Sunday, January 30, 2011
Saturday, January 29, 2011
Being a young, Black man the concept of race is all too real and many of the different stereotypes that I have heard while growing up now have a origin. The description of Black people as being “lazy” and “aloof” but “strong” and well-suited have been descriptions that have been around for hundreds of years. The argument that I have heard in talking with some people outside of class is that regardless of who made the observations, it would only be a matter of time before the races were eventually separated, regardless of who that person ended up being. This draws off of the idea that all human beings have a natural inclination to differentiate between different people by physical appearance. I would argue that we have no way of knowing what another person had the potential to come to being and make completely different observations regarding race. As Dr. J presented in class, what kept us from being separated by height or eye color or some other physical feature? Although Kant attempts to base his explanation on race behind scientific evidence, its still hard to believe that a complex concept such as the origin of race would be left to those who, according to their writings, present both a subjective and objective view. I would like to present the question of whether or not philosophers such as Hegel and Kant and in some cases Herder should be seen as the source of the racial problems that have plagued humanity over the centuries or if humanity has developed its own sense of race since the times of early racial definition.
Gobineau ends The Inequality of the Human Races by admitting the considerable consequences of his radical hypothesis and examination. Although his theory alone might not have impacted humanity to the extent in which he had hoped, the consequences of his forceful assertions of racial superiority were relatively immediate and long-lasting. This essay is shocking, but it is a logical jump from Hegel's philosophy of race. While Hegel is mainly concerned with categorizing, Gobineau's goal is to explain how and why certain races are superior. Hegel made it easy to exploit his philosophy by laying out all the different races and subtly constructing a hierarchical blueprint. Neither Hegel nor Gobineau explicitly admit to the existence of a racial hierarchy, but Gobineau is seemingly determined to prove the legitimacy of his own race. It's rather obvious that one would attempt to justify his own race and downplay the historical and social importance of others; white Europeans took advantage of the fact that they were the first to acknowledge the distinction of races, constantly putting themselves on top and claiming their superiority--it is an instinctual effort to ensure survival.
Looking back we can generally agree that they really have no solid proof for their assumptions, but regardless, they were making "rational," philosophical arguments and putting them out in publications which allowed their propaganda to spread. Consequentially, all the other white Europeans who read this literature were able to easily relate and saw that they were being deemed the superior race. To me there seems to be a very prominent chain of events: race is "discovered;" race is explored; race is categorized; race is exploited; The blue-eye/brown-eye experiment proves just how easy it is to learn and internalize the hatred of those who are different. I question whether or not racism was inevitable, or if there was some possibility that humanity could have seen race as a positive thing.
So let's talk about stereotypes. In class we briefly touched on them, attributing Herder's writing as stereotyped. What exactly is a stereotype though? The Oxford Dictionary tells us it is "a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing," This seems to be a solid definition, but I am dissatisfied by it's lack of attention to one of the most important aspects of stereotypes: that fact that they are necessary.
Dr. Johnson actually stated this in class, but did not expound on it much beyond an observation. I feel, however, that the issue of stereotype deserves much attention since it is a huge factor in racism and discussions of racial differences. I'm sure the students in our class have experienced at one time or another the accusation that they had stereotyped some people and then attributed it in their minds to something bad. Don't fret. Stereotypes are a part of the human psyche and, despite what political correctness suggests, stereotypes are absolutely necessary to our experience in the world and therefor not a bad thing. Imagine this; you walk into a room and see thirty people you have never met before. Immediately you scan the crowd; you are looking for people's characteristics, like are they male or female, short or tall, heavy or skinny, and ethnically different from yourself. This is how every person gets a grasp on meeting new people. We look at what's visible and then from that apply a judgment call to those people. From these observances we apply stereotypes. By doing this we have taken a room of thirty people and made it less foreboding and more 'discovered' without ever talking to a single person.
Clearly, this is a seemingly negative way to approach new people. I would agree that the best way to get to know someone is to talk to them and get to know them. This is where stereotypes come into play however; they are not something we can fight or claim freedom from. Stereotypes are the way our mind deals with meeting new individuals. We can to handle the complexities of rediscovering everything from scratch about someone that we meet. Instead, we apply stereotypes and discover how that person deviates over time. Stereotypes therefor are an essential part of our mental survival. We group things, apply labels and assumptions, and ascribe stereotypes. Without doing these we would have to memorize specific characteristics about every person and thing we encounter, which is something we simply don't have the mental capacity to do.
