Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Concept of Race

I’m reading this book titled African American Philosophers in which George Yancy interviews seventeen different African Americans that have attained doctorates or Masters degrees in Philosophy, and teach philosophy (or something in the field) at major colleges. He asks general questions about how they got interested in philosophy, which I found interesting and in some cases similar to my own relationship with philosophy, but then he also asks in depth questions about the concept of race, whether there’s a such thing as “African American Philosophy” (and if there were, what its characteristics and limitations consist of), and then personal questions to each philosopher about heir particular philosophical fields of study.

I wanted to talk about the interview Yancy had with Lucius T. Outlaw Jr. (professor of Philosophy at Haverford College with a B.A. from Fisk University and a Ph.D. from Boston College. Areas of specialization are African Philosophy, continental philosophy (phenomenology and hermeneutics), and social and political philosophy (Marx and critical social theory). Outlaw is referring to an argument presented by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah.

YANCY: Briefly on this issue of race construction, what is the nature of your opposition to Appiah’s position?

OUTLAW: Briefly, it is Appiah’s position that, epistemologically and ontologically, the concept race is very much the same concept as witch: that is, though there are persons who believe that there are witches and use the word “witch” to refer to persons they believe to be witches, realistically (that is to say, on the terms of scientific empiricism or realism) there are no such things as witches. The term “witch” has no real referent, no matter a speaker’s beliefs to the contrary. Likewise, Appiah has argued, “race” as no real referent that fulfills all the conditions-that is, embody all the biological, categorical, psychological, etc. characteristics-that would have to be met in order for a group of persons to be properly called a race.
Now, to an important extent, I agree with Appiah. In other respects, I don’t. I remain convinced that it is important to get clear about deficiencies in older conceptions of race, particularly those that improperly mixed or conflated biological, cultural, and caharachterological characteristics. Having done so, I think it then possible to reconstruct the notion of race such that it refers appropriately to relatively distinct, more or less complex population groups that are also more or less complex cultural groups.

YANCY: With respect to this issue of race, do you see it as a social construction?

OUTLAW: The short answer to that question is “yes”, but it is very important of how we take care in how we understand and speak of social construction. One of the most influential texts that I ever read in graduate school…was Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s ‘The Social Construction of Reality’. …It helped me to understand that human beings must basically construct virtually all of their meaning systems about everything. As a species we don’t have any choice since we don’t come into the world with any pre-established meaning systems repertoires for surviving, adapting, and flourishing. We humans have to construct all that we have. Now there certainly have been long and rich traditions of naturalistic accounts of human species-being, accounts that, in quite important respects, have been different from and opposed to social construction accounts. And there are those who have argued against the viability of concepts of race by holding that there are no natural races (by which they tend to mean race is not a tenable concept by the terms of contemporary biological science), only individuals who have been constructed as races, that is, had an untenable complex of defining characteristics attributed to and imposed on them, most always for pernicious reasons.
Well I think there is much in this argument that is correct, but that there is also a way in which some who take this position become facile and dismissive, particularly when their argument takes the form “Well, so and so is not real, its only a social construction.” I think that in many cases this is a really dumb and inappropriate way to go about making an important distinction: that is, between things that are socially constructed and things that are real.
In so many ways, what is real for us is by way of constructions that have social groundings. Language is a social venture in and through which we designate the real and the unreal. Perhaps if you’re talking about what we might call the materially real, then some of the things of this kind do not owe their reality to social activity. Mountains, for example, don’t tend to come about because you or I, nor any other humans, have wished them into being, or brought them about otherwise. Other materially real things are very much social constructions, such as automobiles produced in factories by way of highly coordinated social labor. A car is not a natural object, it is constructed socially, but it is real.

This interview was interesting because of the commentary on the concept of race. I think many people have this idea that race is something biological, it makes you who you are, it is in your “blood” (like when people say phrases like “African blood” or “Indian blood”). But, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a social construct, and my argument pretty much parallels that of Appiah’s. Comparing just whites and blacks, one might come prematurely come tot he conclusion that it is biological, but when you start to look at groups of people like Phillipinos, or Arabs, Native Americans or Aborigines, the concept gets sketchy, if not completely disintegrates. Many anthropologists have argued that these aforementioned peoples are not distinct races from any other groups of people, but that they fit into 3 main racial categories- Negroid (Negro), Mongoloid (Asian), and Caucasoid (Caucasian).

