Friday, February 4, 2011

Racial Simplicity vs. Racial Complexity

During our discussion on Thursday regarding whether or not words like “thug” or “soccer-mom” have inherent racial values, it struck me that, in a way, we were having a debate over simplicity vs. complexity. It seemed to me that some of us were arguing that these terms simply and surely have racial connotations, while others claimed that the reality is far more complex – that perhaps the racial value of these words depends on how and where one is raised, or on one’s own race. Either way, the very fact that we were having this debate is indicative of the conflicting way race has been perceived and used throughout history.

What do I mean by that? Well, if we consider the history of the idea of race we will notice that it has been portrayed as both clear-cut and deeply complex, and sometimes by the same kinds of people. For instance, if we look back at Bernier, one of the original “inventors” of race, we see an effort to simplify humanity in all of its immeasurable diversity down to “four or five species or races of men.” Thus, Bernier feels authoritative enough to declare all Lapps to be “wretched animals” based on the two he has seen in his life and the rumors he has heard about them. Similarly, we have Hegel, a man capable of thinking at the heights of complex abstraction, but who divides the races up on a disgustingly over-simplified scale of childishness and maturity. Nevertheless, he makes sure to point out that it is the complexity of the white race, i.e. its capacity to reconcile the particular in the universal and to obtain to “self-conscious Reason,” which places it at the top of the scale.

On the other hand we have Gobineau, a man who starts from the simplistic notion that the white race is advanced/civilized and all the others are primitive/degenerate. Of course, with this Gobineau isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before. His “contribution” to the idea of race were the laws of attraction and repulsion, by which he created an absurd but complex theodicy for the civilization of the white race.

The two-faced nature of race, as an idea that’s both simple and complex, has only grown more prominent in the present. On one hand we have the popular over-simplification of racial characteristics, i.e. stereotypes, while on the other we have complicated ideas about the cultural basis of race and its self-perpetuation as a group identifier. We are constantly fed conflicting information about the complexity of race, although I will admit that more often than not it is oversimplified rather than complicated. It’s little wonder then that we can have a heated debate over whether the racial connotations of certain phrases are definite or ambiguous.

What do you guys think? Am I on to something here or is it all just crazy-talk?


1 comment:

  1. Colin,

    I think you have a very good point and you articulated it very well. I would say that it would make sense to me that both of the above may be true, that race is simply a complex idea. We can talk about it in simple terms and understandings like those of Bernier, which were meant to classify peoples; and we can also talk about race in the complex understanding of how stereotypes are identifiers of races and whether or not the majority of the race would flow into these stereotypes. I think when it comes to terms such as "gangsta" or "soccer-mom" you are right to wonder if the constrants of one's childhood and teachings affect such terms that much.

    I would look to the way that psychologist make an understanding of terms and the categorization of things in the human brain. Environment and experience do have an effect on such categories. For example, if you were to ask someone to describe a dog, many people would describe a dog they have had personal contact or relationships with. Though that specific example is not necessarily what the population thinks of when you say dog, each individual person has their own set or scheme for that term and it changes and manifests itself through a direct relationship of that person's experiences and environment.

    I would wonder if people think that the same instances can be applied to such terms as "thug" or "gangsta" or "soccer-mom" or "nerd"?


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