Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Equality (Tim)

All of us are equal
(Human Rights Part 3; Part 2 - Life, Liberty, & Security; Part 1 - Free Speech

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1 states, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” And then article 2 goes on to make reference to specific criteria for discrimination such as gender and race.

Which brings me to the burning question of our age. Why is there still so much racism in this world?  Why are ‘racial’ categories so hard-coded into our thinking, and why is it so hard for people to accept that race is really just a construct. It’s a man-made category without a firm biological basis. Sceptical? Think you can define racial characteristics? Try this thought experiment. Line up everyone in the whole world and order them from the darkest skin tone to the lightest. Now show me the point where one race ends and another begins.
Of course this is an extreme example, and most people would remind me of the common sense reality that everyone can tell who’s black and who’s white in their real lived experience. Can you, though? During the dark days of Apartheid, every South African had to be classified as black, white, coloured or Asian. Unfortunately for the racist architects of Apartheid, biology isn’t that simple, and it was not uncommon for so-called coloured people to be reclassified as white, or vice-versa based on an arbitrary standard like the infamous pencil test. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pencil_test_(South_Africa)

Ukuguqula lbatyi (the pencil test) 
by Kemang Wa Lehulere

Stories of racial confusion abound. Consider how a person who self-identifies as coloured in South Africa might be called black in America, and vice-versa. How would a Fijian be identified in America? How would an Inuit have been classified under Apartheid? To me the most ridiculous racial category of all is ‘Asian’. That means Russians, Turks, Kazakhs, Mongolians, Japanese, Afghans, Indians and Taiwanese Aborigines are all the same ‘race’.

Clearly, this is absurd, and so the argument in favour of racism is that you would need more fine-grained distinctions. But how much more fine-grained? From an outsider’s perspective, Indian people might look like a unified race, clearly distinct from other Asian peoples like the Chinese. But, from a closer perspective, it could be argued that North Indians (who mostly speak Indo-European languages) are racially distinct from South Indians (who mostly speak Dravidian languages). And so on, ad nauseam.

Finally, there is the argument from genetics. Genetics can prove the reality of race, even when we can’t see it, right? Well, yes and no. One of the most persistent and pernicious racial divisions in the world today is the distinction that is drawn between the black ‘race’ and the white ‘race’. The crux of this binary distinction is that all whites are of European descent and all blacks are of African descent. Unfortunately for the racists, genetics explodes the idea that there is a simple binary distinction between two homogeneous groups. There is no simple binary because there is more genetic diversity within Africa than in the rest of the world combined.

Racism isn’t just lazy thinking that splits humanity into false and superficial categories; it’s also lazy thinking that lumps genetically disparate groups of people into categories which confirm pre-existing biases. And that goes a long way to answering the riddle. Why does racism persist? Ultimately it’s just lazy thinking. And if we want to challenge racism, we all have to give up any kind of lazy stereotyping. We have to treat every individual as an individual and always resist the temptation to split or to lump, because humanity is far too complex, wonderful and beautiful to allow such lazy categorisation.

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