The category of race as we know it today, especially in the American context, was established historically in order to denigrate other groups of people based on otherwise meaningless criteria for the purpose of domination and colonialism. As an ideology, it emerged as a reaction to Columbus’ arrival in America. It served the effective othering of people who were believed to be living in a “state of nature”, closer to god, “in dio.” Notwithstanding the fact that the Aztec metropolis Tenochtitlán was the biggest city in the world at its height, those who saw opportunity for conquest discovered that a new way of seeing all “Indios” as barbarian could prove useful. A complex system was created to distinguish people from each other by rather superficial criteria, in order to aid the practice of an early form of eugenics that measured the alleged purity or impurity of human beings with relation to mixtures between the various assumed races – varieties of European (with Anglo on top in British colonies, Spanish in Spanish, etc.) as “unmarked” (or symbolically “white”), of Indigenes as “red”, of Africans as “black,” and Asians as “yellow”, or all non-“whites” as shades of brown. There is no science behind this, just pre-capitalist exploitation.
Such distinctions were not principally found amongst European colonizers, other parts of the world thought in racialist terms as well – consider the Arab slave trade etc., which influenced the European slave trade. But when talking about how “race” is understood today, the Euro-American model is the predominant one.
Racial difference is different from ethnic or national differences as it is specifically defined against reason, against real and existing cultural, ethnic, national, religious or other more traditional forms of difference. The way we think about race now did not exist before Columbus. It is a thought technology with the only aim to divide and conquer.
The result of using racial categories as something “real” leads to racism. Indeed, the best way to understand racism is as an application of the concept of racial difference for a personal, social or political purpose. Seeing other people who only share a very superficial similarity as all the same is asinine, but applying such a way of seeing, such a theory, into the real world; putting it to action, this is what creates real problems for people seen as different, or, to use Paul Gilroy’s term, as infrahuman.
As Edward James Olmos, long-time actor and Chicano activist has said, “there is only one race, the human race”.
Of course, we need to talk about racism! But do we need to keep talking about race?
As I mentioned before, racism exists, but race does not. Given that we know the history of racial terminology, of racism, don’t we need to realize that the more we talk about race instead of racism, we are reifying and creating the very categories of race, and entrenching it in the system even more, the very categories of difference that were meant to lead to racism?
It is time to stop talking as if race is real. Clear acts of racism are a problem, and those very specific structures in society that indeed directly foster modes of thinking in racial categories and which promote social divisions based on race, those need to be confronted and reformed.
We need to move away from thinking about race, and shift again to judging people “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” as Dr. King has admonished the world so many years ago.
We better listen. We can only move forward if we aim to leave behind this vicious concept of race in its entirety. At least we should aim to not give it any more power than it already, sadly, has been allowed to have.
Peace be with you all.