What is race?

We are more than the colour of our skin. - Bianka Kozera

Dr. Fredric Weizmann talks about race and its impact

Rama Kaba

We are more than the colour of our skin. - Bianka Kozera

Is the concept of race but a figment of our imaginations? Here, Dr. Fredric Weizmann, professor emeritus, Department of Psychology, weighs in on race, racism, and bleaching:

Kaba: How many kinds of race are there among the Homo sapiens?

Dr. Weizmann: The scientific consensus today is that while there are some genetic differences between various populations, these differences do not justify the division of humankind into discrete racial groups. There are still some, however, who defend the concept of biological race. Most commonly they argue for three racial groups, based on skin colour, although some have argued that there are several more.

Kaba: How old is the concept of race as a classification of identity?

Dr. Weizmann:The first attempt at a racial classification I know of was proposed by Francois Bernier, a French philosopher and traveller, in the 17th century. However, the concept of race comes into its own in the 18th century. In the mid-18th century, Linneaus, in his biological classification system, proposed that there were four human races. In the 1770s, Johan Blumenbach also proposed a highly influential racial classification scheme. It was Blumenbach who proposed the term “Caucasian” as a term for European whites. Ironically, Blumenbach himself came to believe that racial differences did not really go that deep.


Kaba: How would you describe the concept of race in the 20th century?

Dr. Weizmann:Racial groups are what philosophers call “natural kinds,” and the existence of discrete races seems to be “common sense.” Others see racial distinctions as reflecting social and cultural realities and not simple biological ones, while others focus on the fact that there has been such an admixture of genes historically, especially when one is talking about Black-white differences in North America (and Latin America and parts of the Carribbean) that invoking biology to explain “racial” differences makes little sense.

One can see some of this confusion even in the professional and scientific literature. For example, finding that there are differences in the prevalence and the methods of treatment among different ethnic groups has led to confusion about the meaning of racial differences within the medical community, which have also leaked over in the general population. The use of DNA for genealogical purposes has also led some people to conclude that races are real biological entities. I would suggest that this is a misreading of the implications of these developments, but the arguments are complex and won’t fit on a bumper sticker.


Kaba: Is there such a thing as unconscious racism? A person who discriminates against skin colour without even realizing it? Or is racism a conscious act?

Dr. Weizmann: I think we make the single word “racism” cover too many things. There is systemic, or institutional racism, which refers to social arrangements that disadvantage racial minorities in a society, and although some individuals may be quite aware of this state of affairs and seek to perpetuate it, for many people in the dominant group in society, this kind of racism is invisible, unacknowledged, and unintentional. Minority group members themselves are likely to be much more aware of the kinds of racial barriers this kind of racism constructs.

Then there is the kind of racist attitudes that anyone growing up in a society characterized by beliefs in racial stereotypes and prejudices absorbs to some extent, often without realizing it. Within the individual, this may co-exist with other often contradictory beliefs about racial differences and egalitarianism. I suppose this is what you mean by unconscious racism, although I would prefer the term “implicit racism.” This is a phenomenon that social psychologists have begun to study.

Finally, you have people who embrace prejudicial beliefs and attitudes. I would call this conscious (I prefer the term deliberate) racism. I think nowadays systemic and implicit racism is probably a bigger problem overall in our society, than is deliberate racism, but that is probably not true everywhere or in all segments of society.


Kaba: What role would you say Darwin’s theory of evolution had on racism? Do you believe that his idea about natural selection was an intentional or unintentional theory promulgating racialism? Or was his theory just abused by Social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer and William Graham Summer and Francis Galton for political and social purposes?

Dr. Weizmann: Darwin was a creature of his time and did believe in racial differences. He also believed in the superiority of European civilization, but he never distinguished clearly between the biological and cultural in his discussion of this superiority.

