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Agustín Fuentes Ph.D.
Agustín Fuentes Ph.D.

How to Not Be Racist

We need to talk openly and intelligently about race.

I am occasionally racist— and so is most everyone in the USA. Even if we don't think we are. Race is all around us, often in ways we often don’t realize. We can be less racist, and even move away from racism, but it takes a bit of work and some courage.

Race, and racism, is part of our environment, history, language, psychology, and politics. For example, what do we picture when we hear the term “ethnic food”? It is not hot dogs or hamburgers, but why not? Why is there an “ethnic hair products” aisle in the drugstore? Why aren’t those products just in the “hair care” aisle? And what the heck is “ethnic”? Don’t most people just use it as shorthand for race? Yes they do, but no store is going to use the labels “foods from non-white groups” or a “products for black people’s hair” for those aisles. But that is, in fact, what those aisles suggest. What is the purpose, and the impact, of setting these things apart and placing them outside the “normal” food or hair aisles?

What do most Americans picture when they hear the term “typical American family”? Why? How many people are uncomfortable in a public space when surrounded by people who are of a different “race” than theirs? How many people are afraid to talk openly, and candidly, about race?

Race and the inequality that racism fosters need to be discussed at all levels of our society, but in order to do that we all need to know what we are actually talking about. Race is relevant, but race is not a biological or a static category. Race is a socially contextualized and historical reality that changes over time.

Even though we use the term day in and day out and see it everywhere, most people cannot actually define the term “race”? Think about it...Is there even a coherent definition that actually encompasses the way we use race? It’s not skin color, nor hair type, nor blood groups, nor genetics. It’s not athletic ability, nor even ancestry. All of those factors fail miserably as definitional elements…but we still cobble together some mix of them in our daily use of race. Understanding what race actually is (and is not), and the impact of our use of it, is an important step in the way out of our cycle of racism.

Breaking the cycle means learning about race, and more importantly, talking about it. But this is no easy feat.

For example, a recent news flare up happened when the co-author of a Heritage Institute study on immigration was shown to have written a PhD thesis at Harvard, which argued that Latino immigrants (and Blacks) often have low IQs and that the likelihood of raising their IQs over time is also low, so immigration policy should take this into account. The immediate response from the right, the left and the center was to debate whether or not one could do this kind of research, whether it is accurate or not, and if it is racist to even consider the topic of differences between races.

This is nothing short of ridiculous. To deny that race can be relevant in the USA is absurd, and to not look at race in social research on inequality in the USA is equally ludicrous – and wrong. If there are inequities across groups in the USA (however we classify them) then it’s in our interest as a society that believes in justice and equal opportunity to understand the reasons behind those inequities and what unifies (or divides) the groups affected, or if they are indeed the only groups affected. So talking about, and studying, race is not the problem.

The real problem here is that the views of this co-author, Jason Richwine, and the flurry of news around his thesis exemplify a central point in our ignorance about race: the assumption that it means something that it doesn’t.

People use the terms “black,” “white,” “asian,” and “latino” as if they were a) biological categories, b) things defined by the same characteristics, c) categories consistent over time, and d) possible to meaningfully correlate with genetic patterns. It turns out that the answer to (a) is they are not, the answer to (b) is they are not, the answer to (c) is they are not, and the answer to (d) is they are not.

The actual failure in the response to the flare up is the hesitance to tackle the very basic issue of race: what are we actually talking about? Much (but not all) of the news coverage implicitly, and uncritically, accepted that the clusters of people lumped into “Latino” and “Black” in this instance are real “natural” things that are part of the way humans as a species are divided up. That is incorrect, and in fact, a racist assumption.

A coherent initial response should have been that the race categories used in the thesis are not biological so any biological characteristics (like the purported intrinsic IQ measures) cannot be correlated in any realistic way with the group membership. Then we should ask, if it is not biology, why do we see some patterns of test score inequality across different groups (and we do, lots of different ways and with lots of complex social, historical, and psychological explanations). We should then have a discussion about why we are more likely to see biological assertions about some groups, or “races,” (like Latino, Black, and low IQ) and not others. And lastly, we need to ask ourselves, why deep down are we afraid to talk about race head-on, openly, and intelligently in public?

Do the research on race, it is easy to find. When we get a little bit of information we have a better understanding of the context from which we speak and, maybe, a little less fear in speaking about it. That makes us less likely to be racist.

About the Author
Agustín Fuentes Ph.D.

Agustín Fuentes, Ph.D, is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.

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