Ep. 86 – Erasing Race

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As human beings, we are all one species, right? Homo Sapiens Sapiens, that’s the one? So why do we have this extra classification of race? Where on God’s green does that come from? It’s a question that bears asking, I believe, because it oftentimes represents or facilitates modes of thinking and behavior that we might consider to be primitive, those which might peak with violence and lead to tragedy. Our fixation on classifying ourselves and each other inherently creates in and out groups, us and them, and conflict, where potentially, there could be none.

A lot of people don’t really think race is a real thing. They say it’s a social invention, but what does that mean? And what significance does it then have?

Problem here is that we can’t make a blanket statement and say that race has only done us wrong. Diversity comes from the fact that we are different, and so in coming together, we can enrich each other’s values with a melting pot of perspectives. A term like colorblindness has a difficult connotation, when it’s not flat out impractical, because it suggests that the solution is some kind of conformity. In the erasure of barriers between us, no matter how invented, we’d be kind of erasing ourselves, eliminating what makes each group of us unique.

The complications pile up for what’s supposed to be ‘division bad, unity good,’ but I think that if we work through them, we might establish a workflow to solve this problem. Maybe erasing race won’t be as hard as we think – there’s only one way to find out.

Race is so… illusory, we can’t even agree on what it is half the time. The very idea is itself a kind of falsehood, it goes with the wind, changing with context, and throughout history.

One of the defining principles of race has been nativism, really, not ethnicity or national origin. Especially if you live in a region like New England, you’d never imagine that the Irish were discriminated against in 19th century America. The superficial elements of race and racism change based on shifting power dynamics, because again, it’s just about who’s in and who’s out. Take a moment to look around at your current power dynamics, and see which side of the fence certain people are on. The fences are real, you are not fenceblind.

This is where the idea of ‘default people’ comes from, is the power dynamic. If you look at advertising or the racial composition of characters on television, you’ll see what people consider to be disproportionate representation, which is a more complicated matter than it should be. You may not believe that a default could truly exist, because such a profound evil must be authored, but let’s just check. When you think to describe a black person, would it be fair to say that they have dark skin? Well, what does that mean? Because depending on how you invoke that word, it could be a qualitative measure. So, dark, compared to what? To the default. And some others, but not all.

So where do those physical traits come from? Why do we look the way we do?

The World as Spectrum

Genes are the basis of visual features, as well as for invisible things like blood type and risk for disease. Genes can acquire mutations, which is the basis of life itself, that organisms will change to adapt to their environment, or otherwise die off.

Let’s start with the big one, and that’s skin color. Skin color is determined by a number of things, and one of the primary factors is ultraviolet radiation – sunlight. That’s right, our sun has an anatomical effect on skin, that it shines and our skin reacts biochemically. As such, skin color by population is largely determined by the level of ultraviolet radiation present in their geography. Those closer to the equator get more sun, have darker skin, those farther from the equator get less sun, have lighter skin. Imagine if you will a slider with a person cutout shape on it, sliding toward and away from the equator, getting lighter and darker.

Now how about eye shape? Of course, we know eyeballs are all shaped the same, so the thing separating certain Asian peoples from other kinds of people is the difference between double and epicanthal eyelids. Scientists have theorized that epicanthal folds were defenses against the high winds and snow of Asia, so again, another slider, but with mountain regions instead of the equator.

So skin color is determined by sunlight, and eyelids possibly by wind. You begin to wonder, if we created artificial environments and waited thousands of years, however long it takes for genes to mutate, what kind of people would show up? On our generation starships? What would they look like? Ethnicity may be important today, but it’s only an accident of nature we look different. If the world was environmentally uniform, we’d have fewer distinguishing features.

Or would we?

Could be all a matter of relativity. There’s a psychological phenomenon known as the ‘cross-race effect,’ which refers to the “tendency to more easily recognize members of one’s own race.” This is why we say that all Asians look alike. But Asian people can tell each other apart, because they’re around each other, and I mean, if they couldn’t, how would teachers ever have a hope of learning their students’ names year to year? People in Asia share a vocabulary of visuals, understanding how to read the intricacies of the Asian face. And they’re really not ‘intricacies,’ it’s just that we, in non-Asian countries, have a difficult time seeing the differences we’re not primed to see, and we’re primed to see the immediately visible, like skin color and eye shape. And so things like nose size or cheekbones, they don’t help us register difference, even if they are different.

