

If you can't define it, it's meaningless. It's meaningless.

I appreciate the Wittgensteinesque nature of such a comment, but were you referring to the meeting in question or the concept of race?
posted by ed\26h at 4:41 AM on September 19, 2004

Brilliant, EB. I studied the history of eugenics many years ago when I taught Maus for a course and this is as cogent an explanation of the fallacies inherent in racial classification systems as I've seen. I would have liked to have had it then. Well done.
posted by melissa may at 4:58 AM on September 19, 2004

*blush* Thanks.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:20 AM on September 19, 2004

ed\26h: Um, the concept of race. I wouldn't call the meeting undefinable.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 5:35 AM on September 19, 2004

"Race" is still a useful idea—and certainly in many parts of the world an inescapable idea—insofar as what we really mean is "ethnicity". Race has a meaning...a cultural meaning.

That was a real nice comment EB. but I agree with your latter sentence, but not quite with the former. The concepts of "race" and "ethnicity" aren't necessarily the same thing. Ethnicity is cultural; a Londoner can be ethnically British but racially black. Yet ethnicity and race are also linked, insofar as a person with African heritage but raised in London can choose to make African-ness a part of their self-construction. But they don't have to, they can just stick with being British.

Ethnicity is almost as tough a topic as race because ethnicity often has much to do with economic status. A great movie that wrestles with all these concepts of blackness as ethnicity as class is Spike Lee's Bamboozled.

I think defining race was probably the easiest part of the conference; it seems like "categorization based on skin-color phenotype" is the definition at which they arrived. Determining the usefulness of race as a concept seems like what stumped them. I'm not surprised, since race, ethnicity, class and gender are rather inextricably intertwined.

I also wonder if they addressed any perceptual biases inherent to Western academic modes of inquiry. Simply defining race or ethnicity or class or gender as "cultural" often seems to assume "Western cultural" as opposed to other worldviews. Even the "categorization" I mentioned above could be seen as coming from a purely Western standpoint.
posted by sciurus at 5:36 AM on September 19, 2004

Pretty_Generic: OK Thanks.
posted by ed\26h at 5:39 AM on September 19, 2004

To me, a 'race' is something that happens on foot, on the back of a 4-legged animal, or in a vehicle.

There are no 'races' in humanity, IMHO.

Yes, there are different enthnicities. There are few that are 'of pure' race, ethnicity, whatever, left in this world.

We are the human race. A few of us can even claim to be 'Human Beings'. But so very few.

In my generation of my family we have all married into 'other' ethnicities for the most part.

Okay, so some of us haven't actually 'married' the other parents of our children, but the bloodlines thin nonetheless.

Anyone who traces their bloodlines back as far as possible may find something that they feel is distasteful. Or maybe not.

My basic point being, there are so few of us (USians anyway) who can trace their bloodlines back for more than 4 generations and not find a deviance in their own definition of what their 'race' is, that the very term 'race' is a joke.

I personally am a tiny bit 'Human Being' and a lot 'caucasian' (do you despise politically correct terminology as much as I do?)

Even going into the 'Caucasian' bit leaves people wondering who they are.

My 'Caucasian' bits are French and English. I should really hate myself for that, no?

No I shouldn't.

Because, I'm me. I'm not the sum of my parts. I'm not the average of my ancestors.


Love me.
Hate me.
Embrace me.
Despise me.
Do what you will.
What you will will not change who *I* am.
Will not change where I came from.
Will not change where I or my descendants will go.

I am me, and you are you.

