#56: Disentangling Race and Ethnicity

Human beings are tribal. As described poignantly by Aristotle, we are animals that form political units, societies, towns, or in the Greek understanding, poleis. We are political animals in the sense that we are animals creating political structures – polis is the political aspect of the city, not the physical one (which would be (ástu). When forming societies, we are groupish, we connect with those we think of as related. This is primarily family first, typically extended family. All human societies do that. Family is primal, and relatives are central to original societies.

This is where Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society is dead wrong. He seriously misunderstood indigenous societies, and falsely understood them as relics of the past rather than living, modern societies. He underestimated the importance of family and relatedness, what Vine Deloria jr. calls an indigenous “theory of relativity.” If the foundation is wrong, then what follows is flawed as well, specifically Rousseauvian fantasies about “primitive peoples” and Friedrich Engels’s ideas about the origin of family and private property. Both authors can, of course, be forgiven, as they wrote in the 19th century and based their conclusions on much less data than available now. But in the meantime, we have been able to understand that family is not an epiphenomenon, but rather the original basis for all societies (see Jared Diamond’s Third Chimpanzee and Guns, Germs and Steel, and Charles C. Mann’s 1491 for more up-to-date and very readable descriptions of early societies as well as of indigenous civilizations).

The centrality of relatives, and thus of genetics, is contained in original conceptions of human societies. The idea of descendancy can be found in traditional stories from most if not all cultures. Groups are formed around cores of similarity, of belonging, whether truly genetic or through association. This is where our idea of ethnicity comes from.

Ethnicity is the concept that a group of people is more similar to each other by being in clear relation to each other mainly genetically. Just as a tribe is typically an extended family, an ethnic group is the assumedly supersized version of that. But “genetically” here – and this is where it becomes more complicated – is not really meant only biologically, but more in the sense of “being related to each other.” Typically, it is a combined package of having lived in a shared homeland (thus somehow a notion of autochthonous or even indigenous existence), speaking a language that directly originates from its related historical antecedents, having the same religion or a version thereof, having a shared historical experience, and demonstrating close cultural similarity in practices, values, beliefs, etc. Importantly also, ethnicities also demarcate territories against other rival ethnicities.

So much in theory. Now, if you applied a wide angle on Europe, most Europeans could be understood as related to the Germani. Germanic tribes conquered and succeeded Western Rome and founded the early states that would grow into the nation states we know today. Italy was conquered by the Ostrogoths and Langobards, Gaul by the Franks, England by the Angles, Jutes and Saxons, and later also by the Danes and Normans, Spain by the Visigoths, Suebi (and the Iranian Alans), and Vandals (alas “[V]andalusia”) North Africa by Vandals (see Peter Heather’s books, especially The Fall of the Roman Empire and Empires and Barbarians). Charlemagne was clearly a Frank, meaning a German, and functions as the founder of both France and the Holy (Roman) (German) Empire.

(But if you ran around Europe today, especially after two brutal German-led World Wars, calling the Spanish, French, British, Italians and Americans (via immigration) all versions of Germans, you would get into trouble, especially with the “British” Royal family of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha- Battenberg/Mountbatton, or more obscurely, Windsor – a family that has taken great pains to not be seen as German.)

Ethnicity may finally be a cultural construction, but it is constructed specifically on the idea of lineage and descendancy, specifically as regards a combination of rough family resemblance, territorial continuity, shared linguistic and cultural roots and practices.

This is what eventually led to the concept of the nation, as described by Benedict Anderson as an Imagined Community, namely that “the idea of a sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous, empty time is a precise analogue of the idea of a nation, which is conceived of as a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history” (p. 26).

Thus you are typically seen as a German if your ancestors lived in Germany, you speak German, and occasionally participate in German-specific cultural practices. Recent or current immigrants and their descendants sadly oftentimes still experience a lack of belonging and identification as truly German by the majority because of this understanding of ethnicity (and nationality), but it is my belief that this will slowly fade as it has faded with all other immigrants in the past, like the Huguenots and the many Germans of originally Slavonic backgrounds.

“Ethnos” is typically translated as “natio” – and ethnicity and nationality are frequently seen as similar, but they are not the same. Ethnicity, contrary to the nation state, has no defined boundaries on the map, may predate, survive, or even transcend the nation state. There have been Germans before there ever was a Germany (1871), there have been Kurds without ever having a nation state (unless you count Saladin’s realm as Kurdish), and there are many Americans which – in addition to their American citizenship – claim a specific ethnic identity in addition to their American-ness.