Genetic diversity plays an important part in visually dividing people, which is how we derive individuality, as well as personal identity. You may resemble your mother, but people can still tell you two apart. Put another way, even if everyone was the same skin color, and had the same kind of nose, the same kinds of eyelids, there’d still be variations within those uniform paradigms. Shades of skin color, nose shape and size, eye color, bone structure, mouth shape – yeah, it’s pretty much like we’re all in a video-game character creator, and each value makes us who we are, where only some values group us in a race, the most visually apparent. This is called social cognition, where we think categorically and have familiarity with certain categories. And it probably comes from the fact we’re stupid as hell.

People in India have dark skin and black hair, because they all exist in this one environment. Skin and hair color are features we put more differentiating value on, and so when non-Indians think of Indians, that’s what they see, they think dark skin, black hair. But when Indians think of Indians, they think… Shahrukh, or Anil, because on closer inspection, there’s variation beyond those two features of many. Is it possible that the very idea of race was something created immediately, without scientific forethought of any kind?

Is racism a product of that cross-race effect, and other psychological phenomena? Yes and no, right? Because we do have physical differences, but maybe they wouldn’t demarcate people if everyone had that same vocabulary of anatomical features, if we saw differences on a spectrum.

And so, in a perfect future, in our utopia, the way we see each other will be radically different from the way we see each other today.

If we ask the Internet if kids see race, the answer is always the same: shockingly, yes! But that’s because we don’t exist in a truly colorblind society, and so kids who watch TV and exist in the world we’ve created for them will be affected by that. And look, it’s too late for us. We see an Asian person, we think: Asian person. But we can make that difference now, so that when the next generation sees that Asian person, they think, Mike. Sure, his eyes have epicanthal folds, but he’s also got brown eyes, and he’s 5’7”, and his nose is big. That just means he’s Mike. Hey Mike.

How do we get there? If we can leech the meanings out of the handful of physical features that demarcate us, we have a chance. And why shouldn’t we do that? Do these physical features tell us anything about who we really are? Does anything on our surface tell us a lick? Isn’t that what children’s cartoons have been telling us since the dawn of time? We could glean infinitely more from a conversation than we could from skin color. I heard, one time, that people shouldn’t be judged that way, only by the content of their character. These two things, character traits, and physical traits, are unrelated, so let’s sever that connection for good. The way all babies must sever the umbilical cord with their teeth. Or so my older sister tells me that’s how it works.

Racism is arbitrary, and it can be easily abused. Which is… two major strikes against it, as far as I’m concerned. So why has it been with us for so long? Well, it’s an instrument of power, and just because somebody wields power, that doesn’t necessarily mean they understand it.

So that’s two parts, one, racism is a good way to control people, just as it psychologically powered slavery in the US and all over the world, throughout time. And the other is that racism feeds off of ignorance, and ignorance is easy, it is also a default. Racism becomes a self-perpetuating myth. Of course it exists, and still does. But people can deny its existence without semantically denying its existence. They’re really, really clever, and they’ve had a lot of time to think of ways to get around it. There’s profit in never addressing the reality of social inequality. Doing so is step one to dismantling it.

Without blaming anyone yet, just think about who might potentially, theoretically, profit off of the world as ethnic minorities perceive it. Black people say that things are a certain way, I don’t think there’s any harm in entertaining them, even for just a moment. Who do I believe more in the conflict between urban poor black people, and news pundits? One of those has to adhere to a bottom line.

First of all, who has the power, the voice? That’s an obvious one, but worth noting. The argument for one side is that there’s a social imbalance, as it manifests in biased hiring practices, police attention, and politicians’ ignorance. The argument from the other side is that black people are lazy. They phrase it in different ways, but their characterization of black people is often defamatory and always extreme. They’re painted as a monolith, no matter what, a single being, and that hardens the barriers which fall along the lines of race. That’s kind of what race is like, it’s a social blueprint for a dastardly architecture, the plans on which we may or may construct walls.

The point here, although it’s kind of impossible, is not necessarily to throw blame, because I don’t think anyone of us are emotionally ready to receive it or give it, but instead to simply point out that old modes of racism thought to be extinct, are upheld in modern systems. Why would that be so hard to believe? Like genes, like an organism unto itself, racism adapts. It takes on seemingly innocuous shapes, to the point where we don’t know when we’re being racist, which is why there’s so much confusion and vitriol and arguments about it. Nobody can really agree on what’s racist, what’s a joke, what’s harmless. So I think, if you want to be my best friend, we’ll all just go ahead and assume that we’re all racist, until proven otherwise.

