I went to my local DVD store last week and sought to purchase more films that touched upon the issue of race. I searched this relatively large store but could not identify more than a handful of relevant movies, most of which I already owned. I therefore approached a store person (he was the manager) and asked whether he could recommend some films with race as the subject matter or key theme. The manager‘s instant utterance was: ‘ouch…’quickly followed by: ‘There is not that many… you know… it is such a sensitive subject, not many directors would go near it’. There was so much in that minute long initial interaction both in terms of verbal and non-verbal communication that I could easily write an essay on it. Fear not! I will refrain.
I did not sense any hostility or racism in the interaction at all. I was dealt with courteously, warmly and, after the somewhat awkward start, the manager was in fact quite helpful. Nevertheless, I thought about the ‘ouch’ much more than anything else he said. I reflected on the beauty of its rawness and on what I thought was a genuine and uncensored expression of internal discomfort. I pondered upon what might have been revealed about that White man’s experience of me as a Black woman using the word race. This led me to the current post within which I aim to examine my use of the word race. It seems to me that race has become a dirty word, arguably for good reasons. It is a word that, as illustrated above, creates discomfort and controversies. We are being told to stop using it and to replace it with ethnicity.
Race, ethnicity…does it matter?
Traditionally a distinction is made between race and ethnicity. Whilst race has for long been related to biological factors and physical features, ethnicity on the other hand, aims to highlight cultural factors such as a sense of shared ancestry, history, language, etc… Moreover, some may see race as having ascribed status as opposed to ethnicity which is usually envisaged as self-ascribed. In other words, the objectivity/subjectivity orientation appears to be one underlying but often unrecognized dimension of difference between the two terms. In reality however, racial classification is both self-defined and externally-ascribed. The problem it seems to me, with the preferential use of the term ethnicity is that it establishes it as a somehow more valid and more significant concept.
I am no expert on social constructionism but one argument I often hear to support the use of the term ethnicity is that race is socially constructed but, isn’t ethnicity also a social construction? It seems to me that both race and ethnicity matter and that today’s insistence on the use of the term ethnicity rather than race, also needs to be socially situated and critically deconstructed. Like the “biological” theories (proved to be scientific fallacies) which were established by dominant groups as social facts to reproduce racial inequalities and perpetuate their privileges, it may be argued that insisting on the use of the term ethnicity today, may help distract from the structural inequalities and institutional oppression that derive from the social construction of race as a ‘social fact’ and thus, also serve to maintain racial hierarchy. From that perspective it can be said that choosing the word race is also a political act on my part. I do not believe that the continued use of the word race perpetuates racism.
Facing up to race and its dynamics
My personal view is that the denial of racism and colour blind explanations of inequalities are much more likely to perpetuate racism by leaving it unaddressed. It is because racism exists and continues to affect the lives of millions of people, that some of us prefer to use the word race as opposed to the more palatable and arguably more politically correct term, ethnicity, particularly in relation to inequalities and injustice. When we speak about ethnicity, the legacy of the constructed inferiority of certain groups can be disowned and there is usually no intended reference to continuing structures of hierarchy and power. When we speak about race however, there is- whether explicitly or implicitly. Racialization, in my view simply takes things a little further by placing the emphasis on the dynamic aspects of race and on how the process of categorizing people consciously or unconsciously only really become socially significant in the exercising of power and for creating/perpetuating disadvantage/inequalities. All terms are loaded with meanings, connotations and have inherent flaws. My choice of term is not fixed. It is not a ‘till death do us part’ position. Rather, at this point of my intellectual journey and life, I feel that the choice I have made word wise, allow me the lenses and framework to make sense of the world but also to advocate for change and equality. Of course, I may be defined as having a chip on my shoulder and/or be problematized in other ways but, I have decided, that for now at least, this is a small price to pay in comparison to the pain I would inflict myself by remaining silent.
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