Real and Unreal of Race

I have been teaching cultural anthropology here in the Philippines. I wrote a book for the class so that students did not have to grab chapters from several different books. I still feel pretty good about the book, but as I have taught the class I have started to notice some issues. One of these is the chapter on Race. The chapter is quite short because I felt like I had written everything I had wanted to about the topic. But as time went on, I feel like I have short-changed the topic.

But why would I? I come from a country where race is a big issue. In fact, for some people, it looks like it is their ONLY issue (and I am not just talking about one side of the issue). So why would I give the topic so little emphasis?

First, I think the main reason is that I understand that Race is essentially Unreal. Traditionally, race was used in a way that today might be called ethnicity or people group. Aristides, for example, speaks of four races or classes of man— Greeks Barbarians, Jews, and Christians. That use of the term is rather obsolete, so there was no reason to put that in the chapter on race. Into the 17th and 18th centuries, race was tied to physical traits much as it is often now. However, it is hard to draw lines in mankind because physical variations in humans are actually rather trivial in terms of geographic regions, and defy clear taxonomies. Years ago, people talked of Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid, but so many did not fit well into these categories. Early 1900s, there was White, Black, Yellow, Brown, and Red. These five groups fit slightly better (although none of labels, except MAYBE brown, is very descriptive). The labels still appear to be pretty arbitrary. More recently, some (like Jared Diamond) have used a different five— White Black, Asian, African Pygmy, and Xhosan. This also seems pretty arbitrary. In the 19th century was the growth of the theory of biological evolution. Race in this case is a rank below sub-species, implying that it is on route to becoming a separate species from the rest. Considering the relative genetic sameness across all peoples of the world, this understanding of human race is pretty silly (regardless of your view of biological evolution). But out of it came Race Science, which ultimately attempted to demonstrate in different ways why “I am better than You because I come from a Superior Race than you.” Again, studies in genetics work to sabotage any real basis for this… though many don’t let go of the idea easily. Today Race is seen as a more informal social construct (like in America where races or ‘ethnicities’ are identified (white, black, asian, hispanic, native American, etc.) in a manner that puts people together and separates others for rather arbitrary societal reasons rather than based on sound categories of similarity and dissimilarity.

2. Race is tied to bad theology. When I was young, I was told that there were three races- White, Black, Asian, and that they sprang up from the sons of Noah. Japheth was the father of the “White” races, Ham was the father of the “Black” races, and Shem of Semitic and other Asian races. Of course, even as a young child I was rather suspicious of this. The family tree of Noah did not really line up with present-day racial designations. In fact, it looked like a way to link Blacks with the “bad son” of Noah— Ham. While my church did not do this (thankfully), some churches did use this flawed logic to justify slavery. (I am not sure how Whites could use the idea that they descended from a “good son” of Noah, Japheth, as a reason for doing something evil— enslaving others and treating them as property. But as my dad said, never assume that people think through racist opinions fully.) Later on, I learned of British-Israelism, that saw the British or perhaps Americans as the ‘lost tribes of Israel.’ While I had at least one friend who passionately believed this, the argument appeared to be so strained, that I struggle to see any sense to this one. Some groups have even dredged up the idea of “Pre-Adamic” races, based on NOTHING in the Bible to create a category of ‘sub-humans’ to give people an OUT on the Great Commandment. Presumably, if some people are sub-human then one doesn’t have to love them as one loves oneself. (But would it? Strangers and Aliens in Luke 19 were supposed to be shown hospitality. How could one identify human versus sub-human aliens?)

But there is a problem with treating race as unreal. When one treats it as unreal, one tends not to see the term used abusively. Race DOES exist as a social construct, made by people for their own reasons. Race is used to interpret experiences and guide behavior. We tend not to see color differentiations until we have labels for them. We tend not see abuse until we recognize a label to go with it. (I am amazed at how many Christians cannot identify Spiritual Abuse, until they have embraced a label for it.) Just because race is based on bogus taxonomies does not mean it is irrelevant in the minds of people who think based on racial constructs.

For example, I am of Swedish ancestry so I would be considered Caucasoid or White. My wife is of Filipino ancestry, meaning that she is considered to be of Mongoloid, Brown, or Yellow, or Asian racial group. I am considered by people to be part of a ‘mixed race’ marriage. My wife and I got married in the Commonwealth of Virginia in the United States. If we had tried to marry there prior to the mid-1960s we would not have been allowed because of ‘miscegenation laws, ‘ the mixing or races. My children are considered to be bi-racial (except by pre-2000 US census collection where my children would have been required to ‘pick one race’). As foolish as all of this sounds to me, these categories do not go away because they exist in people’s minds.

Another example has been in the response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Some have gotten bothered by the statement, “Black Lives Matter.” Some are bothered because it seems to reinforce racial designations. Others don’t like it because it seems to support a less than Biblical perspective. Isn’t it true that “All Lives Matter”? However, when one ignores a social reality, the problem tends to be made worse. Let me give an example. As noted before, my wife and I are thought of as being part of a mixed-race couple. We have been pretty blessed in having received relatively little grief for being ‘mixed-race,’ and the little grief we have received—- well, we were able to “consider the source.” But many mixed race couples have received a lot of discrimination and even hostility. Suppose someone created an organization, “God Loves Mixed Race Families.” I could imagine someone saying this is a bad name because clearly, “God Loves All Families.” They would be right… but also wrong… because it fails to challenge the prejudices. A positive statement that is generally applied vaguely, does not strike the target. People who would see the name, “God Loves All Families” would tend to see that type of family that they themselves would tend to love. Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan because the people would have made the Parable of the Good Human Being fit their own prejudices. Likewise, saying that the name of the group is invalid since there are really no such things as races anyway, may have a point in a genetic or phenotypic sense. But raceS DO exist as social constructs and do indeed guide how people are judged and acted for or against.

Another example is that I am part of a denomination in which some of the major seminary presidents have come out against CRT (Critical Race Theory) and Intersectionality. Of course, CRT is such a general term that one can find a flavor of it that pretty much anyone would be against. However, to recognize the importance of race as a social construct that guides social behaviors at pretty much every level in a society… well, that is just the way it is. As such, it is a valid form of analysis for a wide range of fields. Of course, to say it is a valid form of analysis doesn’t mean that (1) it is the only valid form of analysis, (2) it is the most valid form of analysis, or (3) all versions of it are valid forms of analysis. Just coming out against it seems remarkably naive for theologians. (Of course I have not read their individual perspectives on CRT, and so I hope these are far more nuanced.)

As far as intersectionality, its general meaning is “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” (Oxford Languages)

As a Caucasian American living in a predominantly Asian community in an Asian country gives me a wide and seemingly contradictory set of advantages and disadvantages. Being married to one from this country adds further twists. Again, on some level intersectionality is simply true. Being opposed to intersectionality is, to some extent, being opposed to gravity, or the first law of thermodynamics. If you reject the extreme views regarding intersectionality… I am sure I am right there with you. The problem is that to deal with issues of race, one needs to avoid finding “straw men” to erect and knock down. In missions and in culture, issues of race don’t go away by simply acting like such discussions are invalid or exaggerated.

Looking over this post… Yes, I think there are things I should add to my chapter on Race. For missionaries, and people working in any place where people judge people based on a construct that we call race (essentially everywhere) it is something that must be addressed and taken seriously. When racism is revealed, it may create problems. When racism is ignored, the problems become even greater. When racism is denied, the problems explode.

An article that is not totally related, but still related enough is one by Jackson Wu,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s