24 February 2009

A Cartoonish History of Race

In one of my anthropology classes we referenced this cartoon. We had been looking at a cartoon that depicted two ape-like figures balancing on a scale. As to which one was more ape-like, we went undecided. Beneath one figure was something like, "Black," and on the other, "Irish." Through this cartoon we were able to observe the confusing and amorphous boundary between concepts we know as Race and Ethnicity.

It was fairly easy to see the blatant racism/ethnocentrism at the heart of this matter, for the scale was prefectly balanced. Then, our professor foreshadowed what was to come and said that she had hoped we would be past such things. The next slide was the cartoon depicted above. It has been at the center of much controversy and just today, Rupert Murdock publicly apologized for its appearance.

Our professor said something truly intriguing in conclusion. She said that she could not say anything about intentions. No judgements can be made there. She could however, say something about our reactions. Again, this is not a matter of judging but rather of taking social note. The artists intentions are pointless, what is of more depressing note is the great deal of anxiety that such precarious depictions generate within the United States.

I will say something more of this. The concept of race or nationality or ethnicity has been entwined with notions of belonging and difference. Such a concept would not be so threatening were it not for the nature of power. That is, when a group comes to control resources, suddenly the ability to belong (or condition of being excluded) becomes a matter of life and death.

As the 19th Century turned to the 20th, the importance of race became so critical that those in power went to one of the highest sources of legitimization: Science. Here we come across anthropology's dark side. Social Darwinism, eugenics and race science exploded on the scene. Anthropologists are greatly culpable for creating categories of race and "scientific" means with which to identify them. The result was the presumption that biological causes played into the definition of race.

More contemporary debate has complicated this view. The American Anthropological Association has adopted statements that demean, if not reject, the importance of biology in race. Along with this is the position that race is a social construction, indeed, an "experience". A more relativist claim (as anthropologists are won't to make) suggests that race is not so pure, that is at once derived from an inseparable conception of biology and social experience/expectations.

I propose something different. I think that race is a box in which we arbitrarily store perceptions of slight human variation. That said, the basis for race is indeed purely biological; the biological condition being classification as Homo sapiens. To be human subjects one to the slight variations of our bodily entities, as well as a capacity to interpret them. Such capacity is a result of our shared brain chemistry and preempts social experience.

Think of our biology (that is, our common human condition) as a series of dots. Not unlike this cartoon above, we are presented with an array of dots (this might have implications of recognizing a creator/designer, a view that I do not condone). The intention of the one who arranged these dots is, for all intensive purposes, absent and unknowable. It is the manner in which we arrange these dots into meaningful patterns of words and figures which is knowable. Surely, some parts of our recognition are beyond our control, but many aren't. Ultimately, this interpretation is subject to change, and changes more often that we recognize it. Race, in any sort of reality, is simply an arrangement of dots (one that does not vary considerably). Our interpretation of these dots is what we know popularly as race, and ironically, we perceive it to vary drastically.

Translate this to the cartoon above. We are presented with a series of lines the origins of which we cannot and should not begin to guess. It is not the fact that the artist may have portrayed Obama in a 19th century manner which is saddening. It is the brutal reality that we are still able to see in this series of dots something comprising a dead, bleeding chimp which represents our president. We need not accept this interpretation (of the ape being Obama) for us to play into the current discourse of racism, we simply need recognize the possibility.

As we grasp hold of a postmodern conception of race, we can begin to move beyond deeply embedded historical artifacts which characterize our social experience of race in the United States. It is by recognizing and embracing our subjective and agentative role in the interpretation of biological monoliths that we will move passed this anxiety. We should not be sponges simply absorbing social ideas, but rather something with a more guarded permeability. Not something closed, but something inherently critical and understanding.

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