Seeing Race – And Trying To Understand It

Another old paper from my Race and Minority Relations class. This was a kind of “response paper” – just a general reflection on what we had gone over so far. The first ‘graph really points out how big of a change this was for me. I hadn’t been “looking for race” before, and I simply missed it everywhere. I still think my model (that looking at race as another status marker) has more explanatory power – but I can also see where it doesn’t feel that way to a person of color. Do keep in mind that my goal (as will come clear in the next old paper or two I put up) is in equality and heterogenity; that we move towards a world where people are different, and that carries no value judgement either way.

At the end of the Illuminatus Trilogy, after a thousand pages of paranoid ranting about the significance of everything 23 – from 23 skidoo to the Pentagon having 2 + 3 sides – a character reveals that the relationship has been there all along. It does not matter what number you choose – but once you start paying attention, everything relates to 23, 42, or any other number you can imagine.

Suddenly, race is everywhere for me. It is in the disproportionate coverage of women’s murders, in the comments of girls on the bus, in the bitching of a co-worker, and in the defensive justifications when I point this stuff out online. Every news story has some relationship to race, ethnicity, or other people’s reactions to it. With such a wide range of effects and contradictions, it seems an impossible mess to understand.

The videos, lectures, and readings from the first several weeks of this course could appear to present a confusing, complicated picture of race in the United States. But I believe that is because we are still missing the point. The dominant models of race and ethnicity in American society do not seem to fully account for reality.

The historical model of race – as discussed in lecture – is largely a social construct. Biology does not support any kind of empirical notion of human “races” (Illusion of Race, Parillo 16). Humans are as genetically dissimilar from those in the same ethnic category as they are from those outside it (Illusion of Race). This is reinforced by looking at the role race has played in our country. Even a brief historical perspective shows how the classification of “white” has changed at the whim of the majority group. Groups such as the Irish, Italians, and eastern Europeans were sometimes considered “white” and sometimes not (Bergdahl). Even during times where those racial categorizations were stable in one region, they might bear no resemblance to categorizations in another part of the globe (Parillo 16).

To believe that modern race relations are due to actual phenotypic differences between human populations requires complete purposeful ignorance of historical and empirical data.

Yet, this is how race is treated on all sides of the discussion. There are still lingering memes that physical and societal capabilities are carried along with the color of one’s skin (Parrillo 16). Once that myth is dispelled, there is still the persistent assumption that there is an experiential difference that is based solely upon the phenotype of one’s skin color. Even those who address inequality and discrimination in multiple dimensions explicitly distinguishes race from other social categorizations (Johnson xi). Even models of racial relations that view it as a continuum of difference seem to reserve a special strength and weight for this one socially constructed, artificial category (Parrillo 6).

It is not difficult to imagine the social, political, and moral compulsion to both treat race as a special quality and to accentuate the difficulties faced by those on the “wrong” side of the color line. The history of this country is a history of racially motivated genocide, slavery, and oppression. The atrocities waged in the name of race seem to demand a special category of sin to accommodate them. But that model of society does not seem to reflect the evidence before us.

It appears that race can be modeled as simply another social status marker. It is a strongly weighted marker and, unlike most, cannot be chosen or easily altered. Regardless, treating race as a social status marker appears to be the best fitting model available.

There are several clues that strongly support this model of viewing race. Friendship and interaction between people of different races reduces social distance (Parrillo 6). This is analogous to (if not identical to) the effect of “cross-cutting speech” (Mutz 9). Crosscutting speech – when people are exposed to those with differing political, religious, and social views – tends to increase empathy and understanding. That the same effect is observed with other social and status markers as well as race seems significant.

Definitions of race conveniently change to reflect the need to reinforce social and economic status (Johnson 7). This seems eerily similar to the ways that upper-class individuals change their behaviors – such as the names of their children – in order to distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi (Levitt & Dubner 167-188).

The method of using of reference groups to measure oneself is the same whether one is measuring by socio-economic status or race – though they are not lumped together that way (Johnson 36). Further, those who are privileged by race or gender but not social class will use those lower than themselves as a reference group in order to feel powerful (Johnson 36). I frequently see this at work; a white lower-working-class co-worker will make disparaging comments about black, brown, or homeless people in an obvious attempt to distinguish herself from them. If those do not work, she effortlessly switches gears to mocking those who have other status markers – education, vehicles, and vacations – that are above her own.

Johnson convincingly notes that children’s fear of differences is learned, not inbuilt (Johnson 13). This reflects my own experiences; my oldest son was largely raised in a highly multicultural environment, and had multiple black friends and daycare providers during his youth. While visiting St. Louis one day, I had to stop at an unfamiliar grocery store for some band-aids to treat a cut. We were the only white people in the rather large store. While I was very aware of the fact, and rather uncomfortable, he was completely oblivious of the racial disparity.

Finally, treating race as one of many status markers has vast explanatory power in regards to both lower-status whites and higher-status people of color. Exceptions are frequently trotted out by apologists who claim that racism is no longer a factor, since there are poor whites and rich blacks. These exceptions are well understood by a model that looks at skin color as part of an array of status symbols.

It appears that even our most honest conversation about race is still a layer or more away from the truth of our interactions with each other. Privilege is often invisible to those who have it (Johnson 22). We must point out the mechanisms of that privilege as clearly as possible, to tear down the imaginary walls of difference that keep us from seeing the common humanity in each other.

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