As this applies to race, many stereotypes are, unfortunately, negative. There is a theory that stereotypes, especially negative ones, are perpetuated because it builds up positive feelings in the stereotyper. I can see this a valid especially since there is an inclination for us to improve the perception of ourselves compared to others. Among people, stereotyping attributes to the grouping inclination we have to include certain people as 'us' and others as 'them'. This is simple human nature. All we can hope to do in discovering the truths about others that conflict with our stereotypes is to reevaluate our stereotypes in a more positive light. The stereotypes themselves will never disappear. but hopefully they will become better.
Friday, January 28, 2011
Today eugenics has a different spin on it with its central focus being to improve the health of individuals. Genetic engineering may grant us a possible respite from various genetic illnesses and stem cell research may lead us to cures to diseases like Alzheimer’s. We are all aware of the possible benefits of genetic engineering and they cannot be denied, but what of the negative consequences? If allowed to get out of hand genetic engineering has the potential to be as dangerous as it seemed in Galton’s writings (despite the fact that he was writing in favor of it). Galton also saw benefits of eugenics in relation to health, but he essentially wanted to change humanity, not simply improve the health of all individuals. Who would be left after Galton’s rampage if he had been allowed to spearhead his eugenics campaign? His aim may not have been malicious, but he used fanciful reasoning to support his ideas and held that the “useful” classes would need to contribute the seed of their success to future generations. He did not take into account the subjectivity of perfection as he made such statements. Who would define usefulness in Galton’s ideal society? What other characteristics besides health and strength would be used?
It was made clear that the privileged classes would be the primary subjects of Galton’s investigation of “good” families. The “best” offspring, in his opinion, would be the children who excelled above their peers. The upper classes would have a far better chance to produce the best offspring because they have superior resources to educate their children. Thinking about today’s society and the already significant gap between the rich and the poor, how much more severe would this problem be if the upper classes were given yet another advantage over the lower classes in this manner? This gap would only continue to become exaggerated at a more alarming rate, leaving the poor with no means to improve their social status. How would the criteria for gene replication be decided if we were to allow genetic engineering to proceed and develop freely based on Galton’s ideas? We have already seen the result of the abuses of eugenics in Germany during the early 1900s. If we began to breed humans as well, even if it began under the guise of a voluntary process, how long would it be before people were openly coerced into participating in reproducing with “genetically superior” partners? And would others who were considered to be less “useful” eventually be forced to stop having children altogether? Or is this actually a fairly safe process that should be allowed to develop at its own pace for the benefit of all mankind?
Saturday, January 22, 2011
The common uses of the term race rely on notions of skin color and appearance, language, religious affiliation and nationality. I do not believe that race is a consistent or substantive classification. Instead, it is a cultural, social and political concept rooted in superficiality. In order to show this, we can examine one of the most prominent contemporary scientists of the 18th century – Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy. During this century, European scientists were obsessed with deriving various ways to classify all forms of life. Carl Linnaeus’ classification system (which is still in use today) included four categories for humans, which he labeled the “varieties” of the human species. In his descriptions of the “varieties,” he includes biological as well as acquired social characteristics. Homo Europeans were light-skinned, blond, and governed by law; Homo Americans were copper and regulated by customs; Homo Asiatics were sooty and governed by opinions; Homo Africans were black and indolent, governed by impulse. This is nothing less than a thinly masked attempt at ranking the different groups simply based on ethnocentrically skewed assumptions. And the parts about how each group is “governed” would surely not have held true. Even a cursory examination of each racial group would show every variety of behavior here attributed to a given group. The system in which these descriptions were codified is still in use for the animal kingdom today, albeit without this poorly conceived attempt to classify human beings.
