What is race? Does the idea of race exist, or is it just a contradicting concept that cannot be defined? In the essay Race, Identity: Misunderstood connections; Kwame Antony Appiah explores these questions in depth and determines that American social distinctions cannot be understood by the concept of race. If this conclusion were true it must mean that the whole outlook we use for the classification of people is incorrect. When a student applies for college did he or she falsify information when he or she chose their race?
What would happen if the concept of racialism never existed? While I believe Appiah’s conclusion to be well supported and precise, I still find myself asking these questions. In hopes to make sense of all of this, I will explore the ideas of race in history, I will explore human nature of classification and racial distinction, and I will apply Appiah’s conclusion to the world we live in today to see if anything will really change and how so. The objective for this essay will be to prove that while Appiah’s conclusion may be true it does not hold water in the real world.
First I would like to begin with the history of how the concept of race as a social distinction came about, and what influences history has made on the term we now call race. We can look back at historical records of literature and see that this concept is very present. In Appiah’s essay he uses the example from H. G Hunter, which traces back the idea of generalizing a group of people by their physical bodies to the 17th century. Hunter Writes “Shakespeare has presented to us a traditional view of what Moors are like, i. e.
gross, disgusting, inferior, carrying the symbol of their damnation on their skin;”1 Shakespeare has used the physical body to portray more than physical traits. This classification of Moors as Inferior and carrying damnation on their skin is an early example of how far back racialism exists. Next, we fast track to the 19th century and the autobiography of our nations third president, Thomas Jefferson. In this writing we can see that history has set a distinction between races. Jefferson makes the claim “that the two races, equally free, cannot live in the same government.
”2 This claim was based on the false belief that blacks and whites where biologically different. Thomas Jefferson, who could even have been called an abolitionist of his time, wrote of separate races like there was some major genetic difference that separates every race. One view on this matter is what Jefferson believes makes blacks different biologically. “They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour”3 while this may seem very racist, it is what was believed to be scientific fact.
Jefferson was ahead of his time for the emancipation of blacks so his views of the biology of different races made it impossible to believe that races can be equal and cohabitate. Now with another jump in time we look at present day we have evolved our outlook towards race. Blacks have been emancipated. Segregation is a thing of the past. Blacks can vote, they receive the same pay for the same work, they are given the same due process as every other race, well at least the laws suggest as much. We have come a long way from the views of Thomas Jefferson. So why do we still view blacks and whites as different races?
It’s because we have such a deep history of all races being different that it came common practice to differentiate by this concept. Secondly, I will explain why, with human nature in effect; the conclusion Appiah makes cannot exist because of our nature to differentiate. The Merriam-Webster dictionary website defines human nature as the ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that are common to most people. 4 Now lets go refer back to Appiah’s text and look at the story from the beginning of his essay where he gives us the scenario of an immigrant from Canton is wondering what we have written when filling out the race section of their forms.
We didn’t ask them anything so why would you automatically choose a race without asking? In a paper written by Peter Wade Ph. D. of anthropology, Peter describes a hybrid theory which suggests that “humans are naturally predisposed to think ‘racially. ” The theory also suggests that ‘evolution has equipped us with a brain that tends to notice physical difference and make assumptions about people’s essential natures. ”5 This theory is supports the action we would take when put in the position of filling out race on an immigration form. This theory also
supports my theory that human nature is to identify someone based on look before we gather information about her. Therefore when seeing a person of Asian descent then being asked to describe them the first thing to come to mind is Asian, or Oriental. So what if we don’t have theses terms of race we use to differentiate. When asked to describe the person what would we say, our most likely reaction would make be to guess which country they were from or describe their physical features before we describe other physical traits. Does this make us racist?
Or are we just human with differentiation so engraved in our history that it becomes nature to use racial background as a descriptive feature. Appiah’s conclusion states “And so I look forward to taking up, along with others, the fruitful imaginative work of constructing collective identities for a democratic nation in a world of democratic nations”6. Appiah suggests that we develop collective identities for a democratic nation. If we were to accept his conclusion that racial distinction cannot exist than how would we make these distinctions he suggests?
In any way we classify people we can bring up questions on if the classifications are just. The only way we can accept Appiah’s conclusion is if we don’t make theses distinctions at all. The problem with this solution is that our human nature does not coincide with this idea. Finally, A look into the world we live in today with Appiah’s conclusion in effect. The United States is one of the most diverse places on the world. It is a place you can walk down a city street and see ten or more different ethnicities. If there were no racial distinctions between these people we can run into many situations where racialism plays a significant role.
For example; there are Equal opportunity laws that require colleges to be diverse. If we had no classification of race it would make it very hard to address this issue and a university can unknowingly accept students all of one race. This also can apply to hiring new employees. Therefore to accept Appiah’s argument we could be compromising the integrity of the Equal opportunity act. Although Appiah is correct to address the invalidity of some racial distinctions, there are many that help us make the world a better place.
Now imagine how we describe a person without racial distinction. We will still use appearance, language, traditions, country of origin, and exc. What is this idea that Appiah has of a “more recreational conception of racial identity”? 7 If we still identify a person using the same socioeconomic indicators wont we end up defining a race? A world without social distinctions we will end up with some alternative for social distinctions. In conclusion, we come to a dilemma when we think of Appiah’s ideas. While being correct in many ways it will only work in an ideal world.
We can conclude that the social distinctions we have made throughout history are based on race and they have set a norm for classification. We can conclude that human nature and racialism coincide and Appiah’s conclusion does not seem possible with the world we live in. With all of the above being said, I do believe that with time we can get closer to being more correct while making social distinctions based on race. We may even be able to come up with a more rational conception of racial identity. But to this day that conception just doesn’t exist.