Race Matters — but should it?

Following my reading through the text book Difference Matters I get to chapter 4 on Race Matters. The author does a good job of describing and defining the issues, interweaving her own experience to illustrate without using it for emotional blackmail. Much more persuasive in an academic environment. But I still find myself questioning, but also dialoguing with, much of what she is saying. So here goes just a few points and examples, with my questions, responses and concerns.

To start with, the author took a long time with examples and skirting the issue before giving a definition of race. It was time well-spent, but I won’t hash it all out here but cut to the chase. To the question, “what is race”, she gave this definition:

We typically view race as an aspect of identity based on physiological features known as phenotypes, including skin color, hair texture, body type, and facial features. We use these physical attributes to assign an individual to a racial category. However, scholars from many disciplines conceptualize race as an artificial construct that varies according to social, cultural, political, legal, economic, and historical factors within a society. This social constructionist stance frames how I view race.

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 66-67). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

So, to her race is not a natural thing, but neither is it a fake thing. It is a constructed thing. The question, of course, is why this construction matters?

A lot of us equate ethnicity with race. She makes a clear distinction, which allows for how they overlap:

To elaborate, ethnicity refers to a common origin or culture based on shared activities and identity related to some mixture of race, religion, language, and/or ancestry. Therefore, ethnicity may encompass race, while race is a distinct socially constructed category. For example, Middle Eastern Americans (whom the census classifies as white) comprise a wide variety of cultural, linguistic, and religious groups descended from many countries in Europe and Asia.

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 67). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

At this point we are halfway there to defining the subject. This is followed with a lot of statistics showing how people from various racial categories have different levels of income success, job success, poverty, etc. But since these are all constructs, and since she also showed that these constructs have changed over time, I am not sure still how well her foundational definition of race holds up for me in her making the points that follow. Doubtless much of that is because I don’t have the professional appreciation of certain things she is saying, things others just understand and take for granted.

It is when she gets into constructing race as it has been created in the United States that I start coming up with issues. She has a very American-centric view of race, and sees the US and Europeans as the ones who created the modern view of race — a view that makes White the definition of good and the rest of the world lacking in some way.

This view entirely ignores loads of history, from tribalism on up. Each civilization has developed its us/them dichotomy. The West —  the cultural term for European Civilization — is just the most modern incarnation. After all, the term barbarian means “other”. Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, China, all had their distinctions of the “other”. Western Civilization is perhaps the most unique among the world’s civilizations in not having that clear sense of we/they that the others did. So perhaps race is what takes its place. (Parenthetically, if we had a greater sense of ethnicity as a culture, we might have needed the concept of race less. For further readings on this issue I recommend Might of the West by Lawrence Brown.) We also seem to be the only one historically (to my knowledge) that has felt guilty for making the distinction.

Following the definition of race, and the constructing of race, there is a whole section on race and labor, talking about slavery and the use of Mexican and Asian immigrants, and the stratification of their jobs. The part I find interesting here is that there were other immigrants who came to this country and were stratified in their income, yet later came to become part of the whole: the Irish and Italians for example. These groups were able to merge with the American culture, instead of stay separate from it. Race only became a prevailing issue when the people involved could not, or would not, subsume their immigrant culture to the culture of America. I know an example of a very “Latina” looking first generation immigrant who is more integrated into American culture than many Hispanic people here 3 or 4 generations. From my perspective, race, since it is a construct, is very closely linked to culture, and by adopting of the culture it can be transformed.

The final long section is on communicating race.  How does communication affect race, and how does race affect communication? Once again, the author talks about dominant and non-dominant groups. This polarity is one of her key analysis tools.

The dominant norms are Middle-Class American — which means White. So anyone who doesn’t meet those norms isn’t considered a part of the norm.  This is seen as white racism, and white privilege by the culture, an institutional racism.

Here is where co-cultural theory is introduced: the verbal and non-verbal practices of nondominant people to communicate with dominant groups. Members of nondominant groups can choose to mirror the dominant group, or avoid communicating, or just be themselves and let the differences show.

