The Elusive Variability of Race

The Elusive Variability of Race

Council for Responsible Genetics
Volume 21, Issue 3-4 (July-August 2009)
Pages 4-6

Patricia J. Williams, James L. Dohr Professor of Law
Columbia University

The question of race is, at its core, a questioning of humanity itself.  In various eras and locales, race has been marked by color of skin, texture of hair, dress, musical prowess, digital dexterity, rote memorization, mien, mannerisms, disease, athletic ability, capacity to write poetry, sense of rhythm, sobriety, childlike cheerfulness, animal anger, language, continent of origin, hypodescent, hyperdescent, religious affiliation, thrift, flamboyance, slyness, physical size, or presence of a moral conscience. These presumed markers may appear random in the aggregate, but they have nevertheless been deployed to rationalize the distribution of resources and rights to some groups and not others. Behind the concept of race, in other words, is a deeper interrogation of what distinguishes beasts from brothers;  of who is presumed entitled or dispossessed,  person or slave, autonomous or alien, compatriot or enemy.

In the contemporary United States, race is based chiefly on broad and variously calibrated metrics of African ancestry. To get a full sense of the ideological incoherence of race and racism, however, one must also include the longer history: the centuries-old Chinese condescension to native Taiwanese Islanders; the English derogation of the Irish for “pug noses”; the plight of the Dalit (i.e., untouchables) in India; or comprehensively eugenic regimes like Hitler’s.

Despite the enormous definitional diversity of what race even means, and despite the fact that the biological studies – from Charles Darwin’s observations to the Human Genome Project – have patiently, repetitively and definitively shown that all humans are a single species, there remain many determined to reinscribe a multitude of old racialist superstitions onto the biotechnologies of the future.  Despite the biological evidence – and a towering body of social science that is cumulative (observations over time), comprehensive (multiple levels of inquiry) and convergent (from a variety of sources, places, disciplines) – we are still asking the same centuries-old questions…

…So what is race if not biology?

Race is a hierarchical social construct that assigns human value and group power. Social constructions are human inventions, the products of mind and circumstance. This is not to say that they are imaginary. Racialized taxonomies have real consequences upon biological functions, including the expression of genes. They affect the material conditions of survival-relative respect and privilege, education, wealth or poverty, diet, medical and dental care, birth control, housing options and degree of stigma…

…If history has shown us anything, it’s that race is contradictory and unstable. Yet our linguistically embedded notions of race seem to be on the verge of transposing themselves yet again into a context where genetic percentages act as the ciphers for culture and status, as well as economic and political attributes. In another generation or two, the privileges of whiteness may be extended to those who are “half” this or that.  Indeed, some of the discussions about Barack Obama’s “biracialism” seemed to invite precisely such an interpretation. Let us not mistake it for anything like progress, however: biracialism always has a short shelf life. For example, by the time he was elected President, Barack Obama was no longer our first “half and half president” but had become all African-American all the time. Indeed, Obama himself seemed to acknowledge the more complex reality of his own lineage in an off-the-cuff aside, when, speaking about his daughters’ search for a puppy, he observed that most shelter dogs are “mutts like me.”

In fact, of course, we’re all mutts – and as Americans, we’ve been mixing it up faster and more thoroughly than anyplace on earth. At the same time, we live in a state of tremendous denial about the rambunctiousness of our recent lineage. The language by which we assign racial category narrows or expands our perception of who is more like whom, tells us who can be considered marriageable or untouchable. The habit of burying the relentlessly polyglot nature of our American identity renders us blind to how intimately we are tied as kin.

In the United States’ vexed history of color-consciousness, anti-miscegenation laws (the last of which were struck down only in 1967) enshrined the notion of hypodescent. Hypodescent is a cultural phenomenon whereby the child of parents who come from differing social classes will be assigned the status of the parent with the lower standing. Most parts of the Deep South adhered to it with great rigidity, in what is commonly called the “one drop and you’re black” rule. Take for example, New York Times editor Anatole Broyard, who denied any relation to his darker-skinned siblings and “passed” as white for most of his adult life. There were many who expressed shock when it was uncovered that he was “really” black. Some states, like Louisiana, practiced a more gradated form of hypodescent, indicating hierarchies of status with vocabulary like “mulatto,” “quadroon,” and “octaroon.” And even today, despite our diasporic, fragmented, postmodern cosmopolitanism, there is a thoughtless or unconscious tendency to preserve these taxonomies, no matter how incoherent. Consider Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the daughter Senator Strom Thurmond had by his family’s black maid. She lived her life as a “Negro,” then as an “African American,” and attended an “all-black” college. But in her 70s, when Thurmond’s paternity became publicized, she was suddenly redesignated “biracial.” Tiger Woods and Kimora Lee Simmons are alternatively thought of as African-American or “biracial,” but rarely as “Asian-American.”

In contrast, many parts of Latin America, like Brazil or Mexico, assign race by the opposite process, hyperdescent. That’s when those with any ancestry of the dominant social group, such as European, identify themselves as European or white, when they may also have African or Indian parents. As more Latinos have become citizens of the United States, we have interesting examples of this cultural cognitive dissonance: Just think about Beyoncé Knowles and Jennifer Lopez. Phenotypically they look very similar. Yet Knowles is generally referred to as black or African-American; Lopez is generally thought of as white (particularly among her Latino fan base) or Latina (among the rest of us), but she is never called black or even biracial…

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