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Unmaking Race, Part Three: Why I'm Feeding the Lion
A Guest Post by Subrena E. Smith
It’s striking and banal that we continue to have discussions of race. Perhaps it is because what it is and what we want it to be is unsettled and contested. Race continues to chase us around like a hungry lion. It must be fed, and we are the means by which it is satiated. In writing this, I too am feeding the lion. I am moved to feed it by writing about it because it matters to me, and it matters to human life.
Take a look at yourself. What do you see? There are any number of things that you see, and if you don’t sense with vision, there are also many ways that you perceive yourself. You are bundles of characteristics, and you are also raced. You are assigned to a race whether or not you desire to be. This endows you with a status, a social situatedness, a way of life. It permits non-empirical claims to stand as established facts. Like it or not, it is it your mark.
Now, look at me. Here I am in some of my Subrena-ness. What do you see? I hope that you see a person. You also see other things, amongst them is my hue, but you don’t see a Black person, or a person of color. Some of you might “see” me as the spouse of David. That you see me as Black is obvious in the context of our society, though that image, the person you’re seeing, is not Black.
There are many descriptions that are isomorphic with what I am, but being “Black” is not one of them. To some of you I am playing word games. To others I am being academic, a ridiculous person, the worse kind of liberal progressive. Perhaps you think that I am giving comfort and support to those who wish me and “my kind” nothing that is good.
I understand why you might make these charges, but I reject them. Indeed, I am being academic, if that means that I want to talk about things in as clear and precise a way as I can. I obviously don’t think myself ridiculous. Yes, my politics are progressive. If anyone wants things that are not good for me, I don’t think it matters what I say.
Notwithstanding these charges, I am still not Black. And I know of no facts, arguments, or emotional stimuli that will show me that my conclusion is incorrect. For those of you who are frustrated with my assertion, here’s a question: Why do you want me to be Black? And by extension, why do you want to be raced as you are?
As David has been attempting to say, and to mind, succeeding in saying, race is a fiction that continues to exert real harmful material consequences on all of our lives. It is the phlogiston that has been made real in the service of harm projects. I reject it. My hope is that other people (you!) will come to reject it too.
I think that enough of you understand the structure of racial thinking. Race is supposed to be a feature of the world in the way that tables, rabbits, and cobalt are. It is under people’s skin. That our world is constructed in racial ways is in accord with racial facts. People really are different, racially, because the races are different. The races are discrete, unless they are not, when there are “mixes.”
Now, the question of what makes the races discrete is, for some, settled. First, it’s the genome (at least in our time): the races are composed of differentially inclusive gene profiles. Second, there are differential phenotypes. Third, these in turn show up in the structures and values of societies. There is differential wealth, income, educational attainment, rates of criminality, health and longevity, values about family, sex, community, religion, and morals. For yet a smaller group, this assumed bio-social organization is hierarchical – one race reigns supreme and one race is destined to be at the bottom.
When I say that you understand the structure of racial thinking, I mean that race and ideas about racialized people have these sorts of contents. But some people will protest this, saying “No, Subrena! I am fully aware that race was made for the subjugation of some human beings, but I do not operate with that framework when I racialize people.” Such people are reformers. Racial terms, for them, have undergone a reformation. They no longer mean what they did 500 (or 300, or 100) years ago. For them, racial terms are thin, convenient ways of categorizing people for social purposes.
There are reformers, too, who fall within the biological difference camp without some of the superior-inferior entailments. These are people who will point to things like the industrial revolution or cultural dominance of the west and conversely the lack of these but the dominance of athletic ability or frequency of certain pathologies within groups of people in or recently descended from people who evolved on the African continent. To my mind, there are also people in a quasi-biological camp who say that there is something special – morally, spiritually, and creatively, for example – about, say, African peoples. That “something” is deep in some unspecified way.
All of these people are wanting to say something about the world. They, like the first taxonomists, are wanting to categorize things by finding similarities and differences amongst them. The challenge for all of them, though, is specifying the basis on which such similarities and differences are to be made. All too often, they slip from biological to social: neuronal connections (of certain sorts) to educational achievement. They mistake witching properties for real one: genetic profiles with imaginary essences. They conflate populational properties with those of individuals (the incidence of Parkinson’s disease is greater amongst “White” people, she has a tremor, and she is “White” therefore she has Parkinson’s).
Most of you will recognize these errors in reasoning in isolation, and yet in ordinary living – medical, educational, etc., settings – enough people fall prey to and come to incorrect conclusions about individual people and groups of people.
The structure of racial thinking is false. It has led generations of human beings astray and it continues to lead many to drown in a sea of false ideas, which continues to result in terrible real consequences for many.
I am formed from real biological and social properties. The facts of my genome are not available to any of you reading this. Only some of my phenotypes are observable and are frequent amongst some people. Other dimensions of the stuff that made me are not revealed by what I “look like.” I share some traits with my siblings, but I share some others (surprising ones!) with non-biological family members.
The quick and convenient way of categorizing me, “Subrena is a Black person,” is thin for some people, but for some others it is a way of saying something categorical about me as a human being: I am possessed of certain traits because I appear to be descended from an inclusive group of people. On the social front, I was born in a place with a preponderance of people with certain physical characteristics and way of life. For them, all of this put together makes it the case that I Subrena am Black.
But this is incorrect.
I am not Black!
Subrena E. Smith is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire. She is a philosopher of science with a particular interest in misappropriations of evolutionary biology in both academia and popular culture, and is best known for her critique of evolutionary psychology.