Jamie Green for University of Exeter, 2015#Anthropology #Biology #Sociology #Race
There are a plethora of ways in which we as humans categorise the world around us, and we, ourselves, do not escape from this compulsion. Of those arbitrary social constructs we formulate based on systematic anthropological evidence — biological, geographical and sociological — ‘Race’ is perhaps the most prevalent, recognisable and divisive. So too is it one of the most vague and inconsistent modes. The thing is, these categorisations too often take as fact are by no means absolute truths, or accurate representations of the compartmentalisations we attempt to form in order to make sense of ourselves.
‘Race’ is a nebulous concept. As a division of a larger whole it seems to be determined by a plethora of variables: physiology, biology, or culture, history, language or else kinship, or geography. While there is no clear absolute in these terms, typically all are held to be true in some sense — seemingly all at one — the concept of ‘race’ is usually considered intrinsic: a fundamental part of someone’s nature. Often this can be boiled down to telltale aesthetic differences such as skin colour — the most obvious form, the most contentious form. In due turn, this key differentiator was survived by those stigmatised to single out individuals on their supposed nature.
Formulated upon Enlightenment doctrine (Hannaford, 1996) — beliefs of dominion from a non- participant Christian God were embraced — there was now a perceived right to inherit the Earth. In essence, ‘Race’ was born out of colonialism — the political and profitable enterprises begun in tandem with the Enlightenment. In reality it was less means of classification and clarity, than it was a mode of social order. Its purpose was to in some way dehumanise foreign, non-european peoples in the most literal sense: “racial designation typically implies inferiority” (Cohen, 1974: xiii). Eurocentric imperialism ensured the superiority complex of the White 'race'.
So then, if the native peoples were inferior or ‘primitive’ it justified their conquest or subjugation: the label of ‘black’ as a distinct race enabled them to justify enslavement (Ratcliffe, 2004: 16); ‘red’ as distinct colorised race legitimised the Native American otherness and their subsequent near-obliteration and the theft of lands. Not only then, was there a right of inheritence but ‘race’ ideology allowed for a right to conquest (Hannaford, 1996: 192-195).
Cynically speaking, ‘race’ as a concept has served its purpose well. Although the colonial era has now faded away, political agendas are an enduring part of society. Just as imperiaism saw previously constantly interwarring European states look relatively outwards against the non-Christian world (Lehning, 2013), it can be said further that the de-escalation and collapse of the ideological Cold War has refocussed “the older alliances between European Christian [predominantly white] peoples and their ancient antagonists, the Muslim East” (Jeffers, 1993: 172). It is certainly true that prevailing in the Western mindset, both before and heightened still in the wake of 9/11, is an overwhelming atmosphere of Islamophobia (Said, 1997). The prevalence of reportage on Middle Eastern issues and its expressive,
often vitriol (Oborne, 2008) language, creates a culture of revulsion (Lulat, 2006) delineated down religious and ‘ethnic’ lines. Although the history and politics of the conflict are far more complex, the language and propaganda of ‘racialisation’, or ‘ethnicisation’, accompanying creates a “unitary identity for all Muslims” (Halliday, 1999: 893) as one that is discrete, polar and inferior (Cornell & Hartmann, 2002: 29). Such differentiation in turn is “marshalled to safeguard a supranational Europe” (Bunzi, 2005: 499) through commonality and differentiation.
What is there in the taxonomy - a notoriously vague and changeable system - that says that those with black skin and those with white skin, or any other anomalous shade, is distinct. The power and profitability of imperialism notwithstanding, it is easy to see how ‘race’ as a concept caught on in the general sense. “Our understanding of race as a social construct must consider the sustained role that biology plays making race appear to be real.” (Watkins, 2012: S196). Morphological differences in populations make from a compelling, and crucially simplistic, case: seeing is believing. Pigmentation is indeed one of these: “Blue eyes and brown eyes are almost as visible as differences of skin or hair, yet eye colour is not a basis for organizing social realtions” (Verdery, 1994: 44). At the time of course the genetic intricacies of inheritance for skin and eye colour were not yet realised, eye colour popped up in variations across Europe, whilst geography and climate mandated the discrete populations of pigmentation.