That isn't a race. It's a fact.
posted by kamylyon at 5:40 AM on September 19, 2004

#Spaceman came down to answer some things#
posted by ed\26h at 5:58 AM on September 19, 2004

More kudos for EB from this impressed occasional student of What's Up With "Race." And whenever the topic comes up, I recommend Lawrence Wright's article "One Drop of Blood" and Kenan Malik's book The Meaning of Race: Race, History and Culture in Western Society; you can read a talk by Malik on "the changing meaning of race" here. From the latter:
What I want to do is to explain why ["liberal" pluralism entails separationism] by looking at three things: first, at the development of the idea of race to show how the celebration of difference has always been at the heart of the racist agenda; second, I want to look at the development of the idea of pluralism, to show how it developed out of a skepticism about progress and an ambiguous attitude to immigration. Finally, I want to show that in a world that is profoundly unequal, the pursuit of difference inevitably leads to the accommodation to, and exacerbation of, such inequalities.

The idea of race has not been ever-present in human history. In historical terms it is a relatively new concept, and has only become to our thinking over the past two centuries. Before the modern concept of race could develop, the modern concepts of equality and humanity had to develop too. Racial difference and inequality can only have meaning in a world that has accepted the possibility of social equality and a common humanity. It was through the Enlightenment, the intellectual transformation of Europe in the eighteenth century, that such ideas became firmly established in the modern imagination...

The dilemma that a man like [mid-nineteenth-century French physician Philippe] Buchez faced was this. He, like most men of his class and generation, had a deep belief in equality, a belief that had descended from the Enlightenment philosophes. Like the philosophes, he trusted in progress and assumed that potentially progress could touch all men. In practice, however, his society was not like this at all. Social divisions seemed so deep and unforgiving that they seemed permanent, as if rooted in the very soil of the nation. France was a highly civilised nation, whose scientists, engineers, philosophers and novelists were the envy of the world. Yet sections of French society seemed trapped in their own barbarism, seemingly unwilling to, or incapable of, progress. How could one rationally explain this?

For many prominent thinkers, the only answer seemed to be that certain types of people were by nature incapable of progressing beyond barbarism. They were naturally inferior. Here were the origins of the nineteenth century idea of race. 'Race' developed as a way of explaining the persistence of social divisions in a society that had a deep-set belief in equality. From the racial viewpoint, inequality persisted because society was by nature unequal. The destiny of different social groups was shaped, at least in part, by their intrinsic properties.

It was the Romantic movement of the early nineteenth century which gave birth to the thought that the whole of humanity may not possess a common, innate nature. This shift in perception was encouraged by the Romantic view of human groups, not as static constructions, but as moulded by history. The idea that different groups had different histories gave rise to the view that every group had a unique history, and this in turn led to the belief that each had a unique nature...

For the Victorians race was as much a description of class differences within European societies as it was of ethnic differences between European and non-European peoples. Class division denoted the relation of 'perpetual superior to perpetual inferior', a distinction that to the Victorians was every bit as visible as that between black and white, or slave and master.

Not till the end of the nineteenth century did race become identified with skin colour in the contemporary sense.
Sorry for the long quote, but it's a much longer lecture that people might not have the time to read, and I wanted to give an idea of the basic argument, because I think it's very important and hardly anyone is aware of it.
posted by languagehat at 6:49 AM on September 19, 2004

If race doesn't exist, then what's with all the Asian/Black clubs and societies? Just sayin'.

Um, Yeah. Or to turn that on its head, perhaps...

If race doesn't exist, then what's with the KKK, World Church of the Creator, Council of Conservative Citizens, White Aryan Resistance, etc., ad nauseum

Just sayin' (god, I feckin' hate when people use that phrase. How very passive agressive... or Penny Arcade.)
posted by terrapin at 6:52 AM on September 19, 2004

terrapin - racial and eugenicist ideologies are still at the heart of American politics, and not just in the ranks of the KKK

languagehat - that added an important dimension to EB's superb explanation.

