Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Definition of Race vs. our Our Perceptions of People as Races

In our discussion on Tuesday about "Conservation of Races" we started a class dialog about race as it would be defined by a person on the street and whether Dubois' definition was similar to the idea about race that most people have. During our dialog, I was struck by the presence of two seemingly conflicting ideas about defining race. Dubois gives us a scientific, non-biological, definition of race. He argued that race is a combination of factors not having to do with skin color or the way people look but factors such as a common history and shared ideals. Which launched us into answering the question, is that not what most people would define race as today. Here begin the conflict. I believe that most people would define race in a similar way today. Sure, some would still sight skin color or facial construction as factors, but I think that most would put cultural and historical likeness above physical appearance. But, how does the language of a definition translate into perception of the world? This is where most of the disagreement in class stemmed from, I believe.

First, I'm going to refer to the thought-out definition of race as the 'academic definition.' I believe that this definition is one that usually only through open-mindedness and education will a person arrive at. Perhaps not as much for our generation, but definitely for previous ones, the influence of racism and race creates and environment that fosters one to accept it, unless they enter into an environment of learning, logic, debate, and discovery, also known as academia. Therefor, most people who are asked to give an academic definition of race will give one that focuses largely on non-physical aspects of a people.

This however, is merely a definition. It is a creation of many factors, beliefs about one’s world, values about human rights, adoption of social and political ideas, and ones ascription to the arguments of writers and thinkers. How much a definition of race is actually accepted into one’s personal values is dependent on more then one’s public announcement of their belief.

Freud’s theory of the id, ego, and superego is perhaps the simplest way to understand this. Our superego is what society and external influences expect us to do and believe. This is the academic definition of race, or in the case of our class, the rejection of race as a valid category in itself. Either way, our superego tells us to think a certain way about race and present that to the world. Meanwhile our id, the subconscious expression of our desires, prejudices, and needs tells us something different. Granted, the id is a developed component of ourselves, mostly cemented during childhood through influences of our parents, teachers, and peers, but there are components of the id that are the result of biological responses. This is where our perception of the world, what we see in people when we walk into a room, is in conflict with our superego in our view of race. We perceive certain things about people through our sense; we see skin tone, facial features, body type, what they wear, we hear their language and dialect, and what music they listen to. From these perceptions our mind draws conclusions. We are wired to do this. Grouping and attributing people to groups is a technique for survival that is wired into our brains. It allows us to pick friend from foe, clearly not as much in todays world, but definitely in humans’ past history. It is a normally done by grouping people as ‘like us’ and people ‘not like us.’

So we have these two components of ourselves, the id and superego that are in conflict and our ego attempts to reconcile them. It is how our ego resolves this that creates in us a new value judgement and the ‘working’ definition of race among humans. This is why I argue that while the academic definition of race is good, and necessary to the advancement of discussion about race, it is not actually overwriting our reaction to people who we perceive as different from ourselves. We must understand in our exploration of race that race is labeling system for us to group people in; people are either like us (our race) or not (another race). As long as the label of race is recognized, in any capacity, we will group people based on our perceptions of them, on their ‘biological race,’ not based on their historical or cultural aspects. In other words, we can only escape our perceptions about race by eliminating the term completely and not giving us the ability to label the ‘out-group’ as another race. Whether we admit that we do this is dependent on the power of our superego and id. I have argued before that we must recognize these truths about ourselves, even if they are painful to admit, so that we can understand our subconscious ideas about race and thus learn to refute or change them.

1 comment:

  1. Trent,
    You mentioned the biological aspect of the superego. Since a portion of our superego is crafted through biological inheritance, would you say then that the standard biological definition of race would be the best definition of race? I think that the real problem with our id and superegos is that the id is the "pleasure seeking principle." I believe that all humans have the common main goal of achieving happiness within themselves. However, individuals have a tendency to feel uncomfortable when they do not understand why things are the way that they are...that is to say, the conception of race in general makes people uncomfortable because they don't know why they are different from one another. The realization of differences without the rationalization of them causes people to become unpleased, yet they probably know that, socially, we are all meant to interact with one another on an equal level. Well, I think this is where the problem lies. It is up to each individual person whether they come to understand that people are people regardless of the way that they look and that you can belong to a different culture and still be understanding and accepting of an outside culture, or whether they reject outside cultures and differences and try to remain in their own realm of ideas, seeing others as superior or inferior.


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