Race: Cultural Construct — And Very, Very Real

Anyone who has absorbed the content of an Anthropology 101 class, or even a general education class, knows intellectually that race is a fiction. What we don’t usually take away from these classes is the nature of “fiction.”

We think of “fiction” in the most simple, 6th grade terms — as “made up.” But as adults, it is easier to recognize that that a fiction is not the same as a lie — or even more simplistically “a random collection of disparate ideas.”

10,000 Monkeys

Shakespeare
Better than 10,000 monkeys

But Shakespeare was not written by 10,000 monkeys on typewriters. Fiction is not random. In the same way, race does exist — as a part of culture.

The part of culture that we struggle with, especially our own culture, is that it is not coterminous with reality. But one thing that we know, as anthropologists, is that culture seems real. From the inside (and humans must by definition operate from the inside) we can’t tell the difference between reality and our perceptions of it.

The “crime” is not that we believe in race, but that we legislated it as if we bear the unitary truth of reality. The mistake, then, is not that our culture is “wrong” but that our expectations of culture are crazy.

A Teaching Moment

Saint Francis of Assisi by Jusepe de Ribera
Just another hotblooded Italian? No, that’s Saint Francis of Assisi.

When I was teaching Anthropology 101, I had a student in one of my classes who felt, very strongly, that his identity as an Italian-American was all the explanation that was necessary for his hot temper. No amount of argument would suffice to show him that what he was doing was embodying and reinforcing his culture’s expectations.

The discussion in class became quite heated, as he would not budge from the belief that his experience was not only valid, but indeed intrinsic. That, of course, is the power of culture.

The power of anthropology is not that we can step outside of culture and look at it. That is, I believe, impossible. We can bend and expand our culture, stretching our mind to extrapolate the nature of culture. But we can never wholly step away from it.

Anthropology: Proscriptive or Descriptive?

Anthropology is an academic discipline, and philosophically a powerful one. It allows us, from the inside, to stretch and turn our culture so that it can look at itself.

But we also know that it is possible, once we have begun these philosophical limbering exercises, to reshape not only ourselves, but culture as a whole. Like all science, anthropology lets us begin to reshape our minds in ways that let us begin to map the world the way it is.

But this idea, that we can reshape our culture to map the world, is based on the underlying cultural belief that culture and reality are the same thing. Believing that everyone should have an understanding of the world that matches an anthropologist is just as self-centered as atheists (for an example in the news) who believe that everyone should see the world the way they do.

All at once, it brings anthropology to the center and cheapens it. If anthropology is itself a discipline, then it has something to offer the world as it is. We don’t need everyone to be an anthropologist any more than we need everyone to be a doctor.

Instead, anthropology might consider focusing on what these truths we learn mean when we can present them without leading the listener to be an anthropologist themselves.

And if it is impossible for us to teach without leading the listener through every step of the whole process — if we can’t bring truth back for our culture — then that would explain the challenges we face as a discipline.

The difference lies in status. If anthropologists can access cultural truths and these truths are of some use, then we must teach from a rhetorical standpoint of ethos. If our only way of teaching is teaching others how to think, then we are in the business of changing culture, not serving it.

Race is part of Western Culture, and denying its cultural validity is an uphill battle. Instead, we must reach out to those who legislate and make decisions that cross cultural groups. These are the people who need to understand that everything they “know” about “the other” is from only one perspective.

Science, Religion, and a Messy, Messy Universe

Galileo before the Holy Office: a 19th century painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury
Galileo before the Holy Office: a 19th century painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury

It is an almost unspoken truth in the West that there is a necessary conflict between science and religion. Western religion (historically, Christianity) says that the nature of the universe can be understood by, in an anthropological sense, listening to our elders.

Western science, on the other hand, says that we can understand the universe through observation. How could these two views not be in conflict? These are two very different approaches to what “truth” is.

By extension, they end up also being very different windows into the natures of people, the universe, and knowledge itself. But a question we need to ask ourselves is: “is there only one way to understand something?” An underlying assumption of both systems of thought is that there is one, and only one, “best” way of knowing.

The Rise of Science

It has been argued that Science has been growing in the West since the fall of Constantinople in 1453. It has, in some respects, replaced the authority of the Church in Western culture. Belief in the power of science has become (perhaps ironically) a status marker.

We’re all very familiar with the observational part of science — the root of experimentation. But the second part of science, which we often either take for granted or ignore completely, is the collaborative part of it.

Science, as a way of building knowledge, depends on both observation and collaboration. Sometimes we talk about science as if the observational part were the whole of it. “Scientists have discovered” say the headlines, as if science were wholly a journey of discovery, and not discovery followed by careful collaborative work.

Scientific research, then, implicitly argues that “we can all agree…” on whatever the evidence shows. This aspect of science allows for the testing of theories across different times and places.

After all, if my scientific observations and yours don’t match, it’s clear that we’re going to have to further develop theories so that all of the data can be explained. Science doesn’t depend on the work of lone experimenters slaving away in laboratories, but on their coming together to agree.

Western Science, Western Religion

Back when Science was getting started (going back to 1453), there certainly was a need to cast off the “old ways” of knowing , especially in the domains of knowledge where science was beginning to assert itself and the Church (the big authority on Truth at the time) was saying “nuh-uh.”

Christianity, after vanquishing the pagan ways of knowledge of the Roman empire, had spent more than a millennium enjoying its day in the sun in Europe. It wasn’t until the rise of science that it it experienced any serious challenges to its way of seeing the universe.

This “struggle” between science and religion is ongoing. Sometimes this conflict between scientific and religious followers simply comes down to different assumptions about the nature of the universe. Scientists as a group generally argue that the universe is understandable through observation, measurement, and collaboration (with other scientists). The proponents of religion (in a very Western sense of the word) have a very different view of truth and authority.

The two “opposing” systems still duke it out from time to time, but the official decisions of the government and the upper strata of society are much more in line with scientific knowledge. The easiest way to be certain of this is to “follow the money” and determine whether, in a market sense, scientists or theologians get paid more.

But It’s a Messy, Messy Universe

The argument between science and religion is a little like the conflict between Coke and Pepsi. Both contain an underlying assumption that they want us to swallow. In the knowledge wars, like the cola wars, the assumption is that we should be drinking either exclusively!