Race is an illusion. It is fictive. It is a made up category. Scientists and anthropologists tried to prove the existence of discrete racial categorizations for decades but they continuously came up short, finally having to admit that, scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as race. And, simultaneously, the effects of race are hyper-real. They are detrimental, devastating and destructive. How ironic that a phony classificatory scheme could cause so much havoc and violence for centuries.
Race is an idea. It is an invention. Contrary to popular belief, race did not come before slavery. It was the other way around. Slavery is an evil institution, the use of human bodies for break-breaking labor without any pay and with abusive and violent treatment. How could anyone justify the morally unjustifiable? By creating race. Human greed propelled white European colonizers to need a free supply of labor for their agricultural aspirations. They stole African slaves from their continent and forced them into the nefarious institution of slavery. How could they justify treating human beings like chattel? What was an obvious difference between their white selves and their African captives? The color of skin. So, African people were labeled as intellectually, culturally and spiritually inferior. This became the justification for a system that treated people of African descent as disposable people, people called 3/5 of a human being who existed to work ceaselessly until their premature deaths. In addition, race came in to explain away the genocide against Indigenous North Americans and the stealing of their land in Westward expansionism. Native peoples, like Africans, were “uncivilized” and needed European whites to show them how to be cultured, thus taking away their land and killing them in the process was justifiable. Race was used to round up Japanese and Japanese American people during World War II and place them in concentration camps because we were told their race made them untrustworthy. Race was also used to steal land away from Mexicans through its “annexation” in the 1800s. It is used today in racial profiling by police against African American and Latinx people and in “flying while Arab” and many other cases of Middle Eastern profiling in the post-9/11 era.
Race is also socially constructed to the max! It is so important to point out that race is not a trans-cultural, trans-historical coherent essence. It has radically different meanings around the world and across different historical epochs. I believe we often think, especially in the U.S., that the way we think about and conceptualize race is the way that everyone around the world does. Nothing could be further from the truth. And our meanings around race have changed in the past 500+ years in the North American continent. Slavery and Jim Crow segregation are gone. However, that doesn’t mean racism is gone. Segregation persists and many believe the theatre of slavery has simply changed from the plantation to the prison industrial complex.
The project of race is inexorably linked to the project of racism and white supremacy. In a very real way, race is racism. However, I do not believe in the abolition of race in the way that I believe in the abolition of gender. Race has done great harm but it is also a powerful identity and it is linked to people’s cultures and their respective cultural traditions. There is a liberatory side to race that has performed a full-frontal assault on the use of race as a justification for oppression and inequality. Conversely, gender is not a culture; it is a cult. And as with any other cult, the goal is to get out of it, not perpetuate and strengthen it. This is a good case when we simply need to proclaim: race and gender are different entities with very different histories.
As a white person, I benefit from the current system of race. I receive white privilege in a myriad of areas. Thus, in order to oppose the system, I must be disloyal to whiteness. I must not only be an “ally” to people of color but an accomplice. The other side of the oppression I have described above is the people of color and their white allies/accomplices who have fought against white supremacy for centuries. It is by far an incomplete task but the stories of resistance in the face of tremendous odds are formidable. An indomitable spirit prevails in the racial justice struggle, and that continues right through to the present with Black lives Matter and numerous other movements. The war has not been won but countless battles have been. How far we progress in the years to come is wholly dependent on people coming together and fighting for what’s right. The work and opposition is tremendous but so is the will of the people to transform our society for the better.