Monday, August 13, 2007

Blogging the Last Word

In the wake of the digital tempest at Bloghret, of which I became aware late, I would like to round out the argu ... um ... discussion with a few clarifications, personal insights and a general theory about what has made issues of race and ethnicity so problematic even among otherwise reasonable bloggers. Let's start with a little debunking.

First and foremost, there's no such thing as "race."

Since the 1970s scientists no longer accept race as an appropriate or useful way to describe human groupings. Indeed, in 1996 the American Association of Physical Anthropologists issued a Statement on Biological Aspects of Race that, among other things, stated the following:
Pure races, in the sense of genetically homogeneous populations, do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they have ever existed in the past.
Let's be specific. The members of the group most tragically identified as a "race" in the Western world, the Jewish people, are not a race as formulated in the 19th and 20th centuries. Jews do not even share the same genetic material. Tay-Sachs disease, a devastating neurological disorder of genetic origin, has a relatively frequent incidence among Ashkhenazic Jews, who are of Eastern European origin, while it is not known to occur at all among Mediterranean, otherwise known as Sephardic, Jews.

Moreover, the biblical stories are not to be taken as literally factual. Modern archaeological scholarship rejects the notion that the Chosen People were a single group that invaded Palestine; instead, scholars suggest that the biblical Jews were really a confederation of Abrahamic heirs and the native peoples of Canaan. Karen Armstrong's 2006 book The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions offers the most accessible summary.

Secondly, the 17th century division of people by skin color is absurd.

There are no whites. Most people of European background from the colder, sun-deprived climates are a whitish pink (or pink and red if freckled); Europeans from the sunny Mediterranean and Black seas tend toward an olive hue. There are certainly no truly yellow or red people. There are no blacks. The majority of people of African descent are darker than Europeans, but these are varieties of brown.

Note to skin color die-hards: the lighter skin of Europeans and East Asians was scientifically proven in 2006 to be mutations.

Much as I know these things intellectually, as an American I did not grow up immune from the social constructs of race, color and ethnicity, which lead to prejudices. Even those that are positive ("Asians are inscrutable geniuses") are burdensome.

We Americans have a long and twisted history with race, color and ethnicity that we are sometimes a little overeager to forget. Much as I try hard to forget those aspects that most rile me, I have been recurrently reminded that the ugly chapters are not entirely over.

If you saw me on the subway, you would not be able to tell from what part of continental Europe my ancestors came. However, my name is unmistakably Spanish (except to the stupid police officer who decades ago asked me if I was Italian).

Because I am Hispanic, for years even colleagues I supervised challenged my most elementary editorial corrections of their English. One memorable fellow worker insisted that the word he pronounced in his Baltimore accent as "canidate" was not actually spelled "candidate." He insisted the spelling was a Spanish-ism of mine until I brought out the Webster's Dictionary.

This pales by comparison to, say, 400 years of slavery or 12 years of near-extermination, but it remains annoying. Moreover, others who have brushed with polite versions of prejudice, such as I have encountered, have undoubtedly lost job opportunities that I was lucky to get.

In my opinion, we can't pretend that race and color, unscientific as they are, simply do not exist as concepts and motivators of ugliness. Nor can the problems be laid solely at the foot of capitalism: racial and color prejudices existed in many pre-capitalist societies, in the West and elsewhere.

Nonetheless, I would like to propose that ethnicity (from the Greek "ethnos," meaning nation or people), a still accepted if loosely used anthropological notion, is economic in origin. We humans have long chosen, largely for survival purposes, to identify with people with whom we felt a kinship of blood, historical experience or religion, and to compare our group favorably with any other. Us vs. Them.

Yet tribalism is, we must hope, dying in an interdependent globalized world. Most of us who blog no longer depend on tribal kinfolk to bring us food, protect us or imbue our lives with meaning. We communicate across oceans instantly and with equal ease across social distinctions.

Although I am of the male persuasion and done with parenting, I feel a comfortable kinship with the members of Blogrhet, most of whom are mothers in their 30s. Anyone who has read Kate Chopin surely realizes how incredible this would have been a mere century or so ago.

Grasping for the last word, through all the chagrin and troubling emotion that race and color prejudices have been and may yet be capable of arousing, I see a future that inspires hope.

(This post is related to Julie Pippert's Hump Day Hmm and BlogRhet's "Let's Talk About Race, Baby" week long initiative.)
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