The True Nature of Race and Racism

The True Nature of Race and Racism
Ok, so we have gone past the belief that race is biologically determined. We have determined that race is "socially constructed". Quoting from the lecture notes, race is "an important social reality" and is "meaningless outside of society". We should recognise the fraudulent nature of skin colour as determinism for differences and dismiss all claims of racial supremacy. All's said and well, but how does that translate from paper to reality, where race and racism can hardly be discussed without fiery opinions from all parties involved. In context of the social stigma that continues to shadow the topics of race and racism, what then is the true nature of race and racism?

Are We Born Racist
Arguably, the most visible aspect of racial differentiation are our physical features, most distinctly the colour of one's skin, and that is by far the most influential factor in determining the race of a person. Thinking along these lines, the question arises of whether we are inborn with ability to identify race. Infants reliably exhibit behaviour of "look[ing] at things that interest or surprise them. When they get bored, they look away. This is calledhabituation."(Mendoza-Denton, 2011)

Psychologist Phyllis Katz taking advantage of this behaviour exhibition in six-month old infants, determined that infants do in fact register differences in skin colour (read more about it in the article by Mendoza-Denton linked below). However, these findingsdo notconclude that infants are racist. They simply mean that infants are able to register differences in skin colour. They have not learnt to attach any "social meaning" (Mendoza-Denton) to such differences. It is the social environment that later on shapes their thoughts and adds significance to it.

The Visual Truth of Race
Humans are highly visually oriented creatures. The percentage of our brain involved with vision are anywhere from 30%-60% or more, depending on who you believe. Comparatively, the percentages of our brain involved in both auditory input and sensory of physical contact are placed at less than 10% respectively. Human nature requires that we "[create] categories to explain the world" (Thompson, 2006). Our instinctive reaction is to classify people according to the strongest visual cues - gender and differences in skin colour (aka 'race' in the most superficial sense of the word).

Beyond Skin Deep
Putting the obvious aside, race is intrinsically tied in with many social and cultural factors. As social creatures, we tend to group ourselves according to similarities, as well as adapting our thoughts towards a common direction to achieve group cohesiveness. This phenomenon is known asgroupthinkto psychologists. From the time when people began leaving Africa and forming communities isolated from their fellow Man, groupthink has propelled humans in vastly different directions in thought and behaviour over the last 50,000 years. Quoting from the lecture notes, there are "major, qualitative differences between human society and cultures today".

When we look at people of a different race, we also notice differences in thoughts and behaviors. A Chinese would feel baffled at why a Sri Lankan shakes his/her head from side to side to indicate yes. An Indonesian would feel deeply offended when a Frenchman points a seemingly innocuous forefinger at him/her. And a Japanese person would be shocked to see Malagasy tribesmen in Madagascar periodically dig up their dead and dance with their remains. Subconsciously, we make associations between these patterns of differences and differences in physical features.

Looking at the USA, where racial tolerance has been the watchword for years now, we see "patterns of racial difference, such as income inequalities, health disparities, differences in academic achievement and representation in professional sports" across the board (Fuentes, 2012). Basketball is a 'black' game. Hip hop, rap, R&B are 'black' music.

Now if we pause to consider, the above examples - isn't strength in particular sports and evolution in music genres a cultural distinction? What has race got to do with it? Well, just about everything. Our understanding of 'race' as a concept is used loosely to encompass all discriminatory actions, words, behaviours between different groups of people. A Turkish man adopted as an infant by a couple in a community in China, raised in their ways and customs, would in all probability be more likely to be accepted in the community than an American-born Chinese without knowledge of Chinese customs. In essence, race is really beyond skin deep in its literal sense. Going back to the phenomenon of groupthink, Paul 't Hart conceptualizes it as "collective optimism and collective avoidance" ('t Hart, 1998). Groups tend to distrust people who differ from themselves, seeing how conflict might bring the downfall of a group.

Race and Racism Are Here to Stay
The rapid globalisation of the people of the world means that we humans are more homogeneous than ever, since separating 50,000 years ago. In such a context, is the concept of 'race' still relevant? Should we strive to do away with the word? Quoting Thompson, "A change in terminology is not going to fundamentally change all the conditions and impulses that accompany the horrors of race, ethnicity, nationalism and similar ideological schemes." What this means is that the concept of 'race' is deeply embedded in our psyche and swapping words would not change that a la "a rose by any other name" in Romeo and Juliet.

Similarly, racism will never go away, as long as there are differences between people, which are unlikely to be eradicated in the foreseeable future. Monica Williams makes the argument against being 'colourblind'. There are bound to be a minority group that's 'racially' and culturally distinct who are disadvantaged in a multicultural society, as tends to be the case in most cities around the world today. Williams argues that 'colourblindness' "has helped make race into a taboo topic that polite people cannot openly discuss, [much less] understand it" (Williams, 2011) and fix its problems. She proposes that "multiculturalism is better than blindness". To conclude, she makes the following suggestions (McCabe, 2011):

1. Recognizing and valuing differences,
2. Teaching and learning about differences, and
3. Fostering personal friendships and organizational alliances

Mendoza-Denton, R., (2011). On the Genius of Infants: Are We Really Born Racist?

Thompson, E., (2006). The Problem of "Race as a Social Construct". Anthropology News.

Fuentes, A., (2012). Race is Real... But Not in the Way Many People Think

t Hart, P. (1998). Preventing groupthink revisited: evaluating and reforming groups in government. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 73: 306–326.

Williams, M. T., (2011). Colorblind Ideology is a Form of Racism.

McCabe, J. (2011). Doing Multiculturalism: An Interactionist Analysis of the Practices of a Multicultural Sorority. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 40 (5), 521-549.

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