Kant’s attempt to classify humans into a taxonomy of sorts is different in one major aspect than Linnaeus’ – he goes about justification of the system from a “logical” perspective. However, it would seem that his argument is merely a spigot of ignorance. Kant believes that he can give explanations which have some plausible merit about the various races by describing reasons for their physical attributes. This involves observing that certain arctic peoples are of smaller build because “with a smaller build the power of the heart remains the same but blood circulation takes place in a shorter time.” This is laughable as a working explanation for the stature of a group of people, and one can imagine several scenarios in which short people live in very warm climates – pygmies, for example. Also explicit in Kant’s taxonomy is the assumption that whiteness equates to perfection of reason and minimal deviation from the root lineage of man. It is clear that this account is also saturated with the types of ethnocentric judgments which other popular intellectuals were espousing. Kant also believed that human reason was the true mark of humanity, and this classification of inferiority which he supported makes many implicit judgments about general comprehension and reasoning faculties of the races which are further from what he considered to be the lineal “root,” or white Germans.
Our discussion on Tuesday about whether or not Bernier was using positive or normative language in his description of the various “races” got me thinking about language in general and how the conceptions of words can change over time. For Bernier, using animalistic descriptions of human beings from East Asia may have been acceptable at the time (I’m not saying if it was accepted in his time, but that it might have been), but clearly this language is seen as racist today. What this made me realize was that if in fact Bernier’s comments were completely legitimate during his time then everyone who read this would be subject to this racist language, and whether they adopt it or not, they still may develop some sort of latent racism. This racism would come from the distinct possibility that a 17th century reader’s only image of “the other” is that which Bernier provides. Not knowing any difference to this view would cause the reader to develop incorrect understanding and associate negative language with these groups.
Now this is not to say that Bernier’s article alone would have sparked a snowball effect of people basically passing racism on to each other; however, I think that it serves as an example of how unconsciously destructive language can inadvertently transfer the same initial biases that produced that language to another individual. This relates to a topic discussed in detail in “the Sociology of Violence and Peacemaking” class, where we tried to uncover the core of violence. What we determined was that language and a lack of understanding of the other cause violence. When “the other” is not fully understood, and language is constructed about these people, then the misunderstanding is passed on to any receiver of said language.
With this idea of language as problematic and violent, there is also the question about how we are currently positioned today. Is the language that we use violent and packed with assumptions about “the other”? I feel like we often like to think that we are not racist, but most of us probably have unconscious racist tendencies or use of language simply because we were brought up in a world that has been shaped by racism for at least the past 300-400 years (if not more). So how do we uncover these tendencies? How do we better our own understanding of “the other” and recognize faults in our language? I believe part of the answer to this comes through reading, listening, and truly trying to understand “the other” and their situation. Also, by discussing our ideas with our class and talking about the “hard stuff,” the topics that people shy away from because they feel uncomfortable, we may begin to uncover biases we were unaware we had. These biases do not make us a bad person. At the same time, simply uncovering them does not make us perfect either; however, it does make us more aware, and positions us to better understand race, “the other,” and ourselves.
Friday, January 21, 2011
The first week of class was very interesting. The day that we covered the ten race myths was the most interesting in my opinion. The myth that stood out for me was "race matters". Many times we walk around as if racial classifications are of the past and that race no longer makes a difference. Although we are striving to have a society of equality, we have yet to accomplish that. Racial discrimination is so deeply embedded into our social structure that it is almost impossible to disregard its existence. Institutional embedded discrimination is a constant reminder that race is still a factor that makes a difference.
The other myth that I thought was very interesting was the absence of a genetic marker for racial difference. Although people attempted to scientifically justify racial difference , there was never a successful finding that differentiated one race from another. In fact, there is more genetic variation among people of the same race than of different races. This further proves that race is a social construction which we have made reality in our minds. We are socialized to see similarities within races and differences among different groups even if they do not realistically exist. Rather we admit it or not, we all stereotype people, places and things prior to knowing anything factual. While we sometime fail to acknowledge this, it is considered functional in our society. We use stereotypes to try to understand that which is unfamiliar to us.
According to Immanuel Kant, we all have four racial seeds but only one is active. This is a very profound statement because we are all mixed with other races, no one is of a pure race. Although we are all mixed, onephenotype is usually dominant. This discussion alone raised many questions in my mind: How many families actually feel the need to conserve the purity of their race ? (I know this could be something that people choose not to discuss) I also wondered how people felt about the term "reverse racism" ? Do you believe that it is possible to be racist if you are part of a marginalized group or is racism only possible when it is from the group of privilege ? I have had this discussions with many people of different races and there is a wide range of stances. Although being racist in a marginalized group is less likely to affect the group of privilege , it is still possible to possess racist attitudes and follow through with racist actions.
