By Jacinta McFadden
Where did “race” come from?
Race as we know it is a relatively modern concept introduced during the last 200 years. Putting humans into racial categories started during the period of European exploration. In 1758, Carolus Linnaeus was one of the first Europeans to classify humans into four main categories according to geographic regions. The process was arbitrary yet simple — white [Europeans], black [Africans], red [North American Natives] and dark [Asians]. There was no science to determining in these categories — they were based on facial features resulting from climactic adaptation. But 18th and 19th century European scientists wanted to make a science of categorizing humans as done in the animal kingdom. By the mid 19th century, scientists like Charles Darwin began to question the validity of these racial divisions. Instead, Darwin concentrated his efforts on human evolution. Modern biology and genetic sciences are abandoning, mainly for scientific reasons, the concept of race. Instead they prefer to study the distribution of genetically based characteristics such as blood type groupings.
Why classify people?
The term race gaines its derogatory reference around the 18th century with the beginning of the European Industrial Revolution. With capitalism booming, merchants needed a labor force to fill the demands of the growing market in the New World. South and Central Americans who were first taken as slaves to work on North American plantations were often able to escape because they knew the territory. They found the perfect lavor supply in Africa. By classifying these Africans and other non-whites as both primitive and subordinate, the merchants could legitimize their business endeavours. Because Africans were supposedly inferior, slave traders could steal millions of Africans from their homes and force them to work in the New World.
“We see racism manifesting itself clearly around what we call the transAtlantic slave trade,” says Ryerson politics professor Ogenga Otunnu.
“During that period of exploitation of African people, the slave trade was justified on the basis of race.”
Race didn’t always have the meaning we put to it today. It was also a term used to divide the rich from the poor in 18th century France. Then it was not an issue of colour, but of economics. For example French aristocracy in the 18th considered peasants an inferior “race.”
The racial totem pole
To preserve the superiority of one social group the ideology of race was born. This enabled one group of people to completely disregard the validity of another. The racial totem pole that was generally known, put white at the top, followed by brown, yellow, red and blacks at the bottom.
The importance of race continued to snowball from this point on.
The United States is the best example to display the significance of race. The plantation economy was based on the slave trade, which revealed the importance of maintaining the idea of white superiority over their slaves. The idea of race developed in a way that would benefit slave owners in the United States. Because they wanted to keep as many slaves as possible, slave owners pressured the government to pass laws so that the children of their black slaves and free whites could also be considered black. Often these “mixed” children were the children of slave owners. Thirty years after the slave trade was abolished, the state of Virginia codified a law that was already an accepted custom — if you had more than 1/16 black ancestry, you had to say farewell to your “other” roots. While this law has been repealed, the colour stigma remains. These historical events explain why a person who has the faintest hint of black ancestry is considered to be a black person.
Race does not exist
People have been misled into believing that race exists. The Oxford Dictionary says “race” is the division of humankind, each group having distinct physical characteristics. Naturally these characteristics refer to external traits, like the size of one’s nose, or eyes, or the shade of skin, or hair texture. But these physical traits are no longer considered an appropriate way to categorize people. This idea has since been passed over for those of more scientific value like blood groups, blood composition, hormonal activity and other genetic characteristics. In fact, it has been proven that there are greater genetic differences within a race than there are between races. One study showed that people belonging to different races could explain only 6.3 per cent of genetic differences. For example, when individuals of Jamaican and Somali descent are grouped together as part of the black race, it wrongly implies that they have more to do with one another than someone of another race does.
Race as a social construct
The scientific community has since deemed race an irrelevant way to group people. The greatest misconception about race is that most people believe it to be genetically based. Dr. John Hudon, a molecular biologist at Mount Sinai Hospital says race is an outdated term.
“Race is a social thing — purely and absolutely societal. Colour divisions of black, white or brown hold only as much importance as what people attach to them.
The scientific community has replaced the term race with more appropriate terminology that reveals the biological roots of isolated groups. Hudson says research is essential to revert back to the ethnic origins of the person.
“Basically you need to define the geographic parameters and using the term race does not do that,” he says.
Social scientists now use the term “ethnic” to replace “race.”
Chris is a young “black” man. Tennille is of a woman who is “mixed.” Her mother is “white” and her father is “black.”
Shanna is a young “Indian” woman.
Rob is a “white” male.