Because I don’t really think that you can declare “I’m not racist,” any more than you can declare that “I’m sexy,” or “I’m cool to hang out with.” You can have theories on the matter, but sometimes personal qualities are inherently decided by other people, because they inherently involve other people. And look, the only reason, the only reason, you want to say you’re not racist is because it’s such a powerful label, we think of it as defamatory. The proclamation that “I’m not racist,” is never not a response, a defense. It doesn’t just come to people, out of the ether.

Racist is such an indictment that we internalize it, and get things all mixed up in our head, that being called racist is just as bad as being called a nigger. Isn’t that a little defeating? Being called racist is fine, so long as it isn’t because you committed a hate crime. If you can walk away from being called racist with a reputation otherwise unscathed, you can then work to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. It was only gonna happen this way, a kind of trial by fire.

Because, look… Saying you’re not racist is something you’ve used to end a conversation that needed to keep going. I know you have, don’t give me that look. But there’s a kind of racism that you can’t be blamed for, that you shouldn’t take personally the way you do. The kind that’s not your fault, because it’s biological. Again, the cross-race effect. It’s out of your hands.

But what that means is that you can’t decide when you’re not being racist, because you have no control over it. Racism is utterly decided by the receiver, by the one who says, ‘that’s racist,’ or, ‘that offends me.’ Because even if you run it by the dictionary definition, or if you ask your black friend, the offense still happened. Just because you didn’t want it to.

We’ve already been over why people wouldn’t want it to happen, so they do whatever they can to make sure it didn’t. They say, you’re being over reactionary. Or they label it outrage. Too sensitive. PC culture, everybody! We’re living in a PC culture! For Christ’s sake, political correctness is your friend. It’s also something that’s ever changing. Ten years ago, political correctness meant something must different than it does now. Political correctness just means change.

And the change we’re tracking with now simply broadens the scope of people who now matter. Like Black Lives, for example. That’s all it is. So if you don’t like political correctness, you’ve drawn a really arbitrary line. Basically, the first time you felt your Constitutional Rights threatened, you pulled the PC card.

So, let’s say you make a joke with your buddy, who is of ethnicity, the way non-white people are. This buddy of yours, he says, that offends me. You have two choices. You can investigate why the offense happened, because it did, or you can say that the offense did not happen. One of these is constructive, although the ensuing conversation may be awkward. It may not even happen – this is research you may have to undertake on your own.

But then you come back, and you don’t make jokes like that anymore, and you may have lost a segment of your comedy bit, but you’ve maintained a relationship with someone. That’s what learning is, right? Failing, and getting back up. You don’t steel yourself against the world and deny that people feel a certain way, that doesn’t make any sense. But you can communicate, and you always do better. We can all… always do better. Saying that we’re not racist is kinda like saying, we can do no better. That there is no upward mobility for the human race, fuck you the planet Mars, you come down to us.

So why did I say earlier that disproportionate representation is a complicated matter? I feel like there’s this tendency to connect a correct proportion with the correlating proportion of the population of a given nation, we’ll go with the United States. Like you know, when people get huffy that they made Spider-Man a half-black half-Latino character, they say, when it will it stop? Are we trying to fill some quota here? You think things should be proportional, but what does that look like?

Let’s say I’m Korean American in the year 2010. At that time, there were 1.7 million Koreans of 308.7 million people in the United States. That means of the population, half of one percent (0.55%) were Korean. We have peak TV right now for scripted original programming, with digital streaming and the popularity of dramas, and that means 409 TV series that aren’t reality or variety or talk shows. In 2010, before peak TV, there were 217. And then we say that maybe each show has three main characters. That’s 651 characters who are supposed to represent America. But if they do so only numerically, that’s 3 or 4 characters who are Korean. 2010 I was watching Mad Men, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Dexter, Louie, The Killing, Modern Family, and let’s throw Breaking Bad in there too, despite it not being broadcast that year. So that’s eight shows, and that’s a lot of TV, that’s like a hundred hours. But the chances that those eight will overlap with the four of 217 that have proportionally represented Korean Americans, is slim. Slim to the point where none of those shows did feature Korean Americans in main or even supporting roles. Lily is Vietnamese, and Randall Park had a cameo.

So those 1.7 million Korean Americans… just aren’t populous enough to count? Demographic fractions shouldn’t be the line in the sand. Not when people still have emotions and feelings, no matter how many of them there are. Of course, taking this to its logical end, forget the million part. We have to think that there’s one Korean American kid at home who is not represented by the shows he or she is watching, who is left out of the American experience in some regard. He or she doesn’t count, again, because of proportions. Whatever the severity, that’s still a diminishment of that person’s significance. No matter your demographics, you still exist.