So then, ‘Race’ is reductive. “Race is not so much difference (because all populations and individuals are biologically/genetically different)” (Kittles & Keita, 1999: 87). Indeed fails to interpret the vast complexities of intracontiental and intercontinental gene flow: “racial models, as traditionally presented, are static” (Kittles & Keita, 1999: 87). They were taken to be divergent, a separate branch on Darwin’s tree of species entirely despite their perceived isolation. The fundamental logic was flawed. As such, “the term racial divergence fails to describe the process responsible for producing the variation that exists as a continuum in the human species” (Kittles & Keita, 1999: 89) in as much populations diverged and merged and exchanged in constant fluctuations. Such characteristics neither truly equate to enough genetic difference for taxonomic branching in reality.
Morphological boundaries are the literal supposed evidence for differentiation, yet more liminal, metaphorical boundaries are often also employed to further propagate the notion of ‘racial’ distinctness. Just as It can be said city walls, the progenitor of state borders, “protected people from the real or imagined threats from outside... binding them with a common sense of identity” (Smith, 2012: 60) so too can it be said that the physical and institutional segregation of peoples facilitates especial differentiate, solidifying their ‘otherness’. Instances of this, accompanying racial classification, can be seen throughout history. It is a simple fact that the ghettoisation of Jews in Venice (Smith, 2012: 60) — and of course, later Nazi Germany — or else, the Berlin wall, South African apartheid or the period post-emancipation American racial segregation: wherein its physical walls, signage and symbolism were designed to instil a differential sense of identity, a sense of the ‘other’, which would in turn create “a wall in the
mind” (Smith, 2012: 60), propagative and systematically institutionalising these disparities in the fabric of society. So, if ‘race’ is not innate, it is certainly enforceable.
So then, just as Cornell & Hartmann rightly surmise race is an “assignment” (2002: 29), an imposition of a controlling or dominant force classifying and partitioning peoples as a means of classification, and social control.
Nevertheless, ‘racist’ and hegemonic intentions aside, the fact remains that there are notable and largely collective aesthetic, structural and genetic differences amongst different populace. In turn these can often be said to at least roughly correlate with standardised racial groups (Cybulski, 2000: 473). It remains a fact that any skilled forensic anthropologist can, to a small margin of error, identify a person based on their skeletal remains — an underlying structure distinct from skin tissue as it is — to their attendant scientifically (and generally regarded offensive) classified races: Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Australoid and Negroid (Ratcliffe, 2004: 17).
What is it about race as a concept that demands it be so expansive and codify so many people at once. Forensic anthropologists can likewise identify a plethora of genetic and culturally derived differentiators from skeletal remains. That there is a correlation between morphology and the established ‘racial’ framework, does not demonstrate their presence as fact.
There are often just as many differences between peoples as there are amongst peoples of the same ‘racial’ designation (Marks, 2012: S169). The debatable findings that African populations (the hearth of that so-called ‘negroid’ race) contain more genetic diversity amongst themselves than other continental populations (Jorde, et al., 1997; Kittles & Keita, 1999), nevertheless displays the questionableness of defining the African peoples as a singular people in discrete terms.
Consequently, the truth is that there remains, as ever, little agreement taxonomically where and what feature or set of parameters draw the line and demarcate a given race. There is little to say that the anomalous spectrum of skin tones is any more important than eye colour, height or arm span. As such, not only are the lines open to interpretation, but moreover manipulation: “the genetic date revealed race when they were expected to, negated races when they were expected to...” (Marks, 2012: S169). ‘Race’ is a product of intention and purpose. The biological parameters can be made to measure.
The nineteenth century Physiognomists and Phrenologists went some way to attempt such in their quest to identify and equate phenotypes with attendant behavioural connotations. This ‘science’ subscribed to the enduring romance of classical Greek ideals of science and art as their basis of their origin. Deviance from this ideal, meant deviance in psychological terms Naturally, this left the non- European ‘races’ most divergent, most inferior (Staum, 1995). Phrenology became an estimation of a person and a peoples place in the world, in what Staum calls a “racial differentiation by ‘facial line’... a serial heirarchy of physical beauty and moral worth” (1995: 447). Quickly becoming popular, it was adopted by gothic and romanticists (Marshall, 2000) and arguably persists in the form of stock symbolism
throughout the visual and literary arts — the casting of heroes, and villains as the most potent example, often dark and disfigured in their appearance. Indeed, it could easily be said the rudimentary physiognomy in the the wider sense, still exists in the form of such issues as precursory prejudice and racial profiling (Herman, 2004).
