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The one thing that we really, really need to say about race…

There seemed to be one obvious thing missing from Channel 4's much discussed programme: namely, that 'race' doesn't really exist.

Michael Skey
1 April 2015
apartheid.jpg

Flickr/Raymond June. Some rights reserved.

In the recent furore over Trevor Phillips’ Channel 4 show ‘Things we won’t say about race that are true’ the one thing that really needed to be said about race was pretty much overlooked. And that is the fact that race is the most overused, misunderstood and, above all, useless concept that we have for talking about difference and the sooner we jettison it the better as it adds nothing to our understanding of social relations in the wider world.

We should certainly talk about racism, the belief in the existence of races and the value judgements that are, and have been, used to evaluate people on the basis of physical characteristics, with often brutal consequences. But talking about races as if they actually existed, as if they were something concrete and real and tangible, that’s part of the problem - even if it might get you some nice ratings, a slap on the back from the Daily Mail and a whole bunch of other media attention.

First of all, races (in the original sense of the term) aren’t real or tangible as you can’t effectively categorise people on the basis of physical characteristics. Take skin colour. There are, of course, noticeable differences between, say, those born near the Equator and those born in the far north of Europe. But in between these two ‘extreme’s you find a whole variety of skin tones which makes the classifications of humans on the basis of this attribute an impossibility. Just ask any of the organisations that spent time, effort and money trying to produce such a system; the apartheid government in South Africa, for example. For despite their best efforts they ended up with a classificatory system that would have been laughable if it hadn’t caused so much pain to so many people. The same applies to any other physical characteristic you care to mention.

Second, it’s actually quite hard to find another term that has been used so imprecisely by such a range of people to talk about so many different things. In current political debate, alongside its original meaning, race has been used to refer to religious beliefs, cultural practices, citizenship, birthplace or the birthplace of one’s ancestors. It seems fairly obvious that to clump all these different was of categorising people under the banner terms race is nonsense. If you want to talk about people worshipping a particular god, use religion. If you want to discuss people who have the same passport, then use the term citizen. Harping on about the Jewish or Sikh or British race takes us precisely nowhere.    

What we actually require, then, is a much more sophisticated way of talking about difference that moves away from lazy stereotypes based on physical characteristics to instead focus on values, beliefs, norms, habits, traditions and activities. In other words, to focus on culture because it allows us to discuss two important features. One is complexity. Culture points to the messy business of human social life in a way that the concept of race doesn’t. Culture points to the cross-cutting of values, belief and so on and the fact that people belong to or identify with a range of groups  on the basis of age, class, sexuality, gender, nationality and so on. Some of those groupings will become more important than others at particular times and places and that is precisely the point. Race is one thing or the other, race is unchanging, race is one-dimensional, which is probably why some people like it so much. It simplifies and provides easy answers to very difficult questions.

Second, culture points to the possibility of change. Beliefs change, values change, attitudes change and habits change. Physical characteristics, by and large, do not. In this way, we can note some of the differences between people who identify with a particular group but also acknowledge that the things that distinguish them may change over time, cease to be important or become increasingly significant. We shouldn’t, of course, forgot that debates around culture aren’t always nuanced and progressive – what people do and say can also be caricatured and stigmatised (these people are dirty, these people are debased, these people are primitive) but at least in discussing habits and beliefs we can see the potential for change.

Let’s see how this disavowal of race might work in relation to two of Phillips’ most controversial examples.

The first deals with the sexual exploitation of young women in Rotherham. The lens of race suggests that the men share some physical characteristic that encourages such activities. It doesn’t sound like much of an explanation and it isn’t. Others have claimed, and it seems there may be some evidence for this, that the men involved in these activities shared certain attitudes towards women and, in particular, non-Muslim women. But again we’re not talking about race, here, its culture that matters.  And we should discuss this openly, asking questions about the ways in which cultural attitudes towards gender, sexuality and so on may influence certain behaviours. At the same time, we should also discuss the wider treatment of vulnerable women as a whole, given the shocking statistics for rape, domestic violence and the murder of women in the UK.

The second example is the one concerning the link between young men and violence. Statistics show that men with higher levels of melanin tend to commit more violent street crime and the lens of race would again, laughably, point to this particular feature. The real explanation (and this is not meant to exonerate anyone’s behaviour so much as try to gain a better understanding of it) points to class and gender, given that it involves young men who are generally poor. One could also point out racism (the belief in the existence of races and the differential treatment meted out to particular people on the basis of such a belief) as a contributory factor though, again, not a justification.

What’s actually interesting about these two examples is that while much energy has been spent talking about them in terms of race (and to some degree culture), the issues of masculinity and class are rarely raised and yet both seem to be telling us something important about relations between men and women and the poor and the rich. 

In conclusion, then, what I have been arguing is that race is a useless way of thinking, talking about and understanding what goes on in the world. Arguing for the consignment of race to the dustbin of history doesn’t mean, of course, that we overlook the social inequalities and violence that has been perpetrated in the name of racism or, indeed, what some people get (power, status, wealth) from drawing on racist categories or arguing for the existence of races. It just means that we don’t give such categorisations and their supporters any legitimacy by talking about race as if was a concrete reality. Rather than lauding Phillips for ‘daring to talk about race’ or telling us ‘inconvenient truths’, we should really be letting him know that he’s actually making things worse . And to ask him, instead, to focus his many talents on discussing culture, class, gender and power because these are things that are really worth talking about. 

 

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