Social Issues / Race And Culture

Race And Culture

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Autor:  anton  17 November 2010
Tags:  Culture
Words: 1070   |   Pages: 5
Views: 305

Scientists and sociologists for the most part have finally been able to discount the concept of race as having no scientific basis, though what is perhaps a more important and fundamental aspect of the race phenomenon is that it was able to happen at all. Indeed, race is a purely a social construct and explanations for it on a scientific level can not be provided, however one part of the peculiar concept is surely traceable to biological origins: the capacity of humans to discern and implement the idea. The ability to make categorizations, to separate and then classify people based on their skin color is an inherent human characteristic (other animals are not racist?) and so when discussing how racialization occurred and can occur, it should be noted that the imposition of stringent ideologies was and is not a new phenomenon; people have been capable of and have done it for centuries just not in the way race does by skin color. When race was introduced as a concept it was not hard for people to embrace it fully, as people are just naturally susceptible to ideas of categorization, of dividing the complicated world up so as to make it easier to comprehend. Thus when confronting the question of how racialization occurred, it should be understood that in fact one is confronting a biological likelihood: that people are inclined to do categorize, a historical truth: that people have been implementing the process of categorization for a very long time and an interesting aspect of reality: that in order to function at all, at least when living in a dynamic society, people may need to do it (the implication is not that people need the category of race, but certainly some categories are helpful).

By viewing race in this manner, as indistinct from any other form of categorization such as nationality or culture or even class, it is easier to understand how it could become established. Though race is now considered by most to be a purely social construct with no biological bearing, it has in fact always been a social construct, the scientific justification for such only being introduced later. From its inception as a social category, race has been implemented to explain differences between social groups, explanations that were not necessarily indicative of malicious intentions, but merely ignorance. According to Michael Omi and Howard Winant, in the article "Racial Formations", race’s formation can be traced to European explorers’ first encounters with the New World. They "discovered people who looked different than themselves—natives that challenged then existing conceptions of the origins of the human species and raised disturbing questions as to whether all could be considered in the same ‘family of man.’" Here, the implementation of race is almost a natural response in an attempt to explain the unexplainable, at least to early Europeans, that other cultures (in the New World at least) actually existed.

Race seemed to be equivalent to culture in these times, the Europeans, incapable of comprehending Native American culture, wondered whether all "human beings had redeemable souls." It would be interesting to consider a hypothetical situation in which the Indians and Europeans had identical cultures with skin color as the only difference between the two. It is hard to imagine that the latter would condemn the former as heathens in this case, though because in reality the cultures were considerably different, the Europeans were inclined to develop justifications for the discrepancy—first it was religion, with the Natives as heathens, then later skin color, with the Natives as racially inferior. What was not necessarily natural about the Europeans’ reaction and can not be attributed to human propensities but rather to the European mindset was the unequivocal condemnation of the Native culture, while some Natives were said to embrace the Europeans. Surely both groups saw the other as foreign; however, while the Natives initially exhibited tolerance, the Europeans proved incapable of such open-mindedness, reflecting perhaps the underdeveloped state of Europe’s thinking, at least in the field of cultural relativism, at that time.

It is this mindset which seems to be the juncture between categorization as an intrinsic social process and racialization as an empirical social process. As stated many times before, people almost naturally discern prominent external appearances of others (e.g. weight, dress, skin color) and then group them together accordingly (relative to themselves). Similarly, A. Smedley observes that "people who share similar [characteristics] see themselves as distinct from other populations." However, racialization is peculiar because it takes these superficial qualities and assumes biological discrepancies between the observer and subject. Most crucially, racialization presupposes superiority and consequently inferiority.

This classification does not seem to be a naturally occurring development in human thought. Though it may not have been particular to European culture, the institution of it, as it is known today probably began with Europe’s employment of the social hierarchy. Omi and Winant note that, "the expropriation of property, the denial of political rights, the introduction of slavery and other forms of coercive labor, as well as outright extermination, all presupposed a world view which distinguished Europeans—children of God, human beings, etc—from others." In this case, racialization became the justification for institutionalized oppression of different so called "races", though it is difficult to determine whether the hierarchy was a result of the oppression or vice versa. Certainly both reinforced each other, but what seems to be the case is the ideology came first. The Europeans initial negative reaction to the Natives’ culture, or any other for that matter, dictated their subsequent actions of exploitation and murder; indeed, first the concept had to be manifest, before the actions could be performed. The psychological process of race formation is important here. First, it was observed that different cultures existed (an observable fact). Then, it was established that some cultures were superior to others (a natural human response: mine is better than yours). Later, the reasons explaining why they were different arose, mainly darker/lighter shades of skin. Lastly, actions resulted. These surely reinforced the justifications, but the latter was necessary to initially spark the former.

What is crucial to understand here, is racialization comes about not from external forces but from people’s natural propensity to implement categorization in order to comprehend the complicated world. Certainly, some societies are more racialized than others (the US compared to Brazil), but it is an unavoidable that racialization will occur as long as different cultures exist.

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