Friday, May 6, 2011

The territory of race

The thing that keeps coming back to me, after the White Privilege Conference I attended a couple weeks ago, is a futile sort of ping-pong:

Point 1: While the justification for the idea of race is "biological," there is no real basis for "races" in terms of genetic variation. There are no "subspecies." There's more genetic variation within sub-Saharan Africans than there is between all of the peoples who in 1500 were living in the arc between England and Japan. So: race is arbitrary. It doesn't have a basis in biology.

Point 2: Race has become fundamental to identity. You can't just say "race is meaningless," because this deeply disrespects the suffering that has been endured in its name, and the sheer effort that has been made to reclaim identity and pride. It has meaning grounded in history.

Point 3: The founding of the idea of race is bound up in power. People brought to America from Africa in the age of slavery weren't "black" or "Negro" or "colored" or even "African" before they arrived here— they were whatever nation or tribe or clan or other classification they identified with in Africa. Same is true of "Indians"/"Native Americans"/"First Nations." These broad terms only make sense within the context of European colonization of the Americas. And today, the terms used in the United States for people from vaguely south of the border, or from Spanish colonial heritage within our borders, terms like "Hispanic" and "Latino/a" and "Chicana/o" only make sense in the context of the United States: in Venezuela the terms are effectively meaningless, because the major cultural divides there are other than Anglo/Spanish-speaking. So the very idea of race as we live it has no meaning outside of our American culture.

Point 4: Just because something is a construct, specific to your culture—an arbitrary line drawn in the sand—doesn't mean it doesn't hold extraordinary power...

Just like the Grid—latitude, township, plat and so forth—we've spoken of so much here.

But—as I've argued about the Grid—race (or rather the thing race is supposed to measure) is not inherently evil. In the case of race, the idea of grouping people by ancestral heritage isn't the problem. I dance English folk dances in my spare time... nothing actually dangerous about that. Consider how different European heritages in American that were once at each others' throats have become essentially fodder for folkloric festivals and tourism in midwestern towns; you never see anti-Irish riots like you did 150 years ago. The sense of identity we white people derive from our specific heritages adds variety and interest to what is sometimes a bland "American" cheese product...

So: where is the cause of race as a cancer?...because the use of race as a basis for action is a cancer on this country. Look at the populations in our prisons, in our slums, in our schools, in our places of employment, in our graveyards...

I go back to my earlier discussions of the Grid, and my conclusion that the problem is not in the Grid itself as a tool for measurement, but in its checkerboard reapplication back on the land, ignoring the texture and shape of that land in itself.

Race was never a really useful way of measuring out the American people, except as it provided an excuse to summarily take away rights and property from some and give it to others. It is grounded in enslavement of Africans and the de-nationing of American Indians and Spanish-speaking colonials. It doesn't actually say anything about what we are capable of as individuals. Nevertheless, it forms a part of our heritage...

It's a mistaken and misused shorthand for ancestry—where we and our parents came from. It's a way of not saying our actual ancestor stories, but instead linking to a common story. In this sense it's like latitude, which links to a planet we do not interact with as a planet on a day-to-day basis. And unlike latitude, it doesn't even actually relate to real physical differences.

Race only means anything because people were and are forced to live within its arbitrary lines. And that in itself carries a lot of meaning, as much like nation-states, whose arbitrary lines make territories we send soldiers out to die over. Our history of enslavement, displacement, lies, cheating, and papering it all over with niceties about law and rights.... that is the can of worms. When we address it forthrightly, as for example Howard Zinn did, and as all sorts of "radical" or "alternative" historians and artists have done, we don't necessarily heal anything, any more than making a map solves a mess like Israel and Palestine.

I feel as if, in my sense of the world, I have cleared away a pile of brush that covered a big, unsightly hole. It's more exposed, but it looks raw and ugly from here. We can't fill it—that's what the brush was, an attempt at covering it over. What we can do is step back and see how we can make it a useful and pleasing part of the landscape. Can we take race and make it charmingly ethnic over time? Can we plant seedlings and let it grass over, not changing its shape or denying it was ever there, but making it a part of our landscape? I think something like that may, in the end, be the best we can hope for...

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