This then brings up the question : What is racism ? What do you consider to be racist ? There is a variation of this definition according to who you ask.
Johann Gottfried von Herder’s contemporary, Immanuel Kant, is famous for his “Copernican revolution”: the notion that rather than assuming that our minds must adhere to the construction of the universe in order to perceive and understand it, we should assume that the universe must conform to the construction of our minds and reason. The idea that reality is shaped by our minds and not vice versa was a revolutionary concept which allowed Kant to “save” metaphysics as a science.
Herder attended a number of Kant’s lectures as a student, and as our reading for Tuesday suggests, Herder’s ideas on race were intended as a response to the writings of his larger than life contemporary. I believe that while not as influential as Kant’s work, Herder’s short piece is a “Copernican revolution” of sorts, which deserves our attention.
Herder’s “Copernican revolution” is located in the statement: “each human being in the end becomes a world, that may have a similar appearance from the outside; but on the inside has a nature of its own that cannot be measured against any other”(24). The prevailing view of Europeans at the time was that the peoples encountered in Africa, Asia, and the New World were so physically different from themselves and Europeans as to constitute radically different races of humanity, or even different species. Most Europeans believed that the mental and emotional capacities of peoples could be generalized from their various phenotypes. Hence, Kant’s surety of the “strength of [the white] human stock in comparison to the others”(19). Herder, however, points out that the various peoples are actually overwhelmingly similar in appearance and that “one and the same species is humankind on earth”(25). In fact, it is to Herder’s great credit that he argues that the real difference between people is to be found inside, in the immensity of each persons “world.”
Still, this is a conception of humanity that could easily be as racist as any other. All it takes is for one to say something to the tune of: “admittedly, the physical differences between white Europeans and black Africans is far less that those between white Europeans and apes, but there is still a great interior difference between whites and blacks. The mental and emotional world of whites is so much deeper than blacks.”
Thankfully, Herder refutes such an argument with his emphasis on the individuality of human nature. Writing that each person “has a nature of its own that cannot be measured against any other,”(24) and that “they are each an innumerable harmony, a living self that has an effect on all the forces that surround them,”(24) Herder unequivocally argues that only significant difference between humans is that between one person and the next. This difference “cannot be measured” from our limited individual perspectives and is just as likely to be greater between Herder and Kant than it is between Herder and an African or Kant and an Asian. Surely the great Kant would admit that one cannot draw sweeping conclusions from a comparison that will every time and every where give different results.
Herder takes the prevailing assumptions about physical differences and the generalizations drawn from them and turns them on their head, much like Kant did to metaphysical assumptions. The conclusion to draw from Herder’s writing is that “overall and in the end everything is only a shade of one and the same great portrait that extends across all the spaces and times of the earth”(26).
In the beginning of Immanuel Kant’s essay, “Of the Different Human Races,” he distinguishes between natural division and artificial division. According to Kant, “race” is a natural deviation from the original line of human descent. Based on this understanding of “race,” Kant argues that “race” is scientifically supported. However, what exactly constitutes a “race?” Is it one’s physical, cognitive, or emotional characteristics that have “deviated”? If so, how can one measure such deviations? Does one’s cultural community and religion influence one’s race, and if so, how? Kant seems to make a broad claim about “race” without defining specific characteristics used to differentiate between races.
Kant’s observations of various races are primarily physical. For example, he describes people who lived in the arctic region as having a smaller build because “with a smaller build the power of the heart remains the same but blood circulation takes place in a shorter time” (p. 15). Similarly, Kant explains, “Negros…produced a thick, turned up nose and thick, fatty lips” (p. 15). However, imbedded within the context of the essay are remarks about cognitive deviation as well, for example differences in personality. After the extensive paragraph that describes how surrounding environment influences the appearance of Negros, Kant writes, “However, because he is so amply supplied by his motherland, he is also lazy, indolent, and dawdling” (17). Like physical attributes, does Kant believe personality traits, such as “laziness,” are preserved as well? For example, would Kant argue that a “Negro” who is born and raised in a sparse environment would be “lazy, indolent, and dawdling?” Clearly, this is an absurd claim to make. Because such characteristics are not preserved throughout generations, Kant should not include such observations in his essay. Rather, Kant should maintain his definition of “race,” although poorly defined, in order to uphold the belief that “race” belongs to the category of “natural law.” Not only does Kant’s statement about Negros undermine his naturally based philosophy of race, but it also undermines the integrity of different races. Words such as “lazy, indolent, and dawdling” are charged with negative connotations. Comments such as these emphasize the political motivation for race. Kant directly criticizes other “races,” with the hopes to indirectly advance his own.
