Questioning Race

What do we really know about race and how can we be sure of its ability?  What references has race provided?  What experiences can account for its power?  How do we know that race is what it claims to be and why are we so ready to defend it and to employ it, having seen none of its credentials?

What is the basis for our knowledge of race save secondhand accounts of experiences with its progeny (i.e. stereotypes, prejudice, segregation), the traditions of hatred passed down to us for one excuse or another and our own heedless acceptance and repetition of its conclusions?  What of our minds and our time have we given to the examination of race?  How do we come to know our own and that of others?  Why are there so many answers to the question, “Where does race come from?”  And if race is so precise, so reliable, so certain, then how many are there?

I find it hard to simply accept race, to lie my life down and take whatever is dished out to me because of it.  I don’t know race very well and have no reason to trust its intentions concerning me.  I find no cause to respect it based on tenure or talent and so I must question it.  Who are you and what have you to do with me?

What I do know about race other than the meaning of the social colors of skin, their stereotypes and the prejudices that I should espouse regarding each socially constructed racial group, is limited, one- sided and nonfactual.  It is hearsay, gossip, a story told over time that began small and somehow ended up larger than our lives.  When I began to study race, I learned that those who wanted to believe in it could not agree on its origin, the number of races or the reason for them.

Thomas Gossett records in Race: The History of an Idea in America:

“The confusion over methods of determining race differences shows up sharply in the widespread disagreement over the number of human races.  Linnaeus had found four human races; Blumenbach had five; Cuvier had three; John Hunter had seven; Burke had sixty- three; Pickering had eleven; Virey had two ‘species,’ each containing three races; Haeckel had thirty- six; Huxley had four; Topinard had nineteen under three headings; Desmoulins had sixteen ‘species’; Deniker had seventeen races and thirty types. …

There was a fundamental fallacy behind this whole vast nineteenth century search for methods to measure race differences.  Many a racist awaited breathlessly some scheme of race classification which would withstand the testing methods of science and was prepared– once such a method was found– to pile mountains of ad hoc theory concerning the character and temperament of the races onto any discoveries concerning their measurable physical differences.  How little the search really mattered may be seen in the tendency of racists, when a physical basis of measurable race differences eluded them, to assume immense innate psychological differences in any case.  They did not need proof for what they knew was there” (82-83).

Even Gossett asks, “When the evidence began to be overwhelming that none of their systems worked, why did the anthropologists not consider the possibility that there are no ‘hierarchies’ of race?  Some of them were bold enough to come to exactly this conclusion, but for others the idea of race was so real that no amount of failure could convince them that it might be an illusion” (83).  Perhaps, this is where many of us find ourselves.  We want so much to believe in race that no amount of evidence of its fiction will sway us.  We will not question race despite the absence of satisfactory answers regarding its ability, purpose and continued presence in our lives. But, the truth remains that race is not a solution and despite our attempts to create theories, theologies and tests to support its existence, race continues to support more lies than truths, causing more questions than answers.

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