Jamaica Magazine

Response to: Establishing a Race – Out of Many One People, We Are A Race Apart Part 2

I was devastated to read this article. I am a South African who together with my countrymen are desperately trying to shake off a systems which defined us wholly based on our race. And here is the suggestion to “add a new one”???? I think what Mr. Graham was trying to convey was a sense of pride in being Jamaican, in honouring customs which are shared on the island and in developing a shared cultural identity based on the diversity of history (perhaps ‘ethnicity’ which is a category based on shared customs and bonds would be a better term). Surely he is not suggesting that race should be kept as a category and that we should still use it to define ourselves? South Africa is also a country with a rich cultural heritage and groups from all over the place. Similarly we have a motto (spoken in the ancient tongue of the Khoi San people who were the first to populate the territory) which means “unity in diversity”. A similar sentiment to yours. We are also questioning what that means and are trying to nation-build, to form a new narrative of who we are, a new identity… without falling into the same categories that the apartheid government gave us and without using the same rationale to create new categories.

Mr Graham, contrary to your statement that no-one seems to know what it is, I will define the current thinking on race which is fairly universal at present. ‘Race’ is a socially and historically constructed categorisation of people based on socially significant and observable physical features. These categories are then often linked to value-driven attributes such as intelligence. This means that the very reason for the existence of ‘race’ is ‘racism’. The *need* to develop the category is seen as intrinsic to and as a consequence of discriminatory practices. The concept emerged as an ideology (it was not a ‘natural’ observation of humanity) during the colonial era during which the subjugation of indigenous populations was legitimised and justified on a ‘theoretical’ basis. Much early anthropological and scientific research on ‘race’ was guided by ideological pressures that somehow tried to relate social attributes and level of advancement to physical attributes ‘common’ to certain groups of people. The categorisation and grouping were socially significant, it can be argued, in the sense that they were phenotypes (observable physical features) of peoples that those in power wished to dominate. For example, height was not considered socially significant but skin colour was, thus creating “groups” from people with a darker skin colour rather than who were shorter.

In South Africa categorisation of ‘races’ and its supposed biologically determined social characteristics was used to organise and justify an entire administrative, political and economic system. A social reality and discourse of domination was therefore constructed and legitimised. The concept of ‘race’ and its classification (white, coloured, mullato etc) was erroneously attributed to naturally occurring biological (or genetic) differences and used as a scientific basis for categorising people and their characteristics. It was seen as immutable, obvious and natural phenomenon, removed from this social and historical context. The concept of ‘race’ has been fundamentally discredited as a biological or scientific category where it was found that genetic differences *within* ‘race groups’ was greater (up to 85% of differences within the human species) than between them (up to 15%). There are no permanent biological ‘types’ of human being. It was therefore rejected as being able to provide an explanation for causal behaviour within so-called or so-constructed ‘groups’. The concept of ‘race’ has impacted profoundly on socio-economic characteristics of modern societies and cultural and social identities. The socioeconomic inequalities on ‘racial’ grounds in South Africa, for example, cannot not be ignored even if the concept of ‘race’ has been discredited. It is therefore still considered an analytical construct in understanding cultural identity, prejudice, intergroup conflict (although the premise that ‘race’ groups are inherently conflictual has been questioned) and socioeconomic & political relations. For example, to understand the concept of ‘racism’ it is necessary to define the concept of ‘race’ which we know to be erroneous. The dilemma is then with this analytical construct is that the use of the term can lead to its reification, where the *social* reality of ‘race’ can be confused with an *immutable natural* reality. Even so, ‘race’ since remains a powerful sociocultural basis for identities.

Mr. Graham, I think that I understand the intentions of your articles. I just think we need to find new ways of defining ourselves, perhaps even outside of the ‘nation’ too. I am proud to be an African, and a South African, and a woman and all of these are part of my identity. I will not let my race (nor any one category for that matter) define that anymore. I hope that Jamaicans can still be proud of who they are, where they come from, what their customs are without declaring themselves a race. That form in America that you refer to (as it was in South Africa) already has too many tick-boxes. And let’s not forget that for every category that is created, there is discrimination. Those tick-boxes are not neutral. And ‘race’ was, is and always will be associated with physical features, no matter how cultural we try to turn it into. I am sad that a country which has produced so many freedom fighters, who opposed South Africa during apartheid vehemently through sporting bans for example, cannot move on from the discourse of race that the colonials gave us. But I applaud the initiative to explore what and who is Jamaican. It is a worthy initiative.

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