Overall, he did not think racial differences [were] that important. (He did not even believe in the fixity of species let alone races, in an evolutionary sense.)  He was also a vocal opponent of slavery. It is true other writers used evolutionary arguments to justify racist beliefs, but those who criticize evolutionary theory from this standpoint fail to point out that the Bible and religious injunctions were often used to justify slavery and doctrines of racial superiority. In fact, both evolutionary theory and religion have been used to justify a wide variety of contradictory beliefs about race and related topics.

I might add that although the phrase Social Darwinism is quite common, a number of writers, like Howard Kaye, have pointed out that many of those described as Social Darwinists, including a number of successful capitalists known for their harsh practices, were practicing Christians. There are strains of Calvinist thinking that can be interpreted as a justification for practices that could be considered Social Darwinist.

At the time Darwin was writing, a number of scientists and thinkers believed that different races were members of different species. Darwin believed that all humans were members of a single human species. I mention this not as an isolated fact, but because it illustrates the kinds of issues about race that were prominent in Darwin’s time, and provides information as to the context in which Darwin was writing and against which he should be judged.


Kaba: Do you think we are moving away from the mess created by Social Darwinists like Hernstein and Murray, with their ideas that culture, intelligent, and knowledge are racially determined and cannot be changed? Or are we finally settling in their beliefs, with the advanced technology and medicine that allows us to change our biological appearances, from our skin colour to features that implicate us as a certain race?

Dr. Weizmann: Some days I feel more optimistic about progress in changing racial attitudes than others, but I am not sure that blurring the line between groups through some kind of technological fix is an answer. Certainly, the mixing of populations might help in easing racial tensions and stereotypes. However, the need to find groups to blame when things are not going well is commonplace. Conflict and the perpetuation of invidious beliefs about the “Other” are not always that difficult to achieve, given hard times and the deliberate stoking of tensions between groups by leaders and would-be leaders. Freud wrote about the “narcissism of small differences.”

We should remember that Muslims and Christians in the former Yugoslavia were not really that different from one another; they came from the same ancestral Slavic people, spoke the same
language and mixed and intermarried with one another quite freely, but that was not enough to prevent the conflict in Bosnia. Similarly, it was 19th century colonial administrators who created the sharp demarcation between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. It was not the legacy of some ancient historical differences. If there is to be a change in racial and ethnic prejudice in all its forms it will have to be based on an acceptance of both commonalities and differences between groups.


Kaba: What are your thoughts on people who bleach themselves believing that Blackness is a mark of race that can be taken off?

Dr. Weizmann: Ultimately, I don’t think that is a workable solution for individuals struggling with issues of identity and race.  Even if one is able to “pull it off” I would guess it does leave a residue of unease or even guilt in the individual.


Kaba: Is there a difference between someone bleaching or tanning themselves to fit into a certain ethnicity?

Dr. Weizmann: There is a big difference. It used to be that being pale in some Western countries was a mark of status among whites, because it implied that one did not have to work in the sun. Now it is fashionable to be tan. But I think this is for social and cosmetic reasons, not because one wants to fit into an ethnic group characterized by darker skin. I think people who bleach themselves do it to avoid the prejudice that comes with darker skin in our society.


Kaba: Do you think it’s possible to view one’s body as Chris Shilling suggests, “an unfinished biological and social phenomenon?”  With that in mind, can one alter his or her skin colour without changing their concept of what race/ethnicity they identify themselves as? Or is our skin colour our ID, and that’s why we spent so much time altering it?

Dr. Weizmann: I think people have multiple identities and which identity is most prominent at a given time depends on the situation. It is quite common, for example, to hear Canadian or American Blacks go to Africa and come back saying that they felt much more Canadian or American in Africa than they did at home.

That said, there is probably a “root” identity which is formed around early childhood experiences and which is often based on a religious or racial identity, which may include skin colour, and which we identify as the “real me”—hence our fascination with our ancestry or family history. Sometimes knowledge about our ancestral or family history can be useful in understanding ourselves. However, having a very fixed and rigid idea about our identity can
be a barrier to discovering how much we have in common with other people, skin colour notwithstanding.

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