[This is post is part of a five-part series. You can find a link to all five here.]
There’s a very important but under-talked-about topic in our country, and it has to do with vocabulary of race and racism. Specifically, the incongruence between the usage and understanding of these terms between most white and non-white communities.
We need to be having an important national conversation about race, but the incongruence of our vocabularies render this virtually impossible.
As with all conversations, meaning is irreducibly critical. When meaning is not mutually shared or at least understood, dialogue will always degenerate.
Whites and non-whites mean different things by the word racism, and until this gets more broadly sorted out communication on the topic is fraught with discord. This crops up so often in main stream media and everyday conversations, that I can’t believe it isn’t constantly being clarified! It’s one of the least addressed semantic landmines out there.
Flannery O’Conner once said:
I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.
I’ve tried to be pretty forthright that the things I’ve been posting are, in part, my own efforts to write in such a way as to “know what I think.” This topic may be the truest example of this, because, full disclosure, I myself had no awareness of this semantic incongruity until very recently.
My working definition of racism has always resembled this: Treating people differently based on their race.
This is the way whites commonly define racism: personal or situational incidents in which race becomes a criteria for our treatment—positive or negative—of others.
This is patently not the way a non-white would encapsulate the idea of racism.
But we can’t move this forward until we understand the term “race”.
Put briefly, there’s no such thing as race! The only thing that makes race a thing is that it has been socially engineered to be so. Race is a quasi-scientific category; a category that was invented for socio-cultural reasons, but has been met with repeated failure in its attempts to be “science-ized” in order to support the social construct.
This was observable in the middle of the last century in Nazi Germany, and their promotion of the idea of a superior Aryan race—an idea with roots in the 1850s. Nazi propaganda reflected their unique efforts to demonstrate Nordic racial superiority through pseudo-science. We recoil at these notions, but then forget to interrogate our own understanding of race. Nazi racial ideology is rooted in the racial constructs of Western, white civilization going back into the 1400s.
Now I’m sure that some of you reading are, at this point, so certain that race is a fixed aspect of humanity, that you are questioning the very notion of it having social origins; as though I am telling you that the elements of the Periodic Table are only a social construct.
But race, as we know it, is a superficiality that has been co-opted into Western thinking with a dehumanizing intent. Yes, intent!
To acknowledge that certain peoples have different physical characteristics and skin pigmentation is legitimate; it cannot be argued otherwise. South Asians, Sub-Saharah Africans, East-Asians, Northern-Europeans, Southern-Europeans, Indigenous North Americans, et al can possess variances of physical appearance (skin color, eye color, hair color and type). These, taken together with geography, language and culture, can subdivide into what we call “ethnicity“. This is a socio-scientific way of understanding commonalities among people-groups.
The idea of race is far more superficial and originates in a more nefarious endeavor to sub-categorize humans in a way more comparable to species. Embedded in this racial construct is the assumption of white normativeness; i.e., superiority.
It was 1452, and the Crusades were in their waning years, Europe was on the cusp of the exploration and colonization of the New World and Pope Nicolas V issued a Papal Bull, which informed the European enterprise (and endowed it with a divine authority):
…invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.
Remember, this was before both the Protestant Reformation (1517) and the separation of the Church of England from Rome (1534) let alone the Age of Enlightenment, and the Roman Catholic church held an unparalleled role in shaping social and moral perspectives.
This became known as the “Doctrine of Discovery”, and saturated the entire fabric of the New World enterprise; vesting Europeans with a divinely endorsed mandate and an accompanying status of racial superiority. (More accurately, it reduced non-Eurpopeans to a sub-human status.) It is for this reason that Christopher Columbus’s expedition resorted to such brutal violence and cruelty, even enslaving and selling the indigenous peoples he encountered.
Columbus wrote in his log of the kind and curious Arawak Bahamians,
They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane… They would make fine servants… With fifty men we could subjugate them and make them do whatever we want.
Shortly thereafter the transatlantic slave trade ramped up in earnest, as did the widespread land-theft and genocidal conquest of the Americas—those twin travesties which allowed for the conception of our nation, each twin as evil as the next.
As unspeakably atrocious as this era was, still it is important to remember that it was marbled through with the distinctive of race and racial heirarchy. These found their facile justification in the notion of race and racial exceptionalism.
This racial Doctrine of Discovery became the progenitor of both Catholic and Puritan conceptualization of West African slaves and indigenous Americans.
In 1610 a Catholic priest in the Americas inquired as to the ethics and legality of their ownership of captured slaves. He received the answer:
Your Reverence writes me that you would like to know whether the Negroes who are sent to your parts have been legally captured. To this I reply that I think your Reverence should have no scruples on this point… never did [other bishops] consider the trade as illicit.
Historian Howard Zinn, in his troublingly truthful A People’s History of the United States, writes of the beginnings of chattel slavery in the early 1600s,
There is no country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States…
… slavery developed quickly into a regular institution, into the normal labor relation of blacks to white in the New World. With it developed that special racial feeling… that accompanied the inferior position of blacks in America for the next 350 years—that combination of inferior status and derogatory thought we call racism.
Over the intervening 350 years, nearly 11 million African chattel slaves would be brought to America (another 2-3 million dying in passage). The indigenous American population would be reduced by 90% (from 10 million to 1 million) while their lands were taken wholesale. (They had only “natural” rights to them, but not any “legal” or “civil” entitlement, as it was explained, using Genesis 1 as a justifying text.)
For Puritans, biblical concepts of race were manufactured (“these descendants of Ham”), while Enlightenment thinkers began formulating more scientific criteria by which to bolster the ideas of race. (Both were utterly misguided.)
Slaves were 3/5 of a person in the original constitution. Native Americans weren’t granted citizenship until 1924 (some states prevented them from voting until 1957).
And yet, to this day, the carryover of race is a specter haunting our national frameworks. Race, as our nation relates to it, is not scientific. It is a socially engineered idea of sub-categorizing human with the intent to justify sub-human treatment—subjugation, exploitation and even eradication. None of the race-related atrocities upon which our “civilization” has been build could have been justified then nor minimized now apart from this ideology.
Every time we fill out a loan application or paperwork at a doctor’s office we are asked to check a box that indicates race, and so we are conditioned to relate to race as something objective. But it is not. Race is a sloppy and hopelessly ambiguous non-scientific category.
The only meaningful basis for race—indeed, the only thing that makes it something real—is that it has been hardwired into structural dynamics of our society. So what began with West African slaves and indigenous people of the Americas, has since made space for immigrants from China, Mexico, the Middle East and everywhere else. The superficiality of race sets the terms by which we operate.
If we are going to talk about racism in our country, we must ask ourselves why and how it is we think in racial terms. And we must come to terms with how and why race was engineered to begin with!
If we can’t overhaul our understanding of race, we’ll never overhaul the harm of racism here “in the land of the Color-line.”