There’s no such thing as “race” (and its a good thing, too)
[�]In many different contexts, people have continued to identify the Other by reference to phenotypical features (especially skin colour) which therefore serve as indicative of a significant difference. Moreover, they have continued to use the idea of �race� to label that difference. As a result, certain sorts of social relations are defined as “race relations,” as social relations between people of different “races.” Indeed, states legislate to regulate “race relations,” with the result that the reality of race� is apparently legitimated in law (Guillaumin 1980). Thus the idea of “race” has continued to be used in common-sense discourse to identify the Other in many societies, but largely without the sanction of science (R. Miles, Racism, 1989, 1995).
[�] In a widely noticed racial identity case in Louisiana�the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, remarking that “the very concept of racial classification of individuals is scientifically unsupportable,” ruled that Mrs. Susie Phipps, “who had always thought she was white, had lived as white, and had twice married as white,” was not in fact white because her parents, who had provided the racial information on her birth certificate, had classified her as “colored.” “Individual racial designations are purely social and cultural perceptions,” the court said; the relevant question, then, was not whether those “subjective perceptions” correctly registered some biological fact about Phipps but whether they had been “correctly recorded” at the time the birth certificate was issued. Since in the court’s judgment they had been, Susie Phipps and her fellow appellants remained “colored”(W. Benn Michaels, Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism, 1995).
IN THE WAKE of the 9/11 terror attacks, many Americans felt, some of them for the very first time, a strange and welcomed emotion — a fillip of unabashed patriotic zeal. And, seizing upon this feeling, they chose (however temporary the change, but given the extraordinary nature of the circumstances), to privilege their common national identity over the more fashionable multiculturalist mandate that it’s somehow wiser to “celebrate our differences”– a weak, bumper-sticker formulation of a much stronger ideological position (that of radical egalitarianism) that for years now has been insinuating itself into education and public policy.
BUT IN A recent spate of news and commentary — be it pundits questioning the ethics of “racial” profiling, or the fallout over the racial makeup of a commemorative statue, or Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz�s announcement that he was taking down a portrait of George Washington (“an old white man,” as Markowitz put it) that hangs in his office to replace it with a portrait of color — we’ve been reminded yet again that we as a country are not nearly through grappling with racial issues. And today, on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our minds can�t help but (re)turn to ideas of race relations, if only to gauge how far we’ve come in the thirty-four years since Dr. King’s assasination. As one university newspaper columnist put it, on King’s birthday, we should be doing nothing if not striving to “learn the culture behind the color.”
AND THERE’S REALLY nothing surprising in this challenge; after all, “learning the culture behind the color” merely echoes (however simplistically) the widespread challenge of many contemporary race theorists who would prefer us to think of “race” as “culture” — as a phenomenon born out of a variety of complex social convergences — and not as a product of any essential (biological) difference. That is, contemporary racial theory remains committed to the idea of racial identity, even as it strives to proceed without the appeal to biology that once gave racial identity its primary force.
SO, WHAT DOES it mean to redescribe “race” as “culture”? The force behind this transition from race as something essential into race as something socially constructed is our skepticism over racial difference being somehow biologically determinable. That is, once science (in the mid-1930s) gave up the idea that black blood, say, differs from white blood, it was forced to give up the idea of essentialism that traditional racialists relied upon to separate the races (those familiar with American history are here reminded of the “one drop rule,” a legal statute committed to the idea that black blood made a difference to the intrinsic identity of the person who “carried” that blood in his/her veins).
TODAY, HOWEVER, we recognize that there is no such thing as “black blood” or “white blood,” and so in order to account for our perceivable differences — in order, that is, to continue the project of racial identification — race theorists have sought to turn the essentialist project of racial identification into the anti-essentialist project of racial construction. In short, the “racial” has become the “cultural,” and the “cultural” has become the supposedly anti-essentialist foundation for group identity.
THE QUESTION, then, is this: if “race” is now “culture,” and “culture” is an anti-essentialistic social construct, how can we account for our “differences”? Clearly, pigmentation is not full proof; after all, many of those who think of themselves as black don’t “look black,” just as many of those who think of themselves as white may not “look white” (historically, this failure of perception to secure racial identity manifests itself in this country in the 19th and early-20th-century phenomenon of “passing”). Which would suggest that the answer, if it is the aim to continue the project of racial identity, must rest elsewhere — with the constructionist’s notion of culture.
But if culture is defined as the set of beliefs and practices adopted or performed by a specific group of people, then the idea of using “culture” as a means of determining race is equally problematic. Under such conditions, all that is required to adopt a particular racial identity is to believe in the things that “they” believe in, to practice the things that “they” practice. Which means that once we stop believing those beliefs or practicing those practices, we’ve ceased to belong to that culture, ceased to belong to that race.
BUT SURELY shedding your racial identity can’t be as simple as removing a hat — which means that something else must underlie claims for racial identity, something other than either the essentialist’s appeal to biology or the anti-essentialist’s appeal to practices and beliefs. This “something else” or “something other,” the argument goes, is “heritage” — defined as a cultural tradition or body of knowledge handed down from prior generations.
AS WITH “culture,” however, staking racial identity claims on heritage proves just as delicate and dubious a maneuver. Because a cultural tradition or body of knowledge can be handed down, presumably, to anybody (through education, for instance), then the real claim offered here is that the particular heritage in question must already somehow belong to the person who receives it if indeed it is to count, in a meaningful way, as her/his heritage. Which is only to say that in order to know which heritage is yours, you must first know who you are.
BUT WHAT IS IT that allows you to know who you are, and so to decide which history — which heritage — is yours? If, for instance, you are a black child adopted into a white family, what is it that makes you “black”? If the answer is heritage, then your identity presumably depends upon which heritage your adopted parents choose to teach you, or which you choose, ultimately, to teach yourself. But how does your learning your black heritage (assuming this is what you choose to do) count as your having learned your “true” heritage? That is, what is it that makes a particular heritage yours to learn to begin with?
ONE ANSWER commonly offered by race and identity theorists is the idea of group “memory” — the charge being that to “remember” a particular past, rather than simply to learn about a particular past, is what makes that past your past. But how do you go about “remembering” something you’ve never actually experienced? That is, how do your “memories” of a non-experienced past come to count as memories at all? And more importantly, what is it that differentiates your “memories” of a particular past from someone else’s “knowledge” of a particular past? Can a young Jewish boy really “remember” the Holocaust any better than a ninety-year old German woman who worked around the camps? Can a young black girl really “remember” slavery? (Do modern-day Texans really “remember” the Alamo?) Or is what’s happening here simply a matter of your remembering having learned a pre-chosen history in order to claim it as your own?
THE POINT of all this being that to think of race as somehow socially constructed is to think of race, ultimately, as something essentially essential. Because what makes your memories yours, what makes your heritage yours, and what makes your culture yours is your insistence, ultimately, that it is yours by right, yours by birth, yours by essence. And so race, as it turns out, is either an essence or an illusion. Those who believe race to be an essence (say, the KKK, who base their ideas on bad science) have no need for a project of qualifying race as a social construct; and those who believe race to be non-essential have no grounds, theoretically, for promoting racial identity other than that same bad science (which, it turns out, underlies the constructivist argument), or else their social concern that we somehow need to continue the project of racial identity, for whatever the political reasons.
AND PERHAPS they are right. But maybe it’s time to seize on the lessons learned in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks; that is, maybe it’s time we put aside our differences in order to construct a singular American identity. After all, we are each individuals, which is what makes us, ultimately, a nation.