Saturday, April 07, 2007
American Colors: The Spin on Skin
The United States is uniquely ignorant in its obsession with race. All societies have institutionalised prejudice in one form or another; older societies have gone through many cycles of creating and dismantling hierarchies as various coalitions wrestled with the economic and social spoils available.
The idea here is to consider the American case as an anthropological absurdity rather than a comparative assessment of its moral status vis-a-vis related prejudice.
The first thing that struck me as absurd about American popular and institutional notions on race is its conscious connectivity with skin color. In reading through anthropological texts, the orthodoxy suggests that genetic differentiation intra-species was superficial (in terms of nose bridge structure/hair texture/skin color) and that the quasi-science of race nevertheless was defined in some non-superficial matrix : Austric, Caucasian, Mongoloid, etc., based on climatic and other adaptive contexts.
In the US, the census and many employment documents show a pervasive sense of politically/socially defined race categories exclusively and ignorantly based on skin color! So racial categories are white/black/yellow, etc. The sense of self/other is eurocentrically derived...so, the polite phraseology for blacks is african-american, whereas for whites, it is not european-american. So people from the Indian subcontinent who may be Caucasian or Mongoloid are called Asians (race category!). Thankfully I have not seen a category of "brown/yellow" in census documents; perhaps a young society cannot think in a less simplistic dimension than black/white in formulating prejudice hierarchies.
There is a definition of freedom and equality that seems inconsistent with the above, but is savagely upheld as being true despite the commonality of superficial race discourse across American society. A typical American is quite content to comment negatively on European or Asian (old society) class and caste hierarchies as laughably sophisticated prejudice in opposition to his/her own sense of freedom/equality in American society. The next moment, that same naive citizen will speak in the most ignorant manner about race categories in terms of skin color. This is ingrained at all levels in language, media, government, and in personal lives. A society founded on the massacre of native populations, and the systematic enslavement of other human beings must naturally be racist, but what is amazing about American racism is its focus on skin color as a defining characteristic of race, in defiance of all scientific and anthropological evidence.