Racism as Symptom – Part 1

As a concept, race is perhaps second only to gender in crudeness. While the current talk about gender is acquiring nuance by the bucketload (maybe too enthusiastically), the categories are still relatively stable and are still, regardless of what they are considered to be at the moment, used to group and understand giant swaths of the human population. Scholars working on the level of differentiation one degree finer than race, ethnicity, are also finding occasion to challenge stable and monolithic constructs of those labels we often use to describe people groups within races, e.g., Cajuns, Cubans, and Catalans. But race seems to love its crudeness, situated somewhere between the weakening gender dichotomy and notions of cultural fluidity and hybridity. It maintains grand categories that are common in conversation but meaningless upon reflection. As a political and social invention, the concept of race may only exist for the sake of convenience and large-scale political action against unknowns (others).

I cannot claim to know the history of the concept of race, though I am more familiar with the way it was used to relegate the tsunami of immigrants entering the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century to working class jobs and social subjugation. At that time, nearly everyone but the “old immigrants” was considered a threat: the fascist Italians, the Irish scoundrels, the ubiquitous Jews, the grimy Chinese. While conservatives were scared stiff of who they thought to be the dirty, backward, multi-chromatic masses, industrialists needed cheap labor and psychologists were experiencing “physics envy.” My understanding is that the combination of Social Darwinist theory, which argued that people groups were disparate in quality, with newly invented mental tests (IQ in particular), the development of which were largely funded by elite industrialists (e.g., Rockefeller and Carnegie), “proved” the inferiority of immigrants and “validated” psychology as a science. Those in power won by suggesting–not necessarily consciously–through pseudoscience and legislation that the more or less genetically-homogeneous immigrant groups were inferior to themselves. As unreliable and biased as mental tests and as minute and inconsequential as any genetic variation between groups have turned out to be, the resulting concept of race has remained strong in our collective consciousness and in our political and institutional practice.

The position I am about to describe and illustrate does not deny that racism is a thing. It is. But it is probably because race as a concept was codified, remains as a set of bubbles on job applications and censuses, and relates closely to class status (see the previous paragraph), and not because race is in anyway a meaningful categorization. Racism, in other words, is dependent upon a crude and ultimately empty conception. Rather than making claims about whether conversations about racial discrimination need to be had or whether racism or white privilege may or may not be myths, I am interested in whether the conversation needs to be reframed. What would happen to racism if the faulty concept of race did not exist? If racism relies upon a concept that is meaningless, then perhaps we are dealing with something deeper.

With some down time, I walked out of a building on the University at Buffalo’s north campus onto a grassy community area. It was contested between groups of sword-, club-, bow-, and spear-wielding cos-play warriors, everything and everyone padded to the hilt. These were the kind of people that take their fringe activities seriously, like any self-respecting gamer, Civil War reenacter, animal rights activist, or cult leader would. I was gripped. Soon, I could tell that there existed an underlying list of social rules and conventions, a specter of structure to their play. A certain swing of the club or blaze of footwork was, I supposed, a work of craft and intention. Around 30 costumed participants recalling a variety of eras and worlds and carrying hand-to-hand weapons clustered toward the center of the grassy space circling, charging, and retreating, while archers orbited on the periphery. The action pulsed, punctuated by cries and disputes, as casualties grew in number. Eventually, the battle came to an end and gave way to camaraderie, with another scenario following soon after. One could say that I had just stumbled into a cultural experience.

What is of little or no importance about this situation is that nearly all of the people involved, myself included, were white–nor, incidentally, that there was a strong representation of both genders. The meta-narrative of hierarchy and systematic oppression had no comment. In fact, it would ultimately make no difference if the group was in any way different than it was, as long as certain phenomenological parameters remained constant. It could have been streetball in the hood, a table of Koreans in the cafeteria, a group of reminiscing soldiers, I would still see myself as an outsider. Regardless of the color of my skin, my financial backing, my job title, or any other characteristic, I would naturally sense otherness. This is the dynamic that, significantly, most race and privilege rhetoric is missing: No matter what kind of advantages or disadvantages one may have, they are inconsequential if one feels excluded. This is not to say that they have no bearing on opportunities and social outcomes. However, in terms of individual by individual social change, it matters less what is the case, and more what seems the case. This is in relation to any social situation, not only those delineated by race. For this reason, while the macro issue of institutionalized racism and subsequent social inequality as consequences of ignorance and fear are necessary to forefront, awareness can only go so far in mitigating reactions like the initial one I experienced when I met the bubble-wrapped battle.

To be continued…


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