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.