Race is racism

To change minds, change words

My seven-year-old daughter has been reading a book called Our Island Story that tells the history of Britain in fascinating detail. At supper one evening, we were discussing the many waves of people who crashed across this little pile of rock and soil. In between slurping spoonfuls of chicken-and-rice soup, she asked casually, “So, which ethnicities are we?”

This is such a beautiful question.

I’ve already written about why I think white is a terrible idea, but now I wonder if we should go further. Regardless of how it’s intended, the social reality is that race (and the related privilege, politics, culture and accommodation) is divisive by design. In order to sustain systems of power, planners and oppressors rely on people falling into racial categories. The specific narratives shift, as do the absurd criteria for belonging to one versus another, but the insidious idea somehow persists.

Weirdly, as we’ve begun to talk more openly and honestly about inclusion and diversity, there seems to have been a commensurate spike in the use of the term. I humbly submit that race is the wrong word / idea / framework / pattern / paradigm for people who want progress. Race is the last refuge of the worst sort of nationalist. It’s great at ending constructive debate. It’s an easy way to goad otherwise good-hearted people to irrational places.

I’m not unaware of cases of ethnic violence in places like Syria, Serbia and Rwanda. Our capacity for evil certainly isn’t cured by a new vocabulary, but in ethnically diverse parts of the world—and particularly the United States, and particularly the South—race increasingly feels like the last vestige of a terrible and ignorant worldview that seeks to label, divide and control.

And that’s because, intrinsic to the idea of race—no matter how many times we say biracial—is exclusivity. My kid would not have asked “which races are we?” because the overwhelming insinuation of our government, schools, politics, entertainment and institutions is that you must identify (at least mostly) with one. It’s surprisingly easy to produce scientific evidence that the idea of race is garbage, perhaps most compellingly The Genomic Project from IBM showing all of humanity’s common origin in Africa. But, as we know, facts don’t persuade people—stories do.

So, let’s start telling stories of a future in which the -ism in racism has no root word. I think ending the idea of race would require people who hate racism—which requires categories to elevate or degrade—to move away from the entire mode of thinking. I notice a lot of people in my corner of the world using the compound phrase “races and ethnicities” as a catch-all, parroting IRS forms as if the terms are somewhat interchangeable. I don’t think they are.

An ethnicity is any social group that has a common national or cultural tradition. The label applies equally well to Native Americans, Navajo-Americans, African-Americans, Nigerian-Americans, Cuban-Americans, Afro-Cuban-Americans, Anglo-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans and Israeli-Americans. It doesn’t rely on parallel terms, skin color or pseudoscience. As a schema it’s messy and intersecting and overlapping. Just like human genetics.

Race, on the other hand, is a system of human categorization used for social engineering since ancient times. Racist ideologies need rails to run on. In my own thinking and small sphere of influence, I’m planning do my part to tear up the tracks—starting at the dinner table.

As I thought about my grandparents and their ancestors, it was easy for me to name eleven distinct ethnic groups that influenced my daughter’s unique collection of heritable traits. And that’s just from my side of the equation.

She nodded a little. “That’s cool,” she replied, returning to her soup.