[OPINION] What is racism?
In a senior high school philosophy class on intersectionality, students were determining their “race”.
One student asked me about what her race ought to be. I asked, "Which ethnicity or culture or tradition do you identify more with?"
She answered, “Chinese.”
“Oh well then,” I replied. “Your race is yellow.”
Her eyes widened in disbelief. She was clearly taken aback by my response. She had not equated colors to and with race. Because I had said it aloud, it sounded very ridiculous. Truth is indeed ridiculous, but it does it not make it any less true.
“Yellow” is a color; what does it have to do with race? (READ: [Dash of SAS] Brown is the color of my skin and passport)
For many people, race is often understood as having some biological basis such as having a certain shape of the nose or having certain DNA type, and they classify humans accordingly. The biological basis also includes the color of the skin.
Notice that in an ordinary use of the word, race often refers to people being white, black, brown, red or yellow. Interestingly, for many people, white is understood as a non-color, so all other “non-whites” are “colored”. (READ: Learning to embrace my dark skin in a society where white is beautiful)
Because the color of one’s skin is also taken as a biological given, hence, an objective “fact” about people, many do not question the conflation of the color of the skin with race.
Let us assume, for the sake of moving forward, that more or less, the color of the skin is a fundamental property in people; that it has in fact, a biological basis.
However, does it qualify as an identity marker with which to classify people, according to race, which is a construct that is based on the color of the skin?
One does not have to be a social constructivist to realize that those people who argue that “biological basis” ought to be the non-negotiable element with which to classify people – according to gender, race and class – are often those who have something to protect: power, social and economic leverage; access to intellectual properties, and so on and so forth.
Racism operates from a rhetorical sleight of hand. Classifying people according to their racial profiles, which are supposedly based on the color of their skin, suggests that this objective fact points to either the superiority or inferiority of certain groups of people.
The unjust language of kinds and types
Essentialism, at the core, revolves around a fundamental belief: There is something irreducible in every being that makes it as is, regardless of the passage of time.
Scholars for centuries had debated on what this “essence” is or the irreducible or the eternal that makes one as is. Interestingly, when it comes to human beings, there is no consensus on what makes us fundamentally and irreducibly human. If there was, slavery would not have happened and racism would have not occurred.
Is there such a thing as a human nature? Curiously, the “thing” connotes that there is an essence that one can identify in order to classify a thing as of this kind (and not of the other kind) and does so with precision.
Peter Singer, a utilitarian, pointed this out, and he got bashed and ridiculed for being anti-human. Singer pointed out the utter randomness of the supposed essential human nature, regardless of differences in skin color and other biological givens in humans. The fact of the matter is, humans discriminate against other fellow human beings, most of them in horribly cruel ways (such as slavery).
Let us for a moment imagine that one fundamental property of being human is material. By material, I mean, that which is the opposite of non-material such as intelligence or consciousness.
I can think of one example: the color of the skin. (READ: Culture shock: Does it matter if you’re brown or white?)
Already, even without an introduction to Epistemology, or Metaphysics, you can dismiss the utter ridiculousness of such a proposition. Theoretically, yes, black is black, and white is white. Commonsensically, maybe, and maybe not.
The persistence of the idea that there is such a thing as race, and that it is objectively rooted in something that is observable and measurable, and that race is a useful device to classify humans into certain kinds or types is unjust.
Racial stereotypes are cruel and discriminatory primarily because of what they are communicating: that the inferiority of a certain group or class of people is not only because of the inferiority of their skin color (like black vis-a-vis white), but that they are inferior all the way down to the very fundamental nature of their membership in a certain kind or type of human being. (READ: #StopColorism: Panawagan ng isang babaeng kayumanggi)
Race is a constitutive social construction because highly complex social structures, including habits and practices, are built firmly on the usefulness of race as a tool to keep those in power firmly in their positions in society. (READ: Racism in the Philippines: Does it matter?)
Is race real? In so far as it is a social construction, it is not. However, racism is real because its effects are demonstratively real. – Rappler.com
Jeane C. Peracullo is a full professor of the Philosophy Department at De La Salle University.