It should be noted that Forensic Anthropological concerns are not necessarily racist, nor intentionally subscribe to ‘race’ as an actuality. In this sense, there does not seem to be an clear biological or physical alternative: “Ancestry is a biological fact but has no universal use in forensics” (Cox, Tayles & Buckley, 2006: 869), such observations more often than not are too specific at least initially, whilst more cultural and environmental manifestations are likely too unspecific or open to interpretation. In both a judicial sense, and an emic cultural sense — as in Cox, Tayles & Buckley (2006) in which Maori ceremony and spirituality demands accurate identification of their deceased — the best and most comprehensive estimate of identification is obviously necessary; there is simply no clear alternative at this time.
Nevertheless, there are certain caveats to this continued utilisation of ‘racial’ identification that in some way excuses Forensic Anthropology as a science, beyond the above. As said, clear morphological differences abound — both within and without a ‘racial group’. That is what they are, physical and aesthetic. There is nothing inherently racist or propagatory to acknowledge and make use of this fact. Put simply and succinctly “racism exists because of the flawed reasoning that the biological variation so visible in humans translates into differences in abilities or behaviour” (Cox, Tayles & Buckley, 2006: 869). That is, such observances do not necessarily constitute a ‘race’ in the terms set out by Enlightenment thinkers, colonial profiteers or eugenists. In fact, they are phenotypes: a model of commonly grouped characteristics, which can and should be divorced from ‘race’ as an ideology.
As Wade (2002) points out: ‘race’ is relative. That is to say, the lines and boundaries of each distinct ‘racial group’ are arbitrary and essentially emic. The US perspective might concern White American, African American (or, ‘black’) and Hispanic; (Wade, 2002: 5) Whereas, Brazilian catergorisation is more concerned with descent (that is, pre-migratory kinship origin), with identifying as being of Portugese, Spanish, Italian or Japanese descent, for example (Sansone, 2003: 211). This might be considered ‘ethnic’, as above, for its divorce from physiology and emphasis on birth. Interesting however, it is said that they do not hyphenate — that is, indicating a hybridised identity — rather preferring themselves ethnically Brazilian (Sansone, 2003: 211). Meanwhile, the ‘black’ population largely remains reticent to “indicate descent from Africa... afrodescendente” (Sansone, 2003: 205) and remains an anomalous. ‘Ethnicity’ and ‘race’ therefore have considerable overlap, especially in instances of self- identification, as questions of boundaries, geographies and absolutes.
So if not pigmentation, then what? “If biologically distinct human races do exist, it seems odd that there is so little agreement on what they are” (Cornell & Hartmann, 2002: 22). ‘Ethnicity’ is a
newer and more popular term that in many ways, even in ifs definition can often be said to roughly equate to race, even occasionally including the term in the the wording. Nevertheless, the language is semantically socially rather than biologically based. It employs personhood with a sense of agency — in as much as it does their interaction within state, kinship and culture. Unlike proponents of ‘race’, ‘ethnicity’ is “not inherent in nature but a socially determined principal” (Verdery, 1994: 45) , which likewise makes it problematic. Importantly however, it divorces it from erroneous biology. Noticeably more suited to classifying social beings that human kind are, though this is certainly not always the case.
Nevertheless, Roosen argues that ‘ethnicity’ as defined by Barth earlier in the same volume — as a product of boundaries and acculturation — should be extened so as to simultaneously “genealogical dimension” (Vermeulen & Govers [eds.], 1994: 3). This seems fair, after all any individual is derived from their parent’s gene pool and morphology and will considerable cultural capital in their presence. In this sense, the biological aspect only go so far as kinship, or clan morphology, rather than that based on ‘racial parameters’. Taken as such, it could be said that ‘ethnic’ identity is anchored to the homeland in someway both through the infancy of acculturation and genealogical kinship, whereas ‘culture’ on the whole is a hybrid of the plethora of later acculturation, appropriation, exchange and reflection. ‘Ethnic’ identity is formative and only partially innate, in a way that ‘race’ was entirely inherent and unaffected by socialisation.