But it isn’t just people of color that have issues. As the author notes:

As some persons of color negotiate co-cultural interactions, some white people also struggle with racial dynamics. White males sometimes feel targeted and stereotyped as the source of racial strife. They believe that others equate “white male” with being racist, sexist, homophobic, and insensitive. During everyday interactions, white persons’ anxiety about being perceived as racist can inhibit communication.

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 85). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

It is at this point that she specifically brings up the idea and definition of white privilege.

A pioneer in whiteness scholarship named Peggy McIntosh introduced the concept of white privilege to refer to the unearned, unacknowledged entitlement one receives in everyday life simply because of white skin.

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 86). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

But the reason for studying white privilege, the author notes, is not to create some sense of guilt. Rather:

The purpose of raising consciousness about white privilege is not to make white people feel guilty or ashamed. Rather, the goal is to increase their understanding of how others experience race, and their commitment to using their privilege to combat racism. Understanding white privilege also may help people of color understand why some white people seem oblivious to the issues that frequently occur for people who are not white. Furthermore, the concept does not assume that ALL white people enjoy maximum benefits of white privilege because it recognizes that privilege operates in degrees, according to other aspects of identity such as gender, sexuality, social class, and so forth. Thus, exploring whiteness and white privilege has positive potential for achieving racial equality.

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 87). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

Now the concept of privilege this way makes me feel uneasy, not because I think I have it or not, but because it goes against the American ideal of individual rights and paints a culture of group rights. What makes me most concerned is that those who talk loudest about things such as white privilege and male privilege (note: I am not including this author in the category of those who talk loud about it), claim to do so to remove special treatments for groups, yet the net result of their yelling is to create more awareness of groups and divisions between them. They create more group identity and less individual identity and rights.

Now, I am going to throw in a reference to “privilege” from another blog, not because I feel it easily answers this situation, but that it shows it isn’t as simple as many people (the author of my text book, I will agree, is not among the simple solution folks) try to make it out. I also reference this other blog because It shows that there are other solutions being proposed than the ones I feel the author of my text is leaning toward.

So here is the blog, and a specific quote in it about privilege:

Of course that would disturb your belief in the narrative and in the end – heaven forbid – you might start thinking and join our little rebel band… er… I mean group of privilege who are privileged to be kept out of all positions of power by our immense… privilege. Better not risk it. Go back to sleep.

This quote talks about people with privilege who are privileged by being kept out of power — a certain oxymoron of a statement. Which is part of its point. Once you talk to emphatically about groups, and treat people as groups rather than individuals, you end up sounding like an oxymoron.

Getting back to the author of the textbook, she next talks about how this influences personnel decisions in companies, and how many larger companies are taking steps to make sure they are inclusive. This is followed by her conclusion.

Her conclusion has some good points, but is highly US centric and biased:

Race is an artificial construction of social identity based on an ideology of white supremacy, a belief in a racial hierarchy with white people at the top. Various power sources have used  communication to construct categories of race to reinforce and reproduce this ideology. However, persons of all races have also used communication to envision and enact more positive perspectives on race… Consequently, race remains an important aspect of social identity in the United States. Furthermore, communication plays both oppressive and liberatory roles in the quest for racial equality and harmony.

Allen, Brenda J. (2010-07-01). Difference Matters: Communicating Social Identity (Page 90). Waveland Pr Inc. Kindle Edition.

I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with her conclusion if she allowed the possibility of race not being solely a white at the top hierarchy. That may be the main paradigm in the US, but it certainly isn’t the racial paradigm in China or Japan — both of which have demonstrated racial superiority philosophies within the past two centuries.

This has been one of my longer, and more rambling posts. That probably is because of the large scope, and highly charge atmosphere surrounding, the topic. I have put forth certain thoughts and concerns here, without expecting a good or full answer at this time.  I expect some of that answer will become more evident as I study later chapters of the text. As I went through this chapter I felt that issues like class structure — which comes up in a later chapter — have a critical impact on the discussion of race.

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