That one day, a character’s race simply will not matter. But there will be no default, and so diversity will be more likely, not as a proportionate reflection of America, but a useful one. But we can’t just jump there right now, although I’m okay with trying if you’re up for it, I think the path to reach that point isn’t so straightforward. That in the meantime, it would help to bend the rules a little bit, race-bend sometimes, because that’s how you negotiate with the default, when everyone is one way, you have to ‘bend’ to make things more welcoming to more people.

And that’s how diversity comes off looking forced, like Affirmative Action applied broadly, to even the fictional realm, but it’s better to think about what potentially race-bending might do for the little black girl who watches TV and sees just… unspeakable things – defamation, for real. So think about her, and then think, it won’t be like this forever. But we have to commit to it, or we’ll prolong this weird back and forth period where nothing gets done.

The Challenges Going Forward

It’s hard, and I understand that. This whole thing. Becoming post-racial. Because right now, you walk down the street you see somebody of a different race, it’s not impossible they behave differently. The way they interact with the word, their composure, their manner of speech. Of course you’re both human, but there is something that fundamentally separates you that could never be reconciled.

Here we have the difference between the physical features we associate with race, and the cultural features. They’re important too, because just look at this guy, of course you’re not like him. But it’s because you came up under different societal circumstances, that’s all. It’s really no less innocuous than the uneven distribution of sunlight that gave humanity a visual spectrum.

I mean, think about it, when you were growing up, did you even have anything in common with the kid across the street? Different roofs, different upbringings, and that means different personalities. And those personalities become a culture when enough of those roofs are similar enough, but different from the roofs in a wildly different environment. There are nuances of difference in this group of roofs, and via Allegory of the Cave, those nuances are amplified. It’s all a matter of perspective. So what we find, if we investigate the reasons for cultural differences in people, manners of speech, preoccupations – could be universal human principles.

That’s what it’s gonna take for us to say definitively that a fellow human is simply too different to really be like me. Sure, superficially, that person is different. But why? If you can know that, then you can say. Otherwise, say nothing.

At least one thing we can say for sure is common across everyone, and that’s that each respective cultural world and heritage is valued by its people. We care about where we come from, what we represent, what flag we fly with the bumper sticker on our car. In this way, the divides are reinforced again, but from a positive angle. Would you throw away your heritage if it meant living in a peaceful world? Would you forget the suffering of your ancestors, and spurn their memory, if it meant your children would never be at risk of being murdered by the police? Erasing the final divides between us – culture, history. Is this what we’re supposed to do?

Nope, I don’t think so. In this case, we have to find another way around. In speculation, there’s always another way, because there are no stakes yet. Blueprints don’t collapse. So we start with the question. How do we come to still respect our diversity of cultures while also becoming one unified species? Can we erase the bad consequences of race without erasing everything?

Well, let’s check back in. What does our utopia look like now? We have our kids all grown up, and they know Mike is Mike, Julie is Julie, people are people, that’s it. But what they can also do is learn about history in middle school, learn about their own ethnic heritage from their parents, and do so in a way that is detached, but still human enough to the point of respect for one’s own unique identity. That’s the line.

I’m talking about the far future here, in a legitimate utopia. And so in this place, education about history and heritage will influence the creation of these kids’ identities, but if they exist in a world where ‘you have Korean heritage,’ doesn’t mean anything to anyone, kids with Korean ancestors won’t be thought of significantly differently, because our utopic generations will understand that character is the defining quality of character.

I think that’ll make a difference, is the learning environment provided by a culture of racial harmony. That having a certain heritage is something to be proud of, but only speaks so much to each individual person, because the meaning of races will be so reduced. Racial minorities were survivors back in the pioneering days, and several days after that, but now you live in a different world. But that’s the key, is ensuring a detachment of those worlds, so that even kids can understand, the way German middle school students now study in a radically different environment than Nazi Germany, so they can understand that history, but not let it influence who they are. We have to create a radically different world, one where again, race doesn’t mean anything, so you have to forge your own qualities, nothing will be given, only earned.

Of course, heritage and cultural memory is something that’s passed down through generational lines, so we never will be completely disconnected from the past, no matter if the world we end up in has no use for racial definitions. That’s good. We can’t forget the past; lessons have been written in blood and we cannot repeat so much of what we’ve done to each other over the course of world history. But I know that human beings are smart enough to be able to one day academically understand that there were racial divides in the past, without necessarily living by them in the present, or the future, in our case.

It might sound impossible, but think about the social changes that’ve transpired in your lifetime alone. I remember as a kid, the word ‘gay,’ was the word. Man, that show was gay, you’re being gay. I remember also feeling the deliberate process of filtering that word out of my own usage, substituting whatever, bad or shitty, and now we simply don’t hear that word used like that anymore, by and large. We have the capacity to adapt, psychologically, culturally, not just genetically.

