I recently came across this article that makes a couple of interesting points:
(1) many people who think they are white have mixed-race ancestry; and
(2) there’s a link between racial identity and geography (for example, there are more self-identified white people in the South with mixed-race ancestry than in other states, and Oklahoma has the highest percentage of self-identified black people with indigenous ancestry).
This study is the latest in a series of studies showing that race does not exist genetically or biologically. Yes, there are variations in terms of skin color, facial features, etc., but the bottom line is that race does not really exist in the way that many of us think it does.
What does this mean and what are the implications of saying that race doesn’t exist? As a white person, I am not in a position to tell everyone what to think about race. But for white people, at least, it means getting clear on whiteness.
What most of us think of think of as “whiteness” began as a label that Europeans gave to some of the early colonizers and immigrants to the U.S. In the early 17th century, European colonizers and their sympathizers began using it to justify the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the genocide of indigenous Americans. This is what some people mean when they say that “race” is a social construct. “Whiteness” was invented to justify, and does not exist outside the context of, slavery and genocide.
Also, the definition of who counts as “white” has changed over time. Irish immigrants to the U.S. were not considered to be white when they started to arrive in the 19th century, but the descendants of Irish immigrants are thoroughly considered to be white today. This selection of photos shows how Irish immigrants were depicted in the 19th century in horrifically racialized ways. Italians were also not generally regarded as white during the 19th century, but are today. Whether or not Judaism constitutes a race or ethnicity is a matter of some controversy, but most Americans now consider Jewish Americans to be white (of course, that would not be true of an Ethiopian Jewish immigrant, because that person would automatically be categorized as black). Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants, and Jewish immigrants eventually became white.
In a sense, then, “whiteness” is actually meaningless, because it has no basis in biological reality, and arbitrary, because today it includes groups of people that were not included just over 100 years ago.
But we can see that “whiteness” is, in fact, neither meaningless nor arbitrary. No one seriously doubts that structural racial inequalities exist. If you are considered white in the U.S., you are statistically more likely to have a job, avoid jail, receive a quality education, and have access to health care than black people. Regardless of what causes these inequalities (hint: it is not because black people are inferior), we cannot deny that white people as a class are statistically better off than black people. I am principally concerned with inequality between black and white people here, but racism against other groups, such as Asian Americans, exists as well. Of course, many white people are subjected to many other forms of oppression, such as sexism, homophobia, and ageism. And of course, many white people struggle economically. But we can’t deny that being white in America has its benefits. Race plays out every day in the U.S., in meaningful and deliberate ways.
This is unfairness at its core, and it’s part of what some people mean when they talk about systemic racism.
But if race doesn’t really exist in a genetic or biological sense, shouldn’t we stop referring to people as “white,” “black,” etc.? Well, white people appear to be in a bind when it comes to that question. On the one hand, if race has no meaning, it is tempting to stop using words like “white” and “black” to describe ourselves. But on the other hand, we have to acknowledge that race does have meaning societally, and its societal meaning is rooted in unfairness – unfairness that benefits white people. White people have a moral obligation to own up to the benefits that come with being white, while simultaneously fighting to eliminate racial inequalities.
While we’re at it, let’s stop calling ourselves “Caucasian.” As this author states, “Caucasian, literally, refers to people native to the Caucasus, but it has become interchangeable with any number of ‘White’ populations, most of whom trace their ancestry to Europe…. But the roots of such terminology are a bit disturbing; it was postulated that the natives of the Caucasus exhibited the idealized physical appearance so the Caucasus were believed to be the birthplace of mankind. The logic behind this idea — the assumption that Whites exhibit the best physical appearance — is implicitly racist.” It’s also worth noting that the notion of the Caucuses being the “birthplace of mankind” is another white invention with no basis in science, and its purpose was to elevate white people and subjugate black people.
In addition, I have read the writings of many black people who say that it is important for them to be “unapologetically black.” I think I understand what they are saying. As one woman explains:
“Her epiphany came when she attended the funeral of John Johnson, who started Ebony and Jet magazines. One of the eulogists got up and said, ‘He was unapologetically black.’ It stopped Hobson in her tracks. ‘It hit me so hard,’ she said. She realized that she had ‘been apologizing for who I am, about being a woman, and about being black—and it stops today.’”
This is Mellody Hobson, the President of a major investment company and George Lucas’s wife. I cannot prove it, but I am willing to speculate that she is one of the most successful black women in America. And yet, even she felt that she had to apologize for herself because of race. Holding oneself up as “unapologetically black” is critically important for many black people, and white people have no business arguing that they shouldn’t use this terminology.
Most of us would like to see a world in which structural racial inequalities are eliminated. Where racism – individual and systemic – does not exist. In that world, we might be able to stop using words like “black” and “white” to describe ourselves. Sadly, we are not there yet.
So, does race exist? I think both yes and no. It does not exist genetically. It does not exist biologically. It is not a meaningful way to categorize people, in any scientific sense. But it does exist as a social construction. It exists because it was invented to justify torture, rape, enslavement, and murder – it was arguably one of the cruelest inventions in human history, whose effects continue to be felt today. Because it was invented, it, along with the benefits that come with being white, must continue to be named.