Saturday, July 21, 2007

Re-Visioning Race

An ideal society would be one where race didn’t matter. To go further, given human race’s existence as a social construction – and a social construction whose origin is tightly linked to extreme social inequality, an ideal society would be a raceless society.

One obstacle to a raceless society is perception, specifically vision, and the real physicality of signs of race, which through their physicality come to seem “natural” signs and make race seem much more natural than it really is.

I’ve often heard it expressed (given my particular job as a university instructor, I personally happen to hear it most often from students in class discussions, but it’s a common enough sentiment) that when looking at someone, one can’t not see race. What I think they mean is that one can’t not see a person’s phenotypic characteristics, including the features such as skin tone and facial characteristics that function as “natural” signs of race. Certainly the nature of vision is such that one can’t not see the physical features of someone gazed at, but taking this to mean that one inherently must see race misses three important things.

1. Confusing phenotypic characteristics with race serves to naturalize race. There is real and important phenotypic and genotypic variation within the human species. Tying perception of phenotype conceptually with race tends to cover over the fact that the phenotypic signs of race (as socially constructed category) don’t actually match up very neatly with important genetic variation in the human species. For example, in the U.S., people with ancestry from anywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, who overall do tend to share a literally superficial commonality of dark skin color (though with actually a great degree of variation in specific skin color – see my next point), are lumped together as “black,” despite the fact of incredible genetic diversity within the continent – arguably greater than among all other world populations – there’s really no congruence at all between the social category and the biological reality.

2. Seeing race when seeing certain phenotypic traits tends to blind many to other phenotypic traits. This can be especially the case for characteristics that don’t serve as signs of race, but the focus on race also tends to occlude the actual diversity with regard to those traits that most clearly mark race, e.g. the actual reality of tremendous diversity of skin color, both within and across race categories. Although not typical, some “white” people have darker skin than some “black” people, and Sub-Saharan African populations actually represent quite a range of skin colors, from light brown to almost literally black, though many simply see them all as simply “dark” or “black.”

3. The fact that phenotypic variation can signify social race doesn’t mean that it must. Historical documentation from pre-modern Europe and even early North America indicate Europeans and Euro-Americans seeing phenotypic variation, but not conceptualizing it in terms of modern race categories. Even when phenotypic variation does signify race, it doesn’t do so in any single, “natural” way. For example, many people who are “obviously” black in the U.S. would be just as “obviously” not black in Brazil.

For anyone socialized in the U.S., I’m skeptical that it’s possible to truly not see race when perceiving someone’s phenotypic traits. I’m skeptical that anyone could be truly “colorblind,” and I’m suspicious of anyone who claims to be.

There are, though, things that one can do in relation to one’s own vision and conceptions.

One can resist race thinking – one can resist seeing another as merely or primarily an embodiment of a general type. One can resist seeing others as white women, black men, Latino boys, Asian girls, and try to think of others as women, men, girls, boys who happen to be Latino, Native American, Asian, black, or white and who also have lots of other characteristics and other social factors influencing their individual identities.

One can see race less by making an active effort to see more. The human species is characterized by a wide array of phenotypic variation – something I see as part of the beauty of the human species – much of which is missed with a narrow focus on a few traits that mark race.

It is also possible to overstep in an effort to be “colorblind,” for example with well-intentioned statements such as, “I don’t see you as a black (or Latino, Native American, Asian, maybe even white) person, but just as a person.” An ideal society would be one where race didn’t matter, but we don’t live in that society. Race, as a social category, does matter, and it has shaped (though never determined) people’s lives. To act as if race doesn’t matter at all (distinct from acting as if race should not matter at all) is really to deny a very real part of people’s actual social experiences.

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