In an essay on racism for the Churchill Institute’s website, which per its mission statement, is dedicated to “the extension of the Western Tradition,” Professor Greg Smith asserts that race consciousness and racism are innate to all human beings and that they have always been with us. We, the members of the Trinity College Anthropology Department, believe that this assertion is wrong and needs rebuttal. This is our response to what we see as a profoundly ethnocentric and ahistorical argument on the part of Professor Smith, an argument that ultimately undermines efforts to dismantle the social and intellectual bases of white supremacy.
First, let us begin with those statements in the article with which we do agree: yes, racism is a human phenomenon, not known to exist in other species; yes, we do have five senses upon which weheavily rely; yes, we make sense of the world by distinguishing categories of experience; yes, humans are historical and sometimes rational beings and we are responsible for the moral circumstances in which we find ourselves; and yes, racism is wrong. And that’s about it. From here on, we profoundly part company.
The American Anthropological Association’s RACE project makes three central points: “Race is a recent human invention; Race is about culture, not biology; Race and racism are embedded in institutions and everyday life.” But Professor Smith claims that “racism is rooted in human nature,”which he identifies as determined by our five senses and by our need to make sense of what we perceive by simplifying our perceptions into categories, like species or races. This, he says, leads us to overlook and undervalue the differences of “sovereign individuals.”
The cure for racism, from his perspective, is simply to reject racialized categories and reestablish and celebrate the individual as the ultimate achievement of Western civilization.
This line of thinking may be logical, but it is based upon a couple of flawed premises: that race perception and racism are innate (that is, we cannot help sorting human differences along racial lines), and also that they are explained by the individual’s point of view. Each of these premises obscures the role of social institutions in establishing race hierarchies, as well as the capacity for social institutions to do something about the problem. They effectively absolve us of the need to do anything but look into our own souls. But because racism has social effects, such as white privlege, racism must be tackled through social efforts. To do this, we need a historical understanding of where racism comes from, a scientific understanding that while race is a social reality, it is a biological fiction, and an ethnographic understanding that not all societies perceive difference through a racialized lens.
Despite the fact that most Americans take race to be an obvious, visible fact of human difference, the idea of race as a way of distinguishing groups of human beings – and of distinguishing them in an invidious and hierarchical way – is simply not present in all societies or at all times in history. Nor was it even always present within what we think of as “the West.” Loring Brace, an anthropologist from the University of Michigan who has written extensively about the history of the race idea, puts this simply: “no such concept existed in the world of antiquity until the end of the Middle Ages.” In other words, racial categories are socially and historically produced. They come to us courtesy of the slave trade and of colonialism. Both these enterprises found moraland philosophical justification in the idea that some groups of people were “naturally” inferior to others, doomed by natural law to be displaced and coerced to serve their betters, primarily white Europeans and Americans.
Race, in short, is rooted in power. Race is also socially taught. We learn to distinguish people as belonging to one race or another by being told that certain key phenotypical characteristics, such as skin color or hair type, reveal social identity. But do they? It all depends on context.
Anthropologist Jeffrey Fish, in an article called “Mixed Blood,” writes about how his daughter, who has a white father and a Black mother, effectively changes her racial identity when she goes from the United States to Brazil. In the United States, race is believed to be inherited from one’s ancestors. If you have a Black parent or grandparent, you are Black, regardless of what you look like. This belief is a legacy of the slave era, when legal claims to owning human beings were founded on such criteria. Brazilians, on the other hand, classify people by appearance alone. Depending upon how light or dark one is, one belongs to one of a range of racial “tipos.” In this scheme of things, siblings can thus belong to different races. This makes Brazilians no less racist (they still devalue dark skins and esteem lighter ones), but Fish’s point is that racial categories are socially produced, not naturally occuring. As he puts it, “our categories for racial classification of people arbitrarily include certain dimensions and exclude others.”
We have come a long way from the days when philosophers could posit naïve claims about “man in a state of nature” as the basis upon which to comprehend human behavior in the world today. Founded upon Europeans’ uninformed impressions of the peoples they encountered in the “New” World, such claims undergirded European claims to New World lands by classifying indigenous people as essentially the inferior “other,” that is, as racially distinct. Claims today about humans as innately disposed to perceive race and to judge others accordingly are equally spurious, just like similar claims about innate human tendencies to territoriality, aggression and patriarchy.
So it is in this spirit that we challenge the assumptions of this essay by asking what the evidence is for race and racism as universal and innate. If this claim is based solely upon the notion of reason, does this not contradict another claim made in the same essay that humans are shaped by history? Reasonable people can have reasonable debates, and in the spirit of free speech advocated by the Churchill Institute’s mission statement, we offer our views.
Anthropology Professors Jane Nadel-Klein, Timothy Landry, Shafqat Hussein, Beth Notar, James Trostle