There is thus a sense that while ethnicity surely is also culturally constructed, it is more primal than more political notions of nationality.

So what about race? As noted before, race does not exist as a meaningful biological category, or a category of genetic descent – it is mostly if not merely cultural. As I phrased it, race is not real, but racism is: Other than ethnicity (which is self-identified), racial identity in the sense it is used in America is ascribed by the outside. “Race” is something attributed primarily to you, not by yourself. You may choose eventually to buy into the racialist way of thinking, but that may happen more as an act of resigned acceptance of the way things are, rather than the way things should or could be.

“Race,” in the current understanding, is an outcome of two historical developments. First, the colonization of America and other areas of the world happened by selfishly and wrongly justifying that the original inhabitants were of inferior character and thus could not own the land, and the doctrine of discovery was presumed to grant Europeans the right to earn the land. “Race” thus has a colonizing function. Second, the early modern slave trade, conducted by Arab, African and European slavers, was tied into the colonization framework and transported African slaves to the Americas, with the justification that they were “racially” different or inferior. This also changed the nature of slavery, and created an inter-generational race-based system of discrimination with no or hardly any possibility for manumission. Religion was abused sometimes to justify these deeds, but it only found excuses for a merely practical business deal. “Race” was invented as a convenient tool to pretend-explain the exploitation of (1) whoever needed to be exploited and (2) who would not in principle be easily integrated into White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) culture.

As shown by Theodore Allen in The Invention of the White Race, and by David Hollinger in Postethnic America, the idea of race also bore out the idea of whiteness. Basically, whoever was not seen as fit to be fully American (on the entire continent) was considered non-white. Race has never been just about skin color, but about a combination of national origin, ethnicity, religion, skin color, other physical features, culture, and sometimes class. Irish, Italian, Jewish, and German immigrants were – at various times – not considered “white.”

This betrays the idea of “whiteness” as an ideological position, just as the idea of “nonwhite.” It’s the old grammatical distinction between “unmarked” (neutral, white) and “marked” (different, non-white). The Spanish “casta” system goes into more detail (and establishes an intricate race- and descendancy-based caste system) which may have some relevance in the United States as well, although not overtly. “White” skin is not white, it is piglet pink, and “black” skin is not black, but a shade of brown. American Indian / Native American populations are not “red” either, neither are Asians “yellow” (but Buddhist robes are; which may have been the inspiration). This shows race as a merely ideological disposition, and it may also point to the practice of elites in Renaissance times powdering their faces white, and wearing white wigs, that may have given the inspiration for the color “white” in the first place.

One euphemism for “white” is “Caucasian,” which typically describes populations within the ancient Indo-European ethnic group, speaking Indo-European languages. But Indo-European speakers from Iran, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh are typically not recognized as Caucasian. Here is where ethnicity and “race” are in direct conflict: All European populations (with the exception of Basques and Saami) – this includes Germanic-, Romance-, Slavic-, Romani-, Greek-, Baltic-, Celtic- and related speakers – are related, genetically, culturally and linguistically, with populations in the Asian countries mentioned above, and some more. Do they all count as white?

“Race” makes no sense, other than to describe it as a category of exploitation; as I have said, “race” is not real, but racism is.

Ethnicity may be complex, can also be shifting, can be transferred, can be genetic and cultural, or both, and is not easy to grasp sometimes either, but it can easily be mixed – dual- or multi-ethnic affiliations are possible (just as I, myself, would now identify with East German, American, and some other origins as well). It may not be perfect, but it is certainly real, and maps with the living experience of cultures all over the world, past or present, and certainly, future.

Maybe “race” can be transformed, eventually, into an ethnicity, which could reframe it from a term of horrible discrimination to a term of pride. In some ways, this seems to be happening. It certainly would help if we could finally stop using terminology typically associated with Nazis and slavers.


Now comes the point where I can use the title of this web log as a deus ex machina: This was an “erratic attempt”, and it does not have to tell the whole story. I am aware that this could become much more complicated, but it’s a blog, not a book. More to come if needed. Let me know if you want me to touch on a specific topic or aspect via e-mail.

#48: Moderation is Strength; Radicality is Weakness

This is not a time of extremes. This is not a time of extreme crisis. The world is not ending. We are not at the end of goodness. We are not at the end of democracy. We are not living in the most racist / sexist / ageist / classist / divisive / time ever.

