Racism is real, race is not: a philosopher’s perspective



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There are no races – biological or social – only racialised groups.
from www.shutterstock.com

Adam Hochman, Macquarie University

We live in a richly diverse country, populated by Indigenous Australians, recent immigrants, and descendants of relatively recent immigrants. Some feel threatened by this diversity; some relish it.

Most of us, I think, are unsure quite how to talk about it.

We have many words to describe diversity. We ask people about their ancestry, their ethnicity, and – most awkwardly – their “background”. We seem least comfortable asking people about their “race”, and with good reason.


Read more: The markers of everyday racism in Australia


Racial classification has been used to justify some of the most heinous crimes of modernity, including those committed on our own shores. Asking people about their “race” can make you sound a bit, well, racist.

Yet “racial” classification is still commonplace. Many articles in The Conversation use the term “race” to describe human diversity. For example, one asks what’s behind racial differences in restaurant tipping?, while another tells us that infants learn to distinguish between races.

Racialised groups

What justifies the continued use of racial classification? Nothing, or so I argue in Replacing Race, an open-access article published recently in the philosophy journal Ergo.

I argue that there are no races, only racialised groups – groups that have been misunderstood as biological races.

The reader may object – “surely, I can see race with my bare eyes!” However, it is not race we see, but the superficial visible biological diversity within our species: variation in traits such as skin colour, hair form and eye shape. This variation is not enough to justify racial classification. Our biological diversity is too small, and too smoothly distributed across geographic space, for race to be real.

This is not merely an opinion. From a scientific perspective, the best candidate for a synonym for “race” is “subspecies” (the classification level below “species” in biology). When scientists apply the standard criteria to determine whether there are subspecies/races in humans, none are found. In chimpanzees yes, but in humans no.


Read more: Human races: biological reality or cultural delusion


Racial classification is unscientific. However, humanities scholars have their own justifications for race-talk. Many argue that while there are no biological races, there are social races. Race, as philosophers put it, is a social kind.

In my view, the redefinition of race as a social kind has been a major mistake. Most people still think of race as a biological category. By redefining it socially, we risk miscommunicating with each other on this fraught topic.

Race does not exist

Not only is the redefinition of race as a social kind confusing, I argue that race does not exist even as a social kind. Racism is real, in both an interpersonal and a structural sense, but race is not.

Once the idea of race is divorced from biology, strange things start happening, conceptually. What makes a group a “race”, if race is social, rather than biological?

We could say that races are just the groups that are labelled as races, but this doesn’t work. Just as witches are not women accused of being witches, races are not merely groups labelled as races. There has to be something more to the group for it to qualify as a social kind.

Nobody has put their finger on this “something more”. Some tie “race” to “essentialism”. Essentialism is the view that groups have essenses: fixed traits that all members of a group have, and which are unique to that group. “Social races”, on this view, are groups treated as if they have some unchangeable essence.

This move fails. While racialisation is often essentialising, it is not always. If you look at current “scientific” racism, you’ll see that it’s all about alleged inborn average differences between the so-called “races”, not racial essences (which does not make it any less horrid, or more plausible).

Moreover, essentialist thinking is not only applied to racialised groups. Gender is also essentialised, and so is ethnicity.

Remember when I said strange things start happening when race is defined socially? Well, if races are social groups subject to essentialism, we would have to accept that men and women constitute de facto races!

Let’s abandon “race”

We should abandon attempts to save the category of race. There is no good way to make sense of the category from a biological or a social perspective. There are no races, only groups misunderstood as races: racialised groups.

Racialised groups are not biological groups, in the sense that they are not biological races. Yet how you are racialised does depend on superficial biological characteristics, such as skin colour. That is to say, racialised groups have biological inclusion criteria, vague and arbitrary as they may be.

These biological inclusion criteria are determined by social factors. Philosophical debates about “race” have relied on a dichotomy between the biological and the social. However, this is a false dichotomy: the biological and the social interact.

In racialisation, the biological and the social interact with a number of other factors: administrative, cultural, economic, geographic, gendered, historical, lingual, phenomenological, political, psychological, religious, and so on. I call this view “interactive constructionism about racialised groups”.

The category of the “racialised group” can be of great value, politically. It offers a way for those who have historically been treated as members of “inferior races” to assert and defend themselves collectively, while distancing themselves from the negative and misleading associations of the term “race”. “Race” is not needed for purposes of social justice.

According to researcher Victoria Grieves in her article Culture, not colour, is the heart of Aboriginal identity,

Being of Aboriginal descent is crucial because this is our link to country and the natural world. But at the same time, Aboriginal people do not rely on a race-based identity … continuing cultural values and practice are the true basis of Aboriginal identity in the whole of Australia today

The category of race is not needed for cultural identity or political action.

The ConversationWe need to be talking about racism, racialisation, and racialised groups, not “race”. Given that “race” fails as both a biological and a social category, let’s consign it to the dustbin of history’s bad ideas.

Adam Hochman, Lecturer, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The markers of everyday racism in Australia


Claire Smith, Flinders University; Jordan Ralph, Flinders University, and Kellie Pollard, Flinders University

While Australians value equality, our multicultural nation contains markers of racial discrimination. Some are so innocuous we may not recognise them.

Experiencing racism is part of the everyday lives of many Australians. What is it like to negotiate daily life in a material world that often excludes you, or selectively seeks to control you?

