We can’t fix the problem with the wrong diagnosis
By now, you’re probably aware that race is a social construct, and racism is the by product. The “American plantation system,” using faux scientific claims about European superiority, took root during the Age of Enlightenment. How ironic that a time was known for scientific advancement also led to baseless discrimination.
Some scientists believed that Black skin came from “the power of maternal imagination or from darkened sperm,” while others claimed, “darkened humors stained the skin.” Ultimately, White people of the era believed they were the standard for human excellence and that any deviation from that was pathological. There’s a bit of a chicken and the egg complex going on here; which came first, the creation of race or racism?
A study showed that 3-month-year-old babies prefer faces of their own racial group, showing that people naturally recognize differences, even before naming these distinctions. Race does not have any biological markers; it describes physical differences. And it’s unfortunate that the “there’s only one race, the human family” group seems to miss the forest for the trees — the boogeyman is not race, it’s racism. White people seeing Black people, recognizing their darker complexions is not in itself malicious. It’s what comes after that’s problematic.
White people thinking they are superior has led to systems like slavery, Jim Crow, and the systemic racism America can’t seem to shake in the 21st century. “Race” is like Gizmo at the beginning of the movie Gremlins. He won’t turn into a dangerous monster as long as you don’t feed him after midnight. In the same way, it’s not the existence of various racial groups that are causing the problem; it’s the hatred and animosity keeping us up at night.
After George Floyd’s death, social media communities fixated on the problem of anti-Black racism, and some looked to Jane Elliot, a White woman well-known as an anti-racism scholar. Elliot believes “people who are racist aren’t stupid, they’re ignorant. And the answer to ignorance is education.”
However, there seems to be something missing in her description. Was it ignorance that led them to hang Black people in trees in the Mississippi Delta, burn homes to the ground in Tulsa, Oklahoma, or prevent Black people from accessing the ballot box? Absolutely not — it was hatred and racial prejudice.
While it’s true and even fair to say we should encourage White people to educate themselves about race, racism, bias, discrimination, bigotry, and privilege, it’s wishful thinking to insist all White people want to learn. For the record, I don’t think racists are stupid either, but I don’t buy the assumption that they’re all a bunch of ignorant people — there are cruel intentions there too, and denying that certainly doesn’t help unpack this.
Jane Elliot has spent her life fighting against racism, gaining notoriety for her Blue eyes/Brown eyes exercise, where a class was split in two, randomly assigned to a group. The blue-eyed group was considered more intelligent and received privileges like going to lunch early or gaining longer access to water fountains. But unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for discrimination to set in and rear its ugly head during this experiment.
This exercise aims to make students aware of the way a socially constructed separation of groups can create a system where one group is disadvantaged due to no fault of their own. This exercise would be very controversial in today’s classrooms, where discussions about “race” are becoming contentious. However, educators could replicate the same experiment by assigning students to random groups like green and purple. Even without race mentioned, students would learn about the dynamics of prejudice and privilege.
And while Elliot’s exercise was an excellent contribution to anti-racism efforts, I believe, as a White woman, she has the incorrect view when she insists we are “one race.” Of course, people are homo sapiens, which means we’re the same species. But, to say we are one race, the human race, implies something different, that we should extinguish racial distinctions, get rid of race, and somehow that would, in a round-a-bout way, dismantle racism. But, from that race-neutral perspective, we’re putting a target on the wrong enemy.
Destroying the concept of race with society wrestling with so many racial disparities would remove the terminology for discussing these disparities. For example, in 2020, Black people were four times as likely to die of COVID compared with White people. If we got rid of the word “race” and stopped distinguishing based on race, we could not identify this disparity, and without information, we would be powerless to respond. Progress on racial discrimination comes slowly, but imagine a world where we couldn’t even name the problem.
We can make the same argument about sexism as a social problem. How could we talk about the discrimination women experience in the workplace without identifying women as a group? We couldn’t. “Black women earn 63 cents for every dollar earned by white, non-Hispanic men.” If we couldn’t call Black women Black or women, then we couldn’t identify the disparity, which is why a neutral stance doesn’t work.
Destroying race instead or racism is like trying to get rid of rain clouds instead of using an umbrella, wearing rain boots, or a coat. While I applaud Elliot for her lifelong advocacy, I think her theory about race is missing something. White people don’t need anyone to teach them that we are all humans — they know that instinctively. While White people created the concept of “race,” destroying the concept won’t eliminate the residual effects of racism and bigotry.
So, beware of those trying to end race and not racism. It’s admirable that some folks want to live in a society without racial discrimination or even distinction. However, we can’t hope to eliminate race without first dismantling racism and white supremacy. And we can’t expect to find a treatment without proper diagnosis.
“We don't know anything about racism. We've never experienced it.”Jane Elliot