Race: Social Construct or Harsh Reality?

“There is only one race – the human race”

T

hese words have been used and reused by different people at different times throughout modern history. Notwithstanding, however, we still live in a world that is largely divided along racial lines that fade from black to white. The question of race is often met with varying and somewhat contrasting answers, with many believing that race is nothing but a fabricated concept, designed to keep the many controlled by the few, and others believing that race is indeed a biological reality – nature’s own way of dividing us into separate, distinct categories.

Race in history

The human species is not homogenous. As such, we humans all have our characteristic differences. At different points in history, different groups of people have always been able to identify the differences between themselves and their neighbours. Prior to European hegemony, however, these differences weren’t necessarily considered to be in causal connection with the social conditions and physical capabilities of the said people. As such, race as we now know it, could be said to have originated at some point during the age of exploration – when Europeans began to discover the parts of the world that were previously unknown to them.

The more Europeans came in contact with indigenes of different parts of the world, the more they realised that just as they hailed from different native lands, they also had different physical, social, and cultural traits. What followed was an era that would see Europe colonise most of the rest of the world and while the earth quaked under the might of Europe, series of scientific and pseudo-scientific attempts were made on the part of the latter, to classify the human species into the categories that we now call racial groups or races for short. These racial groups were, in many cases, categorised in order of hierarchy. Needless to say, the race to which the Europeans belonged was often said to be innately superior to the races to which the colonised peoples belonged.

[…] race as we now know it, could be said to have originated at some point during the age of exploration – when Europeans began to discover the parts of the world that were previously unknown to them.

The fallacies of race

From a purely logical standpoint, the classification of human beings by race poses a twofold problem, amongst others. Firstly, the use of colours to taxonomise people can be misleading as it does not provide an accurate representation of the people in question. The skin tone of so-called white people has no remote semblance to the actual colour white, and the skin tone of so-called black people is not in any way reminiscent of the actual colour black. If the theory of race rested solely on the use of colour to describe the outward appearance of people, there would be no race but one. For if we are true to ourselves, I think we would all agree that we are but different shades of brown.

The second problem with the classification of human beings by race is the fact that racial taxonomies give little to no consideration to people born as a result of miscegenation. Different terms like half-cast, mulatto, bi-racial, and mixed-race have been used in different, sometimes derogatory contexts to categorise the said people. The problem with these words, however, is the fact that they don’t say what races were mixed in order to give birth to the so-called mixed-race individual. In a world where most media portrayals of “interracial relationships” feature white and black people, we often forget that a relationship between a brown and yellow person is, by definition, an interracial relationship too. As such, by definition, the child of a black and white parent, and the child of a brown and yellow parent, belong to the same racial group – bi-racial or mixed-race. This thoughtless idea of lumping together various people of multiple racial descents, without giving thought to their actual ancestral make-up, has become our undoing and has allowed nature to have the last laugh with the joke being on us. For in trying to create a race of people with similar ancestry, genetics, and phenotypes, we have done quite the opposite, and created a race of phenotypically and genetically diverse people, calling to question, the very idea of race itself.

The skin tone of so-called white people has no remote semblance to the actual colour white, and the skin tone of so-called black people is not in any way reminiscent of the actual colour black.

The realities of race

In spite of the apparent fallacies of race, we must never forget that, at different points in history, millions of people have been the victims of systemic racism – none more so than the blacks of Africa. Chattel slavery, segregation, genocide, colonialism, and apartheid are some of the well known episodes of history that delineate the multi-century black struggle. Contrary to popular belief, however, the inhumane subjugation of Africans from slavery through colonialism wasn’t always lauded by European masses. Many, even some that were ideologically unopposed to slavery, opposed the idea of treating fellow humans in juxtaposition to wild animals. To alleviate this apparent discontent, the European capitalists and slave traders had to portray the Africans as subhuman – primitive, uncultured, and uncivilised – a relic of an age lost to evolution. As a result of this propaganda, the African was somewhat dehumanised in the eyes of the average European, allowing the exploitation to proceed undeterred. Over time, the myth of white superiority and black inferiority has grown in global popularity, and the ramifications of this stereotype are still being felt by Africans and people of African descent in the present day.

Another case in history, where people were persecuted on the grounds of their racial background, is that of the Jews in Nazi Germany, who were the victims of one of the largest genocides in recorded history.  The holocaust, as it is often called, was unmistakably racially motivated, for the Jews were often portrayed as subhuman and implicitly, inferior to the Aryans – a problem that required a final solution. Over a period of about 12 years, approximately 6 millions of jews were killed, and although many methods were used in the process, more than half of the deaths took place in concentration camps – a concept that imperial Germans borrowed from their British counterparts, tested to perfection on the Hereros and Namas of German South West Africa (modern day Namibia), and redeployed on the Jews.

Over time, the myth of white superiority and black inferiority has grown in global popularity, and the ramifications of this stereotype are still being felt by Africans and people of African descent in the present day.

It is important to note that, in both cases, as in many others, the systemic oppression was carefully engineered by constructing a negative image, projecting that image to the public, and watching the propagandistic image develop into a deep rooted stereotype. As such, from one point of view, one could argue that race, and more importantly, racial stereotypes are socially constructed and engineered. On the flip side, however, there have been millions of people, whose ancestors lived through genocides, witnessed the horrors of segregation, featured in human zoos, and served as chattel slaves, all because they were perceived to have belonged to a particular racial group. There are still so many people today whose lives are marred with stories of racial profiling and systemic oppression. To make matters worse, we live in a world, where racism is still rife, and has evolved from overt to covert. Where people are systematically and disproportionately incarcerated, denied social mobility opportunities, and even murdered as a result of racial profiling. So can it not be argued that from another point of view, race is as much of a reality as is the very existence of life itself?

So then, what is race?

What is race? For some it is a fallible phenomenon with no solid foundation, but for others, it is very much a reality that has formed a considerable part of their consciousness, shared history, and lived experiences. While many can afford to say that race is nothing but a social construct, that is a luxury that many others cannot afford. So then, shall we take heed of the opinion of one group at the expense of another? Shall we keep silencing the voices of the racially oppressed amongst us by choosing to ignore the effects that race has had on their lives? If we stop talking about race as a reality in our society, will that automatically make racism go away? In an ideal world, race shouldn’t matter, but unfortunately, in this world, it does matter, for ours is a world that is far from ideal. As such, in my opinion, the complexities of race – the extent to which race is socially constructed, as well as the extent to which the realities of race affect the day to day experiences of our fellow humans must be taken into consideration, for then and only then, shall we be able to fully understand and fight systemic racism. No problem has ever been solved by pretending it doesn’t exist. If it must be solved, it must first be faced. So again, I ask, what is race? Is it a social construct or a harsh reality? I would dare say that exclusively, it is neither one nor the other but a little bit of both. What say you?

No problem has ever been solved by pretending it doesn’t exist. If it must be solved, it must first be faced.