Seemingly, therein lies an important differentiator, and rationalisation for the redundancy of ‘race’ as a concept. In terms of sating both the biological and social aspects of anthropological classification.
Unfortunately it does little for taxonomy. Kinship is all too ineffectual as a minutiae of cladisitics (Barth, 1994). Likewise, as Barth (1994) points out there are also issues with kinship in the social sense. The tableaux detailing two Pakistani immigrants to Norway, 30 years apart and the values taken from the homeland at different points in time goes some way to confute the holistic image of ‘ethnicity’ (derived from Long, 1992; recounted in Barth, 1994: 14-15). Temporality and the simple fact that the “global empirical variation in culture is continuous” (Barth 1994: 14) renders no synchronisation between the individual’s culture taken from the homeland, and received in the host country upon arrival, three decades, of social change and globalisation, apart from one another. Although the rite of passage of migration is similar, the modes by which they achieve this is a fundamentally altered experience, acculturation and indeed their formulated identity. How then can the two be classified definitively alike? The boundaries are forever transient.
This in turn, calls into question the importance of kinship, almost certainly now a subordinate mode of ‘ethnic’ identity formulation, against the acculturation of nationhood. Indeed, notions of homeland and host country as home become a dilemma for second generation ‘migrants’ (in as much as they can be considered that, born in the ‘host’ country and likely holding its citizenship and nationality) (Hall, 1990). In such an instance — as an extension of Barth’s tableaux — can such an individual easily
discern themselves to be either Pakistani or Norwegian, or if some hybridisation of the two in which order the hyphenation of their nation or ‘ethnic’ identity is formatted.
In fact, such a criticism is a boon to ‘ethnicity’ as a viable classificatory concept. In so far as “racial models, as traditionally presented, are static” (Kittles & Keita, 1999: 87), contemporary globalisation and the increased scope of culture exchange (and therefore flux) has indeed lead to such a plethora of viable, and individualistic ‘ethnic’ identities. The investigation and assumption of any of these sociocultural identities (or others one should come into contact with), and the emphasis on any, is an example of cosmopolitanism: "a certain kind of openness and curiosity about different cultures" including their own, and that of their heritage often constituted through consumption, in which multiple identities and lifestyles are tried on for size, and then discarded..." (Brown, 2006: 134).
Because these are self-assertive identifiers, they satisfy Smith & Tarallo’s (1993) prerequisites that classification not be dogmatically enforced, , again unlike ‘race’ has been. Rather: “a dynamic mode of self-consciousness, a form of self-hood reinterpreted...” (Smith & Tarallo, 1993: 61). But, if ‘ethnicities’ are so idiosyncratic how can they even be said to exist in the sense they typify personhood and not collectivity in any form. Likewise, the apparent transience and habitual impermanence of ‘ethnicity’, whilst speaking to notions of postmodernity, somewhat invalidates their usefulness as classificatory data in the quantitate sense.
Wholesome though it seems, on the other hand, ‘ethnicity’ has a certain flavour to it that, like ‘race’, implies foreignness. One never refers to one’s own countrymen or culture as ‘ethnic’ after all. The concept seems reserved for the external. If we are to consider the canon of Anthropology, it is not had to see “it is convenient to replace the language of tribe with the language of ethnicity” (Charsley, 1974: 338). The former is of course a now regrettable commonality amongst earlier Anthropological literature, with connotations of primitiveness against the more ‘modern’ social organisation. The exoticism of ‘ethnicity’ as a bundle foreign beliefs, ceremonies and customs under scrutiny like that of ‘tribes’ and ‘races’ similarly instils ‘otherness’...