The typical idea of “race” is something deeper than skin or hair or facial features, but when you take away one’s social upbringing that might make up for distinctions, then you are left with no deeper distinction than ones that are phenotypical. “Race” implies that there is something evident in every individual of that particular “race” that people of other “races” do not possess. But is there anything that every single person in a particular “race” possesses that no other “race” has? No. is there any marker in one’s blood that insists they are any of the three aforementioned groups? I think the best questions that breaks down the concept of race is this- Is it possible for someone with racially ambiguous features, hair texture, and skin color that for some reason knew nothing of their biological parents be able to find out their “race”? and the answer is no. No scientist (no accredited one, anyway…) has been able to do this. I’ve heard arguments that present the fact that there are some diseases, such as Tay-Sachs Disease (which impacts mostly Jews) and Sickle-Cell Anemia (which impacts mostly people with African ancestry), that may show that “races” exist. But, I think this part of an argument ignores human evolution. Using the Jews an example- Jews were/are Caucasians (it really depends on what they prefer to call themselves). After Judaism, they began to live together, worship together, and yes, procreate together. Considering that one must covert to Judaism in order to marry a Jew, it is likely that few Jewish/non-Jewish children have been born. Someone has the disease, continues to pass it around, and over time this disease becomes a disease for Jews. Now, are the followers of Judaism their own “race”? I would say no. Take any genetic disease, isolate a group of people, make them procreate only with each other, and you’ll get the same result in a couple centuries. This doesn’t mean that a “race” exists.

Outlaw’s argument against mine and Appiah’s is basically saying that there is no such thing as reality or the term “real”, so why would one use it in their argument. Nothing and anything can be argued as being “real”, so what does one mean when they say something isn’t “real”? You cannot say ….”Concept A is a social construct/it is not real while the idea of “reality” is not a social construct”. By “real” do we mean “scientifically proven” Do we mean that under scientific and anthropological scrutiny that it does not retain the same concepts as it does in everyday society (referring back to saying “African blood”…). I don’t think the concept of race is “real”, and what do I mean by “real”?

Personally in this case I think I mean that it isn’t real in the sense that it not only does not stand up to scientific scrutiny but also logical scrutiny. For example, let’s look at the indigenous peoples of Australia- The Aborigines. It is up for debate whether they ventured there by sea or walked there when land may have been present between Australia/New Zealand and the Asian continent. I think most anthropologists might categorize them as “Mongoloids”, but they have dark skin, darker than some Africans, broad noses, large lips, and some of them have kinky hair, so then they could also be categorized as Negro. So are they Negroid or Mongoloid? Or are they both? And if they are both, then are they a new/distinct race (considering they have inhabited Australia and New Zealand for millions of years)? If they are a distinct race, then how many years does it take for any group of people to form into a “race”? none of these questions can be sufficiently answered by individuals who believe race is something biological.

Although I think his criticism on using the term “real” in Outlaw's argument is a sound criticism, one of my problems with Outlaw’s criticism, however, would be when he makes the concept of “race” as a social construction analogous to a car being a social construction. For an analogy to work, the two entities, ideas, or objects being compared need to me similar. And in this analogy, they are not. “Race” is a socially constructed idea, it is intangible, and subjective in some cases. A car is simply something that is constructed physically by humans. It took a human mind and arguably some social requirements (such as advancement in technology, financial stability, and a certain level of education) to produce a society /societies to conceptualize a car and then produce it, however, it is no longer an idea. I can buy a car, break a car, crash a car, experiment on it, take it apart and make it into other things. And whether a society calls it an automobile or a car, differentiates between trucks, SUV’s and compact cars, or refers to anything with wheels as one word, they all have basically the same concept of a car. This is not the case for race. Race can be a means of hierarchal power or dehumanizing treatment in some societies, it can be a means of personal identity. It can mean one’s culture, one’s place of origin, one’s ancestor’s place of origin, one’s facial features and skin tone, one’s skin tone & hair, one’s skin tone & eye color, the shape of one’s eyes, the shape of one’s eyes & hair texture or simply what one considers theirself. Outlaw is comparing something that is intangible with something that is; something that is solely an idea (since scientists and anthropologists have never come up with any genetic differences) with something that is an idea as well as a physical object.
I think what he is trying to say in his argument is that if you think it is real, then it is real. Real in some sort of objective sense? No, because there is no objective concept of reality. It is subjectively real because that is the only type of reality there is.

I think one can look at these arguments in the same way someone might look at the arguments and concepts of god/gods. I don’t think there is any “reality” to the concept of god or gods…but there is no such thing as “reality”, so then “god” is real for those who believe in him. People, like me, I think feel the need to dissect and scrutinize these concepts like “god” and “race” because they have impacted humans in such a negative way. Race has divided people in a way I don’t anything else has, even religion. But just like religion, people have been killed over it. Race and/or religion can be argued as being the reasoning for most, if not all of the genocides, mass killings, and sustained oppression and dehumanization of people in all of history. And when it impacts our societies in such a way, it HAS to be scrutinized, dissected, experimented on, broken down, built up and broken back down again so that we can get past these trivial means of separation and progress as a society. This MUST be done. It is imperative, it is necessary, it is vital.

if you would like to comment on something i have said, please feel free. i have enabled it so that people that do not have blogs can post comments, and you can post anonymously if you'd like. i welcome any type of criticism as well as new arguments (just be able to back your shit up...). even if you don't have a criticism, and want to mention some experience you've had or think i think about something it doesn't look like i've considered...then post it.

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