The Culture of Race
Is a post-racial world possible?
Posted Jan 24, 2012
Soon after I wrote the paragraphs that follow this one, there was the questionable shooting of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, by (white) Hispanic neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Weeks later I mediated a panel of black youth, academics and community leaders in a discussion of the state of race in the USA. I do not feel the need to change any of the words I wrote back in February but this tragic event, and all the passions and actions it stirred, was a reminder that as far as we think we have come, we still have a long way to go.
What is Race?
Race is what we see and how we feel but race is not who we are. But we judge people by external characteristics and because of the historical oppression faced by non-white people in the USA, the residual effects of past discrimination and the continued acts of racism has resulted in Americans being obesessed with race.
For someone who grew up in Jamaica and Canada among groups of friends of multicultural backgrounds, coming to the USA was a shock to my sensibilities of who people are. The notion of inter-racial people means that we still believe in these artificially created differences among people and think that people with different types of hair and skin are a 'special' kind of relationship, simply because they look different.
The Culture of Race
The USA has a culture of race. This culture is defined by a lot of discussions about race, especially among non-white people. It is demonstrated by people who socialize with people who look like them with regard to melanin expression. Is there anything wrong with that? No. Of course not. But it implies a social segregation that often is a result of geographic segregation, whether by choice or as historical artifact. The language attached to this culture of race includes words like 'bi-racial', 'mixed', black, white, Asian, oreo, banana etc etc. Major corporations have 'affinity groups' of different racial backgrounds so that people who work in these companies can be with people [who look] like themselves so that they feel more 'comfortable' in a 'white' environment. Race in the USA has rules about who goes with who, where people live, where they go to church etc. This is dfferent than racism but about how race permeates our lives in very prescribed ways.
A Post-Racial World
During the Obama campaign as people spoke about the fact that it was possible that Americans no longer focused on race, they also spoke about the fact that Obama represented racial progress. So while a post-racial world was supposed to mean that race didn't matter, Obama's race definitely did matter. And so did the race of his wife. It can be argued that having the Obama family as a representative of successful black people had much more impact because his wife was also black. Black people were proud of his success even though he was not connected to them in any way other than that he had a similar complexion.
A post-racial world would be one in which we talked about people for who they are and what they did and not be concerned about their 'race' - that socially constructed idea defined by the Office of Management and Budget and implemented by the Census. These definitions are fluid and change over time, and yet any agency that takes federal dollars must abide by these categories so we can count.
The shifts that have occurred in media representations of 'race' since Sidney Poitier's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" have helped to reflect, and to inspire, social change. A racial analysis of printed and visual media will still reflect a significant bias towards whites and a stereotyped portrayal of non-whites. A post-racial America is generations away. What that really means noone knows. Will we become more focused on class instead? Perhaps the Occupy movement is a paradigm shift but we will have to wait and see.
Why Race Matters
Race matters because of the systems of racism that create disadvantage based on skin color. As a sociologist and data analyst, I know that to 'measure' social progress in the USA, or lack thereof, one must keep track of this anacrhonistic notion of race. And yet in keeping track of race, we perpetuate it and one wonders when, and if, these ideas will ever go away. And perhaps they never will go away because human beings tend to keep track of difference. That said, it may be that race can be an 'administrative' construct that has no place in daily life.
Why Race Doesn't Matter
Race does not matter because aside from being a very rough social marker of oppression or privilege, it says nothing about a person's character. It does not say anything about intelligence, sense of humor, music preference, hobbies, place of birth, language spoken, generosity, or propensity to violence or kindness. If it has no predictive value to say who we are, then why care? We care because we are taught ideas about who people are based on race, which though they have no veracity, are so ingrained in our social beings that it is hard for many people to let go.
In places where there is a lot of diversity and low levels of segregation, people tend to care less about race because the more exposed we are to the 'other' the less of an 'other' they seem to be.
Even in places like academia where people should 'know better', classed racial notions such as 'poor people of color' has no jargon equivalent such as 'poor white people'. The truth is that the lives of poor people are similar around the world and they have more in common with each other than with someone middle class of the same color in the same country.
How to Make Race Matter Less
I am not saying that race does not matter in the USA. Far from it: it matters too much. If we want it to matter less, we have to make an effort to make it matter less. Try talking about people without mentioning their skin color. Take some time to explore the ways in which you make race matter in your life and exorcise those racial demons from your heart and mind. Make it so that though it may matter in the world, it wont matter to you anymore.