As promised, some thoughts about the existence of race. Now as I’m asking this question, I’m sure the reader knows where I’m heading. No, races are not real (in terms of being an objective category that has any more meaning than eye colour, hair colour or shoe size). However, society seems to accept race as real, and thus even anti-racists have to employ the language of race in order to get anything done. This is somewhat a bind which I can’t see how we get out of.
So, what’s this about race not being real? It seems blindingly obvious that people have different skin colours. Not only that, but people living in Africa are largely dark brown in hue, and most people in Scandinavia are a pale pink (sort of). Does this not show there are different races?
Clearly I can’t say we’ve all got the same skin tone. But, the question remains: what does this actually signify. For me, the only thing that it fully signifies is that people have different sets of genes coding for different skin colours. Anything else is history and coincidence. Two thought experiments will be sufficient to show this:
Firstly, think about non-identical twins. Their dad has pale skin, their mum darker skin. When they are born, one has skin like their dad’s the other like their mum’s. Are they of different races? Other than skin colour their genes could be exactly the same (unlikely but possible… almost identical twins), and they’ll have the same upbringing in the same house with the same people in the same culture. Again, are they of different races?
Secondly, we may be able to genetically engineer skin colour (and sometimes genes from past generations may re-express themselves). If a child with two pale parents is born with dark skin. What race is he or she?
As someone said to me yesterday, ‘this black skin is an accident just because my mum and dad had black skin’. And this is that this is as far as it goes. There are other circumstances (genetic, cultural, familial, etc. ‘nature and nurture’) that determine who and what a person is.
Of course, there could be many such circumstances that coincide with skin colour. If at any point in time all dark skinned people live in a place where they speak English, and all pale skinned people live in a place where they speak French, guess what? If they then spend millennia as relatively isolated populations they may even develop some other genetic and cultural traits that are different. But so what? The ruddy complexioned upper class of the UK also tend to be tall. Are they a race?
Furthermore, even where there are coincidental traits, they are never absolute and essential. The nature of human ‘nature and nurture’ is variation. If skin tone and some other traits together help to mark out a race (a more nuanced version of race theory) then how many of these are needed to ascribe someone to a particular race. All of them? Most of them? Just one? What if you have all of them except the skin colour?
And this brings us to what race theory would describe as ‘mixed race’. How mixed is necessary to be mixed? If we go back far enough, wouldn’t we all be mixed? Indeed, what counts as a race? If my mum was from Germany and dad from France, does this count?
This may sound a bit flippant, but I was recently in a seminar where I ended up thinking exactly this. One of the papers was examining racial categories with regards to the UK census. Essentially the presenter said that, as the BME population in a standard survey is small, we need to treat them as all one group. However, another presenter was talking about people of Indian decent in the UK and how we need to see the Goans as a distinct group (due to a Catholic heritage mainly). This begs the question of where and how we draw the lines. The first presenter said that we lump people together until we have good reason to do so. But, if as the second presenter showed, there are differences, then lumping them together only because we haven’t yet found any differences is absurd. The very act of choosing which groups are relevant may problematise all our analysis: if ‘Indian’ incomes are average is this because they are average, or because the Goans are highly paid, and Punjabis are badly paid.
But, as you’ll have noticed, I myself have used racial categories. But how can I not? Firstly, all the data comes like that. Secondly, I could only use class, gender and so on (nationality being just as arbitrary as race), but then how could I examine the effects of racism. Although I want to deny the existence of race as a truly relevant category, I can’t write about racism without invoking its reality.
‘This must step away from the pious ritual in which we always agree that “race” is invented but are then required to defer to its embeddedness in the world and to accept that the demand for justice requires us nevertheless innocently to enter the political arenas it helps to mark out.’ (Paul Gilroy, Beyond Camps p.52). Paul wants us to get away from any determinism and essentialism, whether biological, national, cultural or anything else. But if the common and governmental understanding of society sees us all in categories of black, white, male, female, gay, and straight, how can I analyse society in a way that people will understand, unless I use the categories too? I guess that’s the point of this whole project. To find ways of showing that the categories are themselves part of the problem.