Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sunday Essay - a note on race and racism

Humans are classifying animals. We create constructs, systems of classification, that help us interpret and explain the complex world around us. This affects our interpretation of the world in profound and often unseen ways, something I have often written about.

Our views of the world are always imperfect, partial. Despite this, they are deeply held and shift only slowly. When evidence emerges that conflicts with our world views, we first try to accommodate it, ignore it or even fight against it or against those who pose an alternative interpretation. At some point,  we get what Thomas Kuhn has called a paradigm shift, the replacement of one world view by another.

In a post on 10 September, Writing preoccupations - Vikings, History awards, Native Title, Roman villas and New England architecture, I said in part:
One effect of this (the new discoveries) is that the entire conceptual structure underpinning, common ideas about race and evolution, that underpinned so much of nineteenth and twentieth century thinking has been swept aside. It survives today and remains important, but it can't survive in the longer term in the face of the growing evidence. 
Last week, the European Society for the study of Human Evolution (ESHE) held its annual conference. I followed the discussion via the twitter feed -  #ESHE2017. I lack the knowledge to properly understand the significance of all the reported discoveries, but was again reminded of the speed of change in our knowledge of the deeper human past.

I thought of doing a piece on the evolution of ideas about species and race and their implications for current thought patterns, but this required more time than I had. Instead, I thought that I would make some brief comments about the impact on my own language.

I avoid using the term race unless it is in a specific historical context because I don't think that it has much meaning otherwise. Something of the same problem comes up in the use of the term racist.

The dictionary definition of a racist is a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another. However, the use of the term has broadened to the point that it has often ceased to have meaning beyond an epithet attached to someone who expresses certain types of views about groups that the user disagrees with.  I do struggle a little with this one, though, because it requires a new language to describe prejudice within particular contexts.

The third example is black-white relations. I do use this term in an historical context where it has a degree of accuracy in terms of attitudes at the time. Even then, I have become more cautious.But for the life of me, I don't know what it means today.

Of course I am aware that Aboriginal people suffer from prejudice that I would call racist on my narrower definition of the term,. It is impossible not to be aware of this after working in the Aboriginal housing space.  However, I don't the term black-white is especially helpful in explaining this.Rather, I think that it is more helpful to address the root causes of the prejudice however held.  

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