What even is race?
Just before this #10day30k journey I was doing some ancestral research aiming to better understand my Chicana roots, when I came across countless census documents from the 18th century of people in the Southwestern United States where all the people listed were White. Nothing else. Having seen pictures of people living in what was indigenous territory, then New España, then Mexico, then the United States, I was surprised by the designation. A quick Google search revealed that since the formation of the United States, the racial classifications of people had been reshaped multiple times, even to the point of revoking “generic white status for Mexican Americans due to protests among certain parts of the population over a diluted definition of “whiteness.” It was at this point that one idea became crystal clear: race is a social construct.
I didn’t have any other evidence to support my idea, but I did start thinking about it from a scientific perspective. Was there actually a biological basis for race? Not to my knowledge. So when I came to read Chapter 3 of “How to be an Antiracist” and found all of the work done by Kendi to lay out the precise definition of race and its ideological origins in human society, I felt a small sense of victory. As Kendi so eloquently writes, “Race is a power construct of collected or merged difference that lives socially.” Race is a concept that was first developed by European slave traders to justify their actions. They used the power construct of race, and thus racial hierarchy, to justify traveling to a different continent, violently removing humans, and bringing those humans into a world of forced labor.
To make matters worse, European scientists further crafted theories about their constructed races. As highlighted by Kendi, Carl Linnaeus, the proclaimed father of modern taxonomy, created four races, assigning particularly egregious descriptions for all save the Homo sapiens europaeus. The scientific community (dominated by White men) perpetuated these racist ideas, packaged as true science, until the fall of the Nazi empire. As Kendi remarks, it took more than 400 years for scientists to abandon these false claims–claims that the general population would continue believing for the decades to come. In all of my science training, I have never once formally learned about the role that early scientists played in establishing racism.
One might think that after establishing race as a power construct and mirage, Kendi would argue for us all to become color blind, but nothing is further from the truth, and I agree with what Kendi actually writes. Kendi isn’t arguing for us to all become color blind, and if anything he illustrates the harm in being color blind: those who actively ignore race also ignore its origins and how it has been used as a tool to drive classism (i.e., one group possessing more significantly more wealth than all others).
“Singular-race makers push for the end of categorizing and identifying by race. They wag their fingers at people like me identifying as Black–but the unfortunate truth is that their well-meaning post-racial strategy makes no sense in our racist world. Race is a mirage but one that humanity has organized itself around in very real ways. Imagining away the existence of races in a racist world is as conserving and harmful as imagining away classes in a capitalistic world–it allows the ruling races and classes to keep on ruling.”
There is no scientific or biologically meaningful basis for race, despite what we have been led to believe. As a neuroscientist I know that being racially color blind is not actually possible. So how do we move forward knowing that race is simultaneously a meaningless construct and the precise origin for the world as it is shaped today? To progress as a society, I believe in Kendi’s vision of taking the antiracist approach:
“To be antiracist is to recognize the reality of biological equality, that skin color is as meaningless to our underlying humanity as the clothes we wear over that skin…To be antiracist is to focus on ending the racism that shapes the mirages, not to ignore the mirages that shape peoples’ lives.”
Day 3 is in the books. Another 5814 vertical feet down. 18806 to go.