Moreover, moniker of ‘ethnicity’ is not only reserved for the external, but indeed instances in which the external becomes internal: the differences between two cultures are “considered within their own respective countries, are national not ethnic... But when groups of... immigrants interact in a foreign land... they can then be referred to as ethnic groups” (Cohen, 1974: xi). In essence, it is in social contexts demanding separation and distinction that the become vehicular to the use of ‘ethnicity’, just as ‘race’ before it was a question of differentiating ‘them’ and ‘us’ (Cornell & Hartmann, 2002: 30). 1
1 Note the phrasing of ‘ethnic foods’ on high streets and supermarkets to indicate foreign cuisines, ‘ethnic practices’ to describe quirks out of the norm, ‘ethnic origin’ to define birthplace in far off regions, and the political terminology ‘ethnic minority’ as a catch-all term for predominantly foreign groups within a conscious majority culture.
In summation of Cohens (1974) one might also illume that one almost certainly never considers their ‘ethnicity’ until asked, whilst one always holds a nationality. ‘Ethnicity’, then, seems an inferior measurement of differentiation given the relativeness of its application.
Unfortunately, nationality comes with its own set of problems. In so far as it is immutably evident, the right of which is enshrined in international covenant (Article 15, Universal Declaration of Human Rights), it is by no means absolute or permanent. Nationality can change through migration, marriage, asylum, succession of a state or any number of political reasons.
Nationality is locked to boundaries, but those boundaries though constitutional and sometimes physical they are in fact more a social construct (Smith, 2012), than the indicators of either ‘race’ (morphology, biology) and ‘ethnicity’ (culture, origin, kinship). Moreover, international borders are not impermeable, they neither corral culture and much less adhere to it. The boundaries and extensions of culture (and therefore ‘ethnicity’) overlap, leading to another plethora of immeasurable hybridisations.
While there are clearly a number of negatives to the concept of ‘race’, it is not without its positives. Just as ‘race’ was intended to underline difference, so too can it be said to emphasise similarities within a given ‘racial group’. “Black power... making black race a positive sign” (Painter, 2000:378) was only possible though the unity of collectivism and the recognition of similarity. As a result, segregation and the American colour coded caste system conversely — eventually — failed in part because the very act of racialisation and segregation caused a spacialisation of a group of people: “representational spaces are the spaces of resistance and protest” (219). Their ‘race’ gave them a platform and vocal body of people upon which to advocate themselves as a socially relevant whole. Subjugatory ideology can be appropriated for other means: in this case, egalitarianism.
This trend does not cease with enfranchisement. Just as racism remains an issue, so too does the counterforce. Jeffers’ (1993) examination of the British Parliamentary Black Caucus (Jeffers, 1993: 174-176) raises the issue once more of collectivism by race or ethnic group — this can be extended further to consider the Congressional Black Caucus, Hispanic Congressional Caucus and Hispanic Congressional Caucus, of the United States — in a more contemporary political climate. Superficially, such partitioning of politicians seems counter-intuitive, with the singling out of the “black perspective” (Jeffers, 1993: 175) inadvertently serving only to differentiate it from the nonracial human condition on the whole.
Nevertheless, it remains true that there are only two elected US African American Senators as of the 113th Congress (one of which is a member for the Caucus) and 43 African American members of congress in totality; 37 Hispanic, 13 Asian/Pacific Islander and a mere 2 ‘American Indian’ [as the language of the Congressional Research Profile dictates] members of Congress (Manning, 2014: 8-9). Meanwhile, only 27 (of 650) members of Parliament hail from UK mandated ethnic minorities as of 2014. The ‘black perspective’ then, or rather that of a minority group, is one of under-representation.
Cornell & Hartmann (2002) likewise assert the Inuit collective moniker as organised groups of otherwise separate peoples (across Alaska and Canada) come together to “assert their own commonality, rooted in history, culture, and kinship, transcending national borders” (31). Again, here, ‘ethnicity’ is self assigned, and a means of not only demarcation, but compare. Empowerment through exchange, numbers and visibility. On the other hand, it can be easily seen in many ways the Inuit (for all the complexities and confusion in name) have become a vague and unspecific amalgam — a perception of homogeneity belies the truth, because of ‘racial’ or ‘ethnic’ classification.
