Six of One, Half Dozen of Another

(I actually wrote this post Saturday night, which makes it pretty F-ing interesting that Prometheus 6 and I seemed to be on the same page on this by the time I actually got around to posting it this morning. This post expands on his definitions explaination, but I don’t think this is something that we are going to agree on, and I don’t think that it matters a whole lot between us. The problem I go into here is one much larger than me or P6. As for his response I linked here, I agree with enough of what he writes to endorse it.)

This is a drastic tangent to the Identity Blogging discussion, but it is something that I think that we all need to keep in mind. The terms that we are using for this discussion are simply not good enough for the discussion. The quality of our thought is only as good as our language, and for the past thirty years, the quality of our language when it comes to race relations has been degrading.

Using these words in an inexact manner is something that even I have been guilty of in the past few weeks, and I make a point of keeping myself on guard for it. Language is living. Words change meaning as we use them, and it becomes very difficult to use a word with a specific meaning when those you are conversing with are not using them in the same manner. We tend to adopt the definitions others use — and that is a Good Thing. It is what lets us communicate with each other without having to create a dictionary ahead of time. In this case, though, the definitions that we have been changing have been becoming more and more amorphous, an less useful as a result.

In the past, a lot of the words we use had very hard, specific meanings. The best example is the root of this discussion: “racism”. At one time, not so long ago, this word had a very specific meaning:

The belief that one race has a genetic superiority over another race.

That’s it. That was what it meant, and it was a commonly held belief. That isn’t the case anymore. When you want to find a Classical Racist — someone who believes in the genetic superiority of one race over another — you have to go far, far off into the wings of society. In a way, these people aren’t really much of a part of society, in that they tend to have very little influence. They aren’t a significant economic power. They don’t hold any social pull outside of their own enclaves. They don’t even have any redeeming cultural contributions. Aside from the people that they impact directly through violence, they simply don’t matter.

Even though the racists are gone, they didn’t take the word with them. Instead, the word was broadened to encompass more. What was once called bigotry is now racism. No one says “bigot” anymore — the bigot is now lumped in with the racist, and this makes it harder to discuss things. The bigot is lumped in with a greater evil, and the racist is allowed to hide within the ranks of the bigots. Our language softens, and with it goes our thought.

Even the word “race” has been subject to this. Ethnicity and race are used interchangeably. Race was once considered to be inherited. That manner in which it was passed on wasn’t exactly biological, but it was important that it was something that happened at birth. Ethnicity, on the other hand, was cultural. Race was part of ethnicity, but it wasn’t the entirety of it. The words are significantly different, but we use “race” too often when we mean “ethnicity”. Our language softens, and with it goes our thought.

One place that P6 and I seem to be on the exact same page is in that we as a society ascribe things to race that simply don’t need to follow. When we think “Black” there is an archetype that is associated with it that has nothing to do with race other than skin color (and even that is so amorphous as to be insignificant.) We think poor. We think undereducated. We think of an archetype of Black culture, and then we consign those who fall into this construction of race to a segment of society that reinforces this archetype. Black people drag black people down when they begin to leave this archetype behind. “Keep it real. Quit trying to act White.” White people ridicule them when someone begins to leave this archetype behind. “Where’s your soul? Whazzzup, playa?”

We spend enormous amounts of mental energy trying to come up with a magic bullet for the “Race Problem” and we can’t even agree on what “race” means, much less what the problem is. It certainly isn’t race, in the sense of some sort of genetically inherited quality. Is the problem cultural? It is institutional? Is it some sort of sick cosmic joke where coincidence conspires to make it seem like there is a problem when there really isn’t? We won’t know, because our soft language prevents us from even forming the thought in our mind. If we don’t have a word for a concept, we can’t keep that concept in our head.

We need to narrow the term “racist” down. We need to start using more descriptive terms like ethnicist. We also need to be very wary of allowing the idea of political correctness to soften our language. African-Americans have problems that are very different from the problems of Black Americans, but when we use the same word for both groups — one group with African immigrants, and one group of native Americans that have black skin — we confuse the situation. We don’t even have a word for people who are native Americans — people who have no ties to Africa, or Europe, or Mesopotamia, or wherever some of their ancestors may have come from 300 years ago — that doesn’t conflict with the term for American Indian descendants. Even this word conflicts with our term for Asian Indian-Americans. Our language softens, and with it goes our thought.

It has become painfully cliched, but when we get right down to it, there is only one race — human. The ideal world is one where race doesn’t matter. We are always going to have cultural or ethnic differences. There are ethnic differences between Dallas and Ft. Worth if you look for them. The idea of trying to tie these differences to race is a human construct that has lived long enough. That is what I meant when I said that we need to be deprogrammed, not reprogrammed. I think that it is something that we are going to have to do cold turkey. We cannot try to “correct” things by flipping ethnic preferences around without continuing the problem. To use an artificial preference based on an idea of race must perpetuate and reinforce the idea of race itself.

It is going to be a tough struggle, but it is one that we can either tackle ourselves or put off another 20 years and force our children to tackle.

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