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?