Diversity is important, but maybe we’ve been visualizing diversity in alignment with outmoded paradigms. The grids of classification, so often hardened into barriers, may not fall along the modes of white, black, and everything in between, but instead… every individual human being, because truly we are all individuals. That’s the only thing we all have in common, is that we’re all different.

That’s where I want to be. I mean, can you imagine how primitive we’ll look when race is abolished? When the utopic generation looks back at history, and they come upon us in the textbook? For all the progress we have made, it’ll be more convenient to loop us in with the slave-owners. We continue to live that legacy, doing our best inside established structures of power, not challenging them directly.

So much of the collective psyche of western civilization is informed by a history of monotheistic religion, and that’s another narrative, a powerful one. We learn at a young age that everyone is equal under God. By structuring our minds, I think this somewhat simplifies the issue, and although the message coming from Abrahamic faiths is the same as the one we need, the getting there is divergent, and that’s the problem. We can’t let the stigma of American pseudoscience that attempted to justify slavery keep us from uncomfortable biological facts. Scientists found, however and whenever they did, that we are one species, drawing the line at homo sapiens, but that line is not well serviced by a corresponding visual – it’s much more complex. We are one species but we are also different. For example, I’ve heard that Asian people have higher metabolism than other kinds of people. It makes sense that the environment would affect our insides just the same it does our appearance, because that is the root of our appearance. People across the world have a range of biological difference, it’s nature – adaptability. There are groups of us.

You could almost say that we are different species. But adherence to these religions keeps us away from that idea, and that’s good. But it also erases the consideration entirely, and the positive to come from that transient idea, from the reconciliation of our divisions, is the measurement of those divisions. And what we find, when we think about Asians having higher metabolism, or that Inuits have higher cold tolerance, is that human beings are expansive. You could’ve been so many different things, you could’ve had lighter skin or differently textured hair, or anything. But when you born, and when you grew up, you became what you are now. A selection of options based on an almost infinite set of possibilities.

It sounds trite, but we have to embrace those differences, and I mean in a rational, scientific way. We have to say that black skin and white skin is skin, and the variability of skin is human. Not that black and white skin signify anything else on biological terms. I guess, ironically, coming close to saying that we are different species just reaffirms that we are one species, and that a singular group, human beings, can contain so much.

When you expand that scope, of what’s human, of what’s fundamentally like you, that’s an exercise of inclusion for your mind. So that you can break apart from that before mentioned collective psyche. Believe me, I know it pays to conform, but the creation of this utopia, conveniently or inconveniently, it begins at the individual. And that means considering yourself to be a walking talking crime scene, and the crime was your socialization. The perpetrators were your television shows and education, and even your parents, who were brought up under the same system. So, what I’m asking of you, is to walk yourself back through time, figure out how you got to where you are psychologically, in all regards, but especially where racism is concerned. Why do you look at an Asian person and see someone different? Is it because of religion? Is it because of society? Sure, it’s not your fault. But it will be if you let it persist, because you have the power to change it.

So at this point, we might ask, was racism inevitable? Because when you think about it, it seems so. Historically? These limited environments that bred limited appearances then facilitated the creation of limited cultures. The problem was that these cultures intersected before the people inhabiting them were ready.

But maybe that contact, which spins into immediate conflict, is the only way we can break down barriers, again, because the cross-race effect will always tell our brains that someone who looks different is different. Which is true. But what do those differences really mean? So, to break down barriers, first you must have them. Probably pathetic, but that’s nature. This is the theory anyway, with globalization, and the anti-telepathists, who don’t believe that you can truly know somebody else’s experiences without having lived them. Maybe that’s true, but that would mean there’s a level of unity we could never reach. But maybe it also means we don’t need that level of unity for our utopia.

Maybe to know someone else you need only speak with them. What can we do, right now? Communication. But first, and I’ll stress this for the last time, turn inward, and make sure you’re ready for that conversation. To prepare, I think it’s very helpful to abide by a liberal principle, one that truthfully divides the two wings, and that is the following sentiment: that everyone’s experiences happened, and they happened to somebody. What we need is a democratization of human canonicity. That when you have a moment in your life, that that moment happened, it was valid, and published to reality. Nobody can take it from you, it is incontrovertible.

This is the first door to empathy, I think. And that’s the foundation for utopia, for everything. Please, keep it in mind.

Research
Race — The Power of an Illusion
Peak TV
How the Irish became White

 

 

 

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