What a groovy thread.
posted by troutfishing at 7:20 AM on September 19, 2004

There is a lot of good stuff at Race Traitor.
posted by sciurus at 8:19 AM on September 19, 2004

If race doesn't exist, then how are we going to redistribute white people's money?
posted by darukaru at 8:36 AM on September 19, 2004

The Smithsonian's Human Origins Program FAQ on race.
posted by gudrun at 10:27 AM on September 19, 2004

Re: the pencil test. I have a curly mullet-afro thing going on that tends to knot up badly within seconds of being combed. I'm half-Jewish and half-caucasian. People have hidden pens in my hair without me even knowing.
posted by abcde at 1:10 PM on September 19, 2004

Further pencil test results: I'm half-black and half-white (Italian), and I cannot keep a pencil in my hair (it's curly, just not that curly). Does that mean that despite my cinnamon-colored skin, I'm white? Even though my skin is darker than a-e's? Yeeehah, opression here I come.

PS: Good thread & screw race & ethnicity. All beige people think I'm whatever they are anyway--Indian, Egyptian, Dominican.
posted by dame at 3:22 PM on September 19, 2004

The bit about the pencil test in Apartheid South Africa was related to me by someone else only as an anecdote - if anyone knows more details of the law (and can confirm or correct my impression of how it worked), I would be very interested in hearing about it.
posted by jb at 3:36 PM on September 19, 2004

"White Like Me" vs. "Black Like me"
posted by troutfishing at 9:01 PM on September 19, 2004

EB, *great* post. (though Kamylyon took over the long-post reins, hem hem) but I'm still not quite sure I understand you. If, as I think I'm getting, we substitute breed for race, are you saying something like:

"The fact that all Asians have a similar average height (or intelligence or whatever) does not make them of the same breed, because the factors that govern these things are not the same genetic factors that would govern such a difference in, say, dogs"

If so, then what does govern these differences? And does it simply give us new grounds for prejudice? (All Irish are thick, etc)
posted by bonaldi at 9:47 PM on September 19, 2004

The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human -- Adolf Hitler.

This epigraph to Book I of Maus was what inspired me to read as much as I could about the history of eugenics and racial theory, which as languagehat's source beautifully points out, is a matter of pseudo-science developed to explain, and absolve, class differences.

It's tied up, too, in the thrill-ride that was 19th century British science. The name itself has become a prejorative, but there was a great deal to admire about the Victorians: their enormous industry, their hardiness (a week on The Beagle and I'd throw myself overboard from sheer physical discomfort alone, to say nothing of the boredom), and their passionate belief in progress. And in particular, social progress, and the power of scientific thinking as an engine for it.

How truly sad -- how horribly sad -- that out of this came the desire to discover a scientific method of human classification to determine why some advanced, and some did not. Phrenology is regarded now as a quaint and comic Victorian hobby, but it was a deadly serious business. George Combe's A System of Phrenology, which purported to use phrenology explain "national character," was a blockbuster bestseller. Topping his hierarchy were the Teutonics, followed by the Celtics, followed by the barbarian Asians, to the Africans, whose various cultures were at best barbarian, at worst "one unbroken scene of moral and intellectual desolation." Native Americans were at the very bottom rung. There were also subhierarchies that explained class: a Teuton could become base or criminal if born with congenital brain damage, ie "idiocy." In the Victorian mind, physical characteristics predicted social behavior, and race was one of only several factors that influenced it, but quickly became the most important.

So, now that the cause of poverty and the hell of lower-class life was defined as congenital, social progress screeches to a halt: you could help the unfortunates, but there was no cure. Actually attempting to advance someone beyond his or her class would be cruel: it's literally, physically beyond them. Like a woman preaching or a dog walking on its hind legs, it's surprising to see at all. Benevolent patronization is the best, really only, course.

Phrenology and eugenic thinking in general clarifies the history of British colonialization, American slavery and its own eugenics movement, and the Holocaust. And it clarifies the indifference so many feel yet today toward the poor, because this tenacious system tied wealth to virtue bred into the bone, this idea that some were born to prosper and some, to fail. And we're still all paying for it, this seductive theory that the world is just as it ought to be, developed by the people who happened to rule most of it over 100 years ago.
posted by melissa may at 9:42 AM on September 20, 2004

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