Children are taught to see race
Chris “When I was a child growing up, and there was a black or white person, and Indian, an Asian person … you just never thought about it. Then you start to get older and you being to pick up that there is black, white, brown, and red … yellow. It just makes everything so basic.”
Tennille “I remember when I was younger and my sister and I were playing in the woods with our friend. This man came along with a rifle and said he would have to be careful because he might mistake my sister and I for a deer. I never even realized then what he meant. I just accepted that he was referring to my skin colour, but I never thought what, why didn’t he say that about out little white white friend? As a kid, I didn’t even think about what he meant. I actually told my mom. She told us we could still play in the woods and that it didn’t matter. But she didn’t say what mattered. I guess she meant out skin colour.”
Shana “younger kid don’t really associate with race as much until they’re older.”
Rob “Obviously when you are a child playing on the playground, you are not conscious of who you’re playing with. You play with whoever and you’re not conscious of stereotypes that exist.”
Chris “If no one ever stressed your race then it wouldn’t matter to you, but I think it’s the external environment that makes race a significant thing. I mean if you look at kids, they don’t think about it; and kids usually only discriminate because they’ve been taught that way. I don’t believe it’s in our nature to discriminate racially. It is definitely something taught.”
Rob “You become conscious of race when you hear ignorant racist remarks by family members, or media reports about the native Indians, for example, that make them all seem like alcoholics and complainers. When you’re a kid, about 12 or 13, you’re more apt to believe the stereotypes. The media perpetuate these racist stereotypes. I certainly wasn’t raised to be a racist, but when you are raised though the media you are raised to be racist, to a certain extent.”
Chris “When I have little racial experiences I don’t pay much attention to them. When I was younger I noticed that women would clutch their bags tightly and turn away from me when I would sit down beside them. I guess I’m desensitized. When I was younger I just couldn’t understand. I’d be hurt by them.”
Rob “But one of the big benefits of living in this city which is so multicultural, is that children are exposed at a young age to different cultures, so are less inclined to believe the myths of the media.”
Race divisions simplify your thinking
Chris “If you notice in the media, references are usually black or white. So I think the media has a big role because they’re always trying to make things so simple and make it a black-white issue. My sister doesn’t identify with being black at all, with the culture, black history…she prefers listening to rock music. I think she’s more pro-Canadian than pro black. But unfortunately when she gets older the racial experiences she’s going to experience being a black woman are going to force her to identify with being black.”
Tennille “When you say race, you refer to just one thing — colour. It’s such a generalization. My mom is white, and my dad is black, but people always look at me and immediately say I’m black.”
Shana “Race is such a small term to define the colour of your skin. It don’t think it goes beyond what’s on the outside. It’s just looking at you for face value. I do see race as more of a black and white thing, as a colour thing. You’re either black or you’re white. I have a difficult time answering the race question. I don’t know … I’m brown?”
Rob “When I think of race I think of ethnic origin. There might be a difference between the two but as far as I know they are the same.”
Shana “It’s just so much easier to classify people with being black if they’re not white.”
The concept of race divides people and leads to alienation for those who are not “white.”
Tennille “When I shop I speak in a British accent. I know it’s almost saying I’m not who I am but I get more respect that way. They think of me as being more white. I want attention when I spend my money, and if I get it when I speak that way, then that’s what I do. I know it’s sad but I get tired of waiting, and as soon as I start speaking with an accent I think they think I have more money, or that maybe I’m only here on vacation. But if I walk into a store and I speak normally and dress down a bit, I think people are intimidated by me.”
Chris [to Tennille] “Racism is so deep in our society. You can talk as British or think how you want, and identify more with your white side, but your experiences will conflict with that. You might want to be a certain way, but society will not let you. You will constantly be reminded that you’re black.”
Rob “I don’t really know how being white affected me. I don’t really see myself as being a white man. I’m also six or seven generations deep Canadian, so I don’t have any ties to another country. I don’t associate myself with being white. I don’t view people in terms of their differences, like when I see my friend who’s black, I see my friend, I don’t see myself being any different from her. I obviously know I’m white, but it’s not something I dwell on.”
Tennille “Before I left home I always dates white guys. But as soon as I came to Toronto all my boyfriends were black, and I wondered why? And it’s because they have been through the same things that I have been through. They understood me more than the white boyfriends. When I would get upset because of the way a person looked at me they understood. The white boyfriends could sympathize but they didn’t understand. I think it’s different when someone knows how you really feel. And now that I’m older, I want someone who understands me. It’s the most important thing.”