Sunday, March 23, 2008

I confess...

...that I agree with the main point of William Kristol's latest column. It happens. I probably don't agree with the policy ideas that brought him to it, but that's another story.

As Kristol's article shows, a nationwide "conversation about race" sounds harmless enough, but presents some dangers. Much like repeatedly classifying voters by imagined racially-defined voting blocs, an America-wide discussion of race is bound to make the category matter more, not less, in the minds of Americans.

To deal with race is to deal with something that a) we all know matters in terms of how people experience society, and b) we all know should not. The American approach has been to focus on (a) and discuss race head-on, while the French one was, and to an extent I suppose is, to focus on (b), on willing a world in which race doesn't matter into existence by ignoring the category entirely. Both models have their flaws, but I sympathize more with the French model. Not out of Francophilia (mine tends not to extend to politics) but out of an understanding that classifying humans as though we were dogs (note the French vocabulary for describing pure-breds) is a poor response to racists whose impulse is to do just that.

Granted ignoring race altogether will have reached an extreme if race becomes so taboo that racism cannot be identified as such. However, the way to counter racism isn't to create positive definitions of race, to be proud of one's "race," but to fight racism while having a positive view of one's own culture(s). Obviously black American culture, like Jewish American culture, has been shaped by externally-imposed (and at times internally agreed-upon) definitions of the group as a "race." But for once, let us admit that we are all human, and use words to positively describe our differences that keep that commonality in mind. When the racists toss you "race," you should toss back "culture," "community," or anything else that suggests you and those like you are more than the sum of your shared DNA.


Nick said...

I think you're severely out of touch if you think that race is an issue that "we all know matters in terms of how people experience society."

Most people don't think it matters, and they don't understand that their ability to walk down the street unassumingly and unconscious to the effects of race itself is a privilege.

And that's no small part of the problem.

J. Otto Pohl said...

With the exception of Nazi Germany almost all racial systems including apartheid in South Africa have been based upon culture. That is seperate development was justified on a cultural basis not a genetic one. So I do not understand this distinction between DNA and culture? To take one modern example the Absentee Property Law in Israel is clearly a racist law that discriminates against Arabs. But, it defines Arabs culturally not genetically.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"Severely out of touch"? Merci!

I did not survey what most people understand in terms of privilege, but I don't see that you have either. I've had the 'privilege' of feeling white in some situations/locales and non-white in others (yes, I am pale, but this has happened), so I may be more aware of this than others with my skin tone. That said, you could at least admit that racists believe that race matters (although white racists tend not to phrase this in terms of 'white privilege').

The goal should be that everyone should be able to walk around unaware of any symbolic meaning to the physical features they happened to be born with.

J. Otto Pohl,

Thanks for taking the opportunity to point out your love of Israel and all it's policies.

How is the box-checking of race in America based on culture? How does admitting an African student to a college, or electing a half-African president, right the wrongs of slavery in the U.S. that these individuals' ancestors didn't experience? In America, race--which in non-biological terms is about how people classify you when you walk down the street--is lumped in with, an considered more important than, culture.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


(its not it's)

Withywindle said...

There's an interesting history of the word "culture" lurking here. As I recollect, the French "culture" is less hard-edged than the German "Kultur"--Kultur (as I misremember my European history classes from long ago) is associated more with World-Leading nations, and their rights to conquer the world. Not that la France Civilatrice doesn't also have this culture-conquest association, but I think Kultur had it more. Then, Culture used to mean "high culture"--the invention of "popular culture," culture as descriptive rather than normative, is a development of the last century or so.

All of which matters, because the substitution of culture for race can pick up different of these meanings of culture and Kultur, for different audiences, and pick up on the traditional uses of culture, some of which you may not care for.

Or: using "culture" may not be a panacea. And the history of language is always fun to babble about.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I'm using culture, and race, to mean what they typically do in conversation in the U.S. today. At other points in history, "race" merely meant "people" or "community." It's quite clear that today the word has other connotations, and what's left, if you want to describe a group of individuals without hinting at their DNA, is, along with "people" and "community," the word "culture."

David Schraub said...

See, we're different here, because I look at The French Model and see a resounding failure on race. I think it swings way too far in the "blindness" direction that it makes it nearly impossible to recognize and remedy racial hierarchy, and that American color-conscious efforts at remedying racial hierarchy will ultimately be more effective at creating the pluralist society that is respectful of (to appropriate your labels) Black and White (and Latino and Asian and...) culture and communities.

I don't think there's actually that much disagreement here, because nobody really is working to promote and resurrect the old race-as-biological-essence model as a positive good. Much of the work contemporary race theorists want "race" to do you're ascribing to "culture" and "community", so we're really going in the same direction. But these folks think, somewhat accurately in my view, that our views and construction of Blacks and Whites are so bound up in the language of race that it's better to recast the term in a post-biological sense then it is to jettison it altogether -- particularly since the latter impulse seems to result in the aforementioned "blindness" to actual discrepancies and difference without really resulting in tangible improvements. That is, if we don't acknowledge difference between Blacks and Whites on a racial axis, we tend to not acknowledge difference between them period.