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.

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