Besides, could it not be said that such positive applications are merely the effectual response of all the implications bestowed on society by ‘race’ in the first place? The concept becomes damning superfluous, even dangerous, instantly. We have already seen how the rise Islamaphobia can fortify geopolitical conflict. ‘Race relations’, such might be called, as if ‘races’ inherently need to reconcile(!)
Antiracism too, surely the natural contravention of ‘racial’ ramifications, paradoxically seems to solidify the concept as factual. The continued popularity and usage of the concept of ‘race’ or the more delineating connotations of ‘ethnicity’, despite being largely discredited by the arguments above, also lies at the feet of media and communications: “it is easier for a journalist or a photographer to sell a story that takes ethnicity as its subject than one that addresses social differences” (Sansone, 2003: 5). One only has to look at headlines of national and international newspapers to see its prevalence. Recent news has indeed been dominated by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri amongst other instances across the country (Crilly, 2014; Blow, 2014). And whilst it may or not be an issue of ‘race’ (indeed, aforementioned racial profile exists) the incredible media reticence in disseminating crucial misinformation — that ‘race’ is an actuality, and not mythology — reinforces that same historical ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative (Cornell & Hartmann, 2002: 30) of ‘race’ into the postmodern worldscape. The cycle thus prevails. The subtle difference remains: the former is a response to a social phenomenon based on shared experience as a result of historical misinformation; the latter inadvertently broadcasts that ‘race’ exists, by emphasising the immorality of discriminating against it.
Verdery (1994) argues that ‘ethnicity’, like ‘race’ before it, has often been seen as a mode of homogenisation emphasising similarity rather than difference. The effects of nationhood — politics and policy enforce “notions of ‘commonality’” (Verdery, 1994: 45) — and collective living formulates boundaries of likeness. In fact, the emphasis should be on difference, because it is these instances in a globalised world that most starkly delineate one person, and their ‘ethnic’ identity, from the next. “It does not partition neatly into separable, integrated wholes” (Barth 1994: 14) makes it impossible to catergorise or compartmentalise peoples into distinct and representative groups effectively: whether the supposed boundaries are geographical, temporal since absolutes simply do not exist, or at least subsist in any manner. There is then a sense of a patchwork, and not a melting pot, in human taxonomy: heterogeniety, not homogeniety.
‘Race’ is an ideology. No matter the logic or science disputing ‘race’ as reality, as long it is believed and holds sway it remains — if not the truth — a de facto system of classification of the human species. Taken as fact, it can be (and proves to be) immensely effectual to the interpersonal and political landscape of society. Thought and policy are entwined with the ideology: reflexively and responsively. It is clear that the history of thought behind the ideology gives it weight, while its largely aesthetic, physical manifestation aids its propagation through relative simplicity. ‘Race’ is functional and effective. No matter the intention — good or ill — that much is certain. Less than desirable though it is for clarity, and human unity, it serves to highlight and progress a plethora of ingrained social inequalities. Which, in turn, are conversely predominantly the consequence of ‘race’ and its conception in the first place. Its ramifications are widespread and can not easily be excised from the equation; in many ways both ‘Race’ and its nearest replacement, ‘ethnicity’, work only as an aesthetic and socio-historical shorthand, more akin to sociology than biology. They are ways of reading evidence, not fundamental truths. There seems to be no entirely viable replacement that, like ‘race’, truly satisfies both a biological framework nor the fundamental paradox that humans are the same, yet exhaustively different.
Until ‘race’ as a classificatory notion can be supplanted in the public consciousness (at least in majority terms) by another more compelling ideology or concept of classification, it can never truly be redundant. Misleading, it is at the same time undesirable and superfluous. ‘Ethnicity’ seems the most considered replacement. Though it goes some lengths to clarify the more cultural, social and national basis of classification in its definition, it is all too often used synonymously. ‘Nationality’ is simply too specific and unforgiving in the contemporary globalised world; ‘culture’ is too vague, and too fluid in its presentation for the taxonomic classification. Borders then, literal and imagined, are at the heart of ‘racial’, ‘ethnic’, cultural and national classificatory terms. They belie each in turn as social constructs, in which none are quite right, and all are somewhat misleading. What is certain, is that ‘race’ is fallacious, regrettable and far from its denouement.
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Image: Jamie Green, 2014.