Deconstructing "Race" 101
by Karl Newton

Editor's note: SPC understands racism to be institutionalized oppression.

James Baldwin wrote," As long as you think you're white, there's no hope for you." That may be motivation enough for taking another cut at this most American of problems - the belief in the existence of races. I will try to offer some more motivation as we go along.
Graphic: Racial and Ethnic Relations, 7th edition


There are No Races
So, there are no races. There is nothing in the flesh of human beings that supports a separation of people into racial categories. There is no white race, nor any other. There are many people who believe in the existence of races; many people, including some who have tried to stop believing and failed.

There also is, a large and growing body of information about the genetics of the human species, which asserts that we are all of one "race" - the human race (see on the web: allrelated.syr). There are no scientifically discernible groups of humans neatly divisible into anything like the races imagined by those that I call racists: anyone who uses the term race, or any of its various labels. Thus, by my approach, a lot of people are racists. Yet, that ought to take the sting out of the term "racist" since there are so many. Racism is cultural silliness that is exploited by malevolent people.

There are magnificent, clarifying statements in the spheres of sociology, anthropology and even political science. Had enough of us found and read and disseminated Dr. Bruce Hare's analysis in the December 3, 1997 Post-Standard (page A21) calling for a "paradigm shift" and for a "need to reframe the conversation, think differently about the problem and migrate from calling for better race relations to calling for deracialization", my essay might not have been necessary. Ten years later, the point must still be made: there are no races!

What About Social Constructs?
Some will say, "we know that there are no races as biological entities. Still, there are these 'social constructs' - black, white or Asian, African American, Latino." The implication is that we must conform to these 'constructs'. However, while the signs of the Zodiac are social constructs, we no longer foster those categories. Political parties and even political leanings are social constructs yet we don't often insist on labeling, or being labeled according to those categories. Furthermore, most social constructs are not the basis for institutionalized prejudice.

However, the real problem with accepting race terms as "social constructs" is that they don't behave like social constructs. We allow them into our heads and those social constructs take on the characteristics of biological entities. Remember how much difficulty we had when Tiger Woods first introduced us to the social construct of "Cablanasian?" We resisted the assertion of his new social construct, treating it more like biological heresy.

Try Ethnicity
Human nature being what it is, we probably would do well to provide some sane substitute for race - for racialized thinking - a transitional object, a pacifier, if you will. I offer ethnicity. True it is already in (mis)use in our culture. However, it is so awkwardly and infrequently used that I believe it can be appropriated for this better use. We all have ethnicities and we already refer to them quite a bit: French Catholic, New England Yankee, Hispanic, or better, Caribbean Hispanic or South American Hispanic, Jewish, or better, secular Jew or Hasidic Jew, African American, New Orleans Creole, Southeast Asian, or better Cambodian. There is much that we don't know about ethnic groups, and might be delighted to learn.

One thing I have learned is that this task of deracialization requires patience - patience with others and patience with oneself. So, figure out your ethnicity, maybe interview some of your family elders, as you've been meaning to do. Being "white", or for that matter, being "black" has squeezed a lot of the beauty out of our collective heritages. Find out who you are and offer your colorful ethnicity instead of your nonexistent "race" when asked. Be patient with yourself when you are awkward bringing forth this new identity. "Roman" wasn't built in a day. Be patient with others who haven't read, or thought of this topic. We are all, to some degree, hostages to "our" culture. So, be patient and yet be determined to be part of the solution to the problem of racialized thinking. I am your brother. Let's be patient and determined.

Karl is a retired psychiatrist with broad experience in mental health care for prisoners and poor people.