Although I now understand “ten things to know about race” after class discussion, I, myself, do not have answers to the questions I have posed. Although slightly embarrassing to admit, I do not know what “constitutes” race. I am looking forward to further investigating this question throughout the course of the semester.
Humans desire to make sense of the world; we have appealed to different explanations with the changes of history. Today we try to explain the world by creating categories, definitions and equations. Before modern science, people appealed to magic and religion to explain phenomena. Most people are trying to find some meaning in their lives and are only satisfied in thinking that “things happen for a reason”. I find this funny because it seems to me as though the world is what it is today because of chance and random occurrences. The reason I bring this up is because in class it seemed as though we were in agreement that these authors were doing something wrong in defining race. I don’t believe they were doing anything right, however I think they were doing what humans do, the way they did it in the time of their texts. These individuals experienced phenomena (maybe for Kant it wasn’t first hand) and were driven to explain them. At the same time, one only needs to skim these texts to notice the condescending manner in which they set out to achieve their goal. They described certain people as being “wretched” or “beautiful”, which are more opinions than measures, and used the white race as the standard to which all others were compared. Today most of us immediately see that as being wrong or “racist”, especially as their writing suggests that whites are “better” in some respects. I want to take a moment to play devil’s advocate here: it could be said that the society of the Europeans was more advanced than others and was the origin of most science and technology of the time. If this is the case, the whites must have seen themselves as somewhat superior, but not based on race. These men must have seen it as their duty to explain the phenomena that surrounded these ideas or questions. My own point of view on the world leads me to discount this explanation. These texts were written in a time before the global community that we know today. Societies seldom overlapped at this time therefore they appealed to different explanations and beliefs. Instead of being superior, the Europeans had merely taken their society in a different direction. They had no real basis for believing they were superior. Everyone thinks they are superior in one way or another, but the Europeans had the resources to travel extensively and the technology to spread their thoughts through text so that their particular explanations became prominent. In my mind, the Europeans beliefs are of no greater importance or relevance than the beliefs of the people they were writing about. This brings me back to the point I opened with: humans desire to find meaning in a world where there may be none, and end up being satisfied with whatever theories they can scrape together. With this in mind, I find our recent readings, in some respects, no more offensive than any religious practices I can think of (besides, like, human sacrifice). There has been a lot of pseudoscience in the past and, on one hand, I think these writers were prey to that.
On the other hand, they were racists.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Gender, like race, is often now studied as socially constructed. The third thing on the list for race was that there is no single genetic marker or basis for race. Gender is studied similarly by separating the terminology of biological sex and focusing on the characteristics that differentiate between male and female. These characteristics in gender can be equally offensive and stereotypical like race. Asians are good at math. Women are good at vacuuming. Right? No.
The seventh thing to know about race was that we are all mixed, there is no pure racial ancestry. This may not directly relate but the practice of anti-miscegenation laws, those that forbid people from marrying outside their race in order to maintain pure ancestry, are similar to the practice of kinship that is studied in gender courses. Kinship practices vary in different cultures but the main purpose is to control and govern who marries who. As the anti-miscegenation laws proved unsuccessful, no one is pure, so are the flaws in any kinship practice.
The eighth thing to know is ovioulsy similar. Classifications constantly change over time. The distinction between biological sex and gender as I mentioned before wasn't proposed until the 1950s and became common in literature in the 1970s. Not all biologically born "Women" associate themselves with typical female characteristics. Just as certain races do not associate with the racial categories society has created. I realize they are completely separate histories that we are studying but the oppression race and gender experience is real and often relatable.