How do I know? A solid knowledge of history is immensely helpful to put things into perspective. Does that mean there are no more challenges left? Of course not. But we need to approach these challenges in a way that is focused on solutions. We need to keep people in dialog, make change that is actually sustainably, and keep building coalitions.

If you seek change, you need to change hearts and minds, otherwise, you will only create resentment, and the change you seek will be undone easily. You do not build a house that is supposed to last for decades without a foundation, and you do not make political change without laying a solid, patient groundwork.

Patience is hard, especially if lives are at stake. Moderation is hard if there is a sense of urgency. I understand this completely. But unless the solution you seek can be allowed to wither away again, moderation is the key to success. Had Gandhi followed a different path than the one laid out by Thoreau in his “Resistance to Civil Government”, there would not have been Indian independence. Spartacus held the moral high ground till he allowed his followers to exert revenge on the Roman civilian population. Both Martin Luther King jr,. and Malcolm X expressed their righteous anger at racism, but both advocated for peaceful solutions eventually. Peace works violence (including verbal violence, and violence against objects and people) fails. The bomb may have ended the war, but the UN sustained the peace. There are plenty of other examples.

Moderation is true strength. Holding back anger, frustration, desperation and impatience is difficult, but it will pay off eventually. Giving in to these impulses looks superficially strong, but will discredit itself.

#36: Diversity Is Democracy, and It Is Not a Zero-Sum Game

When we promote diversity, what does that mean? As laid out previously, the support for diversity is a matter of equity, of justice. We are already a diverse society qua populace and history, but how this maps onto some domains of life can be seen as not as equitable as it should.

If some individuals get to be individuals, and treated as such, and others are primarily treated as members of an arbitrarily constructed group, there cannot be equity. Our society is built on the idea that individuals matter as the smallest building blocks of society, that those individuals become citizens in a society that values them, that they subscribe to an unwritten social contract that allows them participation and success in society if they follow the rules laid upon them. Citizens are both rule-takers and rule-givers. Citizens of a democratic republic are the sovereign, they are the rulers, not the ruled. This needs to be true for all of us that via our constitution hold the legal right to be called citizens.

Those who are considered citizens in the past have been a smaller group than now, and this has historical reason, of course, which we are working to overcome. We can achieve this only by rejecting the paradigm of unequal treatment, and by providing a level playing field for all. This cannot be a zero-sum game in which someone’s win has to be someone else’s loss. This is the thinking of the past. We need to work together to eliminate any kind of bias so that what Audre Lorde has called for becomes true, namely that there should be no hierarchy of oppressions.

The promotion of diversity can only mean that everyone is benefiting from this; otherwise, the result will be unproductive tokenism, resentment, push-back, and ultimate failure. Too often, just as there is corporate green-washing (the pretense of ecological investment), there is diversity-pretense, which is just the ticking-off of some hiring boxes in order to make corporations pretend to be more interested in democracy than they are.

Diversity work is equity work; the point of equity is that it should enable true equality; thus the end goal is democracy, and the promotion of true citizenship.

History tells us the lessons to learn from division. Eventually, we all share the same planet, and need to live together as equals.

#35: What Is Social Constructivism?

The key to understanding the idea that there may be no such thing as human “races,” but that there is racism, is the concept of social constructivism.

Human beings do not access reality directly, but through mental concepts about what we perceive. These concepts are usually transmitted through various means of communication. There is a difference between what is out there (objective reality), what we perceive about it (phenomenology, from the Greek word for appearance), how we sort out this kind of knowledge (epistemology, from the Greek word for knowledge), how we contextualize it into a domain of knowledge (theology, from the Greek word for gods; or philosophy, from the Greek word for the love of wisdom; or science, from the Latin word for knowledge). These knowledge domains sometimes compete with each other, but more often than not, they can cooperate.

Science, humanities and religion have worked together more frequently than we would assume. All have one approach in common: In order to deal with the difficulty that we cannot access reality directly but only through mediation via our senses or our instruments, we create a model of reality in our minds. These models may or may not directly map onto reality directly, but they can be helpful in certain situations. One of these approaches to model reality is the creation of mental constructs, which may be shared throughout a specific culture or society. These concepts are artificial, but ideally not arbitrary. Language is such a model. Linguistics tells us that there is a relation between an object and the descriptor, but that this relation is entirely arbitrary. Some words (like “bump”) may mimic a phenomenon, but not all do, and how a specific language chooses to represent a specific phenomenon varies from language to language.

