Race; The Pernicious, Unscientific, Social Construct

Yesterday Piers Morgan, journalist infant terrible, released an article which suggested that one of the ways that the word nigger (he said n word, I don’t have that filter) can be eradicated is for black people to use the word less. Hmmm.

Today I retweeted the following

For clarity I think the article was flawed.
You cannot eradicate the word by advising blacks to eliminate it because the meaning applied by many blacks (mainly in America) is very different from the heinous racist overtones of the word outside of the community. With the best intention in the world It reminds me of the respectability politics promoted from the likes of Booker T Washington in his Atlanta Compromise speech, to the likes of Bill Cosby, Don Lemon, et al who will suggest that a change in speech or fashion will inevitably change the outcomes for many black Americans. That is not a solution

That said my tweet I sent out (and subsequently retweeted by Piers) was a clarion call for more white people to speak out or seek a dialogue about race without the fear of being shouted down. Or irrelevant. A cursory scroll through my timeline demonstrates why many won’t do it. Looking at some of the rather choice rebuttals I can understand why, but heck I like a challenge.

We Need to Have A Talk
One of the most vocal opponents to my tweet consistently claimed that all white people were racist and that unless a white person did something to bring down white supremacy then quo vadis. For me I find that kind of thinking quite myopic. If we continue to make assumptions about racial groups we are going backwards as as a species. In response to that person I think of the many white people who actually lost their lives, or livelihood standing up for the rights of black people, be it in the Abolition, Civil Rights Movement or more recently the Anti Apartheid Movement. I think of white people in my friendship circle and in my family and cannot reconcile that thinking to my experience.

What scares me most that every time a dialogue is raised about race, a socio-economic man made construct,
is how polarising it is. Here in the UK we have seen the advance of political movements like Britain First, UKIP and previously the likes of the BNP and EDL because of fear. Fear of immigrants. Fear that the immigrants take jobs and groom girls from the indigenous population. Whilst there is no denying that some of these stereotypes can be founded in pockets they do not represent the whole. Yet such political groups have skilfully, with the help of media, manipulated such stereotypes to frighten people. The conversation about race gets shut down.

The beauty of something like social media is that many of these conversations can go into the open arena, and although in the main most commentators tried to tear Piers a new one, I am actually happy to see more white people, especially as the dominant culture in England/US talk about this without fear of retribution. Granted that Piers has a privileged platform that few can replicate it is this boldness to tackle one of the taboo subjects in modern culture that I welcome.

His thinking was misplaced because he couldn’t see the whole picture and context of the word, as the late Christopher Hitchens so eloquently wrote, but I would love for people to talk more about this. To be more open about race as a whole, and not just the sidebar of language and how it affects all of us. From where we live, to where we school, to assumptions about others.

The Syntax of Race
I have attended a fair few hip hop concerts in my past. They have always been primarily attended by white patrons. Patrons who know every hook, every bar and lyric in the songs. Last year attending Kendrick Lamar with my daughter I remember the unease I felt when near the moshpit the attendees threw hands up and gleefully repeated the hook
“Man down Where you from, nigga?”
“Fuck who you know, where you from my nigga?”
“Where your grandma stay, huh, my nigga?”
This m.A.A.d city I run, my nigga.”
For her generation this is nothing. It’s just a song. For many of the white patrons (the largest purchasers of US hip hop) it’s just a song. But once they have left the arena it made me think, would they sing that on the tube on the way home? Would they do it a karaoke event? In front of a group of black people who weren’t friends and if not why not?

Whilst I have written before about my disagreement with the use of the word, whether public or private, or any kind of reclaiming of the word, I have softened in my approach to accept that others will and have used it amongst their groups. (Or on Vine) It is for others contextual. The meanings have changed. Although I still won’t respond to it being used in my presence.

But the syntax of race is much more than one throw away word discussed on Twitter. The whole notion that race, especially in Western cultures is reduced to black vs white is scary. Why? Because we revert to type and end up playing into the stereotypes and tropes of this syntax.

What exactly is white? How does someone who is poor and white and working class actually have any power associated or assumed with white privilege? What does it mean to be black? Australoids and Negroids only have skin tone in colour, but would they both really be classed as black? What about Asians? Middle Easterners? What the hell does mixed race mean anyway? And why oh why do our legal, political, economic and even religious subcultures play into this? Why do we have to fill in forms where we are defined by race?
Even if we move past the dichotomy of black and white in the West, what of the rampant racism prevalent in places like India, China, Jordan, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Israel? This more than just one country.
And then there is the xenophobia and ethnic rivalries of places like Sudan, Rwanda and various islands across the Caribbean

Racial or ethnic prejudice is a long held social construct in many nations across the Globe. It has been used to suppress various groups to be economically weaker. Whether through the mediums of slavery, colonialism or imperialism. In each of these spaces it has been imposed politically and through the military and legal channels by those in power. It has been supported by false science, media and cultural imprints as a way of making people feel they are less than. Very few nations on earth have been able to escape this, and it is a lot more than being just a black and white issue.

Moving Forward
Given the historic nature of race and racism it would take some kind of mind shifting, evolutionary tsunami in the human psyche to shift this behaviour and the institutional structures that have been put in place to support it, but I do believe that we can create spaces where possible to actually move the conversation forward.

It is important to educate our children that a skin colour should not determine your lot in life. That is not to say that they should be ignorant that prejudices to exist on a conscious or subconscious basis.
It is important ensure that groups, who aren’t the dominant colour or culture, thinking they have to work twice as hard to overcome the “legacy of melanin” in order to do something.
It is important to speak respectfully on platforms (whether online or offline) about our thoughts and assumptions and not be afraid to have them challenged.

It is pushing them under the surface to erupt into some race volcano that worries me most.

Maybe I am an idealist but as a secular humanist I see connections. I see possibilities for people to recognise colour and shades but not to have assumptions limited by those colours and reinforced by their own cognitive biases. I think racial segmentation has been as pernicious as religious grouping to separate and segment us as a species, but I am hopeful that we can continue to have dialogue to eradicate that. To create a space where we can all challenge assumptions regardless of colour to empower each other.

Optimistic? Yes. Doable? Of course. If we want it badly enough.
So lets continue to talk. And be straight but polite about it.


One thought on “Race; The Pernicious, Unscientific, Social Construct

  1. For the record I don’t like being called white. I also know a few ‘black’ people who don’t like that term and attest they are brown. Polarising semantics.

    That thought aside, 20 years ago at my first ever job I made a friend. We were both temping for a business in the city. We hung out at lunchtime and during tea breaks. The business was old skool and had proper designated tea breaks with tea ladies (sexism we’ll hold for another time). My friend initiated this, but he used to greet me ‘yo whitey’ and I used to respond ‘yo nigga’. That was our, private, thing.

    One day I joined the tea queue, Del said ‘yo whitey!’ And I responded ‘yo nigga’. As I replied another guy, a black guy, joined the queue behind me. He only heard me. Stuff happened, the guy was understandably upset.

    I learnt never to use that word in public. Even when someone who I thought had ‘the right’ to use it had given me permission.

    I’m all for reclaiming words. But some words have too much history. And require society to reconcilliate first.

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