Let’s try to understand the experience of everyday racism by negotiating the material world of an Aboriginal person in northern Australia. You have come into Katherine, Northern Territory, from a remote community. It might be say, Barunga, 80 kilometres away, or Bulman 300 kilometres away, or Lajamanu, 600 kilometres away.

Shopping

Power Card and Basics Card.
Photos: J. Ralph

You shop for food at the Woolworths complex. You use your Basics Card to pay. This is a bit embarrassing as it declares you to be living on managed government money. You understand that this card is a legacy of the NT Intervention, designed to ensure that Aboriginal people spend half their government benefits on food and essentials. You understand that this “income management” signals a lack of faith in your ability to budget your own money.

You purchase some power-cards to pre-pay electricity in your home. You hope you won’t have to share them with friends or family who run out of electricity. You understand that power cards are not the norm in towns or cities of the NT, only in Aboriginal communities.

Toilets closed, Katherine, NT.
Photos: C. Smith

After shopping, you need to go to the toilet. It is the tourist season and the toilets in the Woolworths complex charge $1 per person. There is a guard at the front to collect the money. Throughout the town, the toilets have “closed”, “staff only” or “patrons only” signs. Often, the public toilets in the main street are out of order.

Meeting family in town

You want to meet some relatives in town. It is difficult to meet at the Woolworths complex due to the “no loitering” signs.

No loitering sign at Casuarina shopping centre in Darwin.
Photo: K. Pollard

You understand that these signs are not intended for townspeople, who have homes to go to, or tourists, who are staying in hotels or caravan parks. You understand that they are aimed at you, and people like you.

There are other signs that are not aimed at you. Those signs, such as the lead photo for this article, depict variations of “ideal” white Australian families. Such signs exist throughout Australia. Inadvertently, they exclude those who do not fit the proposed ideal.

There is a nice sitting area at the tourist information centre but it is fenced. You would have to be a bit braver than you feel to go in. So you sit on the ground outside the fence, next to the car park. You watch tourists eating their lunch in comfort at the tables inside the fence. You wonder if they wonder why you don’t come in.

Fenced seating area at Katherine Tourist Information Centre.
Photo: J. Ralph

Driving home

Like most Territorians, you enjoy a beer in hot weather. The bottle shop has police officers stationed at it. You have to show your address and explain where you will drink the beer. However, your address is that of a remote Aboriginal community, one that does not allow alcohol consumption. You do not have a town address, and for you to buy beer the police officer has to believe you will not consume it in the town’s public areas.

You’ve convinced the police officer that you will drink your beer at the unofficial “drinking spot”, 25 kilometres from your community.

On the way there, you pass the rest area for tourists, replete with lights, toilets, water tanks, tables. You could stop here, but you wouldn’t feel comfortable – and you would be moved on if a tourist complained to the police. At the Aboriginal drinking spot, there are no such facilities. You are expected to sit in the dirt, drink from the creek and go to the toilet in the bush.

Comparison of facilities at tourist rest area, Stuart Highway, near Katherine (top) and Aboriginal drinking place, Central Arnhem Road, near Barunga (bottom). Note that the shade shed at the Aboriginal drinking place is now fenced off and inaccessible.
Photos: M. Fairhead and J. Ralph

There is no light either. While sitting at the drinking spot, you think about the people who have been killed here by vehicles driving at night. You are aware that there is no mobile phone coverage to call in an emergency.

On your way to the community, you pass road signs with Aboriginal people depicted in a cartoon-like fashion. You are glad the graffiti on the Liquor Act sign, “This means Niggers, too” has been erased. You pass the “prescribed area” sign, which warns against bringing alcohol or “prohibited materials” into the community.

Erected in 2007 as part of the Intervention, the original signs were more explicit: “No Liquor. No Pornography”. Somehow, these signs seemed to imply that everyone in your community wants to get drunk or use pornography. You wonder how people in the cities would feel if they had a sign like that at the entrance to their suburb.

Confronting signs, on the Central Arnhem Road (left) and at the entrance to Barunga community (right)
Photos: J. Ralph

Racism is just one form of discrimination

Archaeology can provide unique insights into how material culture can reflect racism. However, racism is not the only form of discrimination. The Scanlon report on Mapping Social Cohesion in Australia found that experiences of discrimination on the basis of “skin colour, ethnic origin or religion” increased to 20% in 2016. The report does not provide figures for Indigenous Australians, but records an increase in negative sentiment towards Muslim people.

Nevertheless, the report argues that Australia is characterised by strong social cohesion. We may have problems, but it seems that we are a long way from the treatment of Muslim women who want to wear Burkinis on the beaches of France.

A system of discrimination

Racism occurs in everyday life. It happens to everyday people in everyday locations. It can be redressed through everyday practices.

There are reasons behind the differences described in this article. Townspeople have had bad experiences with some community children leaving a mess in public toilets (itself a reflection of the dearth of adequate working bathrooms in Aboriginal communities). Rest areas are under different government jurisdictions. The Basics card helps people to budget (and now it is being rolled out in wider Australia).

But while there are explanations for individual practices, taken together they create a system of control and exclusion. The outcomes include mental health issues for individuals, barriers to economic participation and a weakening of Australia’s social fabric.

Minimum standards of courtesy, safety and equality should be maintained for all Australians. The systematic discrimination of everyday racism diminishes us all.

The Conversation

Claire Smith, Professor of Archaeology, Flinders University; Jordan Ralph, PhD Candidate, Archaeology, Flinders University, and Kellie Pollard, PhD Candidate, Flinders University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.