Whether language is the key to human thinking can be debated. One school of thought certainly believes that, and sees in the way we use language a key to what we are thinking; and sees our thinking eventually tied to our doing. That may sound plausible, but skepticism is also possible, especially when similar actions can occur across cultures despite the use of completely different languages. Furthermore, there is a hot debate over how much our actions are influenced by our thinking, or in how far our thinking just serves a justification of our actions. (Personally, I tend to be skeptical with regards to how language influences thinking, and how thinking actually influences action. Human beings may be much more instinctual and unreflective about their actions than we would care to admit. But my feelings here are beside the point.)

How we utilize language is not the problem, but that our mental assumptions about and models and constructions of the world around us – constructed culturally and socially – can indeed exist quite independently from objective reality. Human beings, like probably most living things, are pattern-seeking creatures, so that we overcorrect for danger (mistaking a bush for a tiger saves a life) rather than to underestimate it to our detriment (mistaking a tiger for a bush may kill you).

We see faces and shapes in the clouds, in rocks, in the sea, in the stars. There is no science to Zodiac signs, and still many otherwise intelligent people claim to believe in them as the basis for astrology. The typical “white” person has a skin color ranging from extreme pale to rosy to red to brown, and still we use the term “white.” Hardly any black person is literally black, and we still use that term. Biology says that “race” does not exist in humans, and yet we think it to be meaningful enough to discriminate against people. This is all about ideology, about constructions of power.

Biological men and biological women are rather similar in most aspects, especially very early and very late in life (when hormonal differences are less important), and yet we proclaim to see essential differences. Boys used to wear pink, and still we think of pink now as a feminine color. Whether you get sick or not may not be up to you, and we still judge people for it. Unless you die young, we all age, and yet discriminate against the old as somehow different people.

We differentiate between people and think in differences because that may well somehow be how we function as humans; but what kind of categories are important may well be arbitrary. Mountains exist, but whether they are considered holy or should be hollowed out for mining depends on what value we attribute to them. What makes big islands like New Zealand and Greenland an island but Australia and Antarctica a continent, and what makes Europe-Asia-Africa three, and America sometimes one, two or three continents, is anyone’s guess. We know that no serious scientist or educated person after the 5th Century BC believed that the Earth was flat, but the lie that people before the 19th century believed the Earth was flat perpetuates our imaginations still because it makes us feel good as somehow advanced, and that’s why Washington Irving invented it.

All of this shows that there are some mental models, or constructions, that we believe in as real, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. If they guide society, they can be called social constructions. The reality and the phenomena behind them may well be real, but we over-exaggerate their meaning and, in effect, create a difference that holds a meaning to us that – in reality – it should not.

#34: What is White Privilege?

Racism is the belief in essential differences between human beings based on a set of superficial characteristics. While race is not real, racism is, and it centers on the idea of who has relative privilege in specific contexts. “Whiteness” is a category of assumed neutrality, which brings with it the unearned advantage of less discrimination. This is what “white privilege” means, nothing else.

“White privilege” does not mean that a person seen as “white” is overall privileged in life. It only means that in relation to those seen as non-white, they do not have to worry about a set of things that they would have to worry about if they were not white. I find Peggy Mackintosh’s list helpful, because it is not overstuffing the concept with ideology and shows that this is not an abstract concept but a very concrete one.

Do you stand out frequently, and not in a positive way? Are you frequently seen as the representative of a group rather than an individual? Is your ascribed group identity defining you more than it should? Fanon calls this being “overdetermined from without” – you, as an individual, have white privilege if you can most if not all the time successfully insist on seeing yourself, and being seen by others, as an individual.

A better and more generalizable term could be “normalcy privilege” or something of the sort. Do you have a reasonable assumption in life that in spite of how you look, in spite of your biology, in spite of who you love and how much money you have, how much wealth your family has, how old you are, how physically able you are, in spite of all of it, if you try hard, work hard, and do the very best you can, that you can succeed? Or are there unnecessary roadblocks in life that stand in the way of this basic promise of meritocracy? Of course we are all different; but should some differences really matter in the way they do?

The point of the discussion about white privilege is thus not “white shaming” or guilt-tripping; it is to lay the path for a more equitable society in which the basic principle of individual freedom is supported throughout all walks of life. Recognizing who has relative privilege and who has not is the first step to making sure that we can, indeed, make sure that those who apply themselves will be rewarded for their efforts.