Friday, January 26, 2007

The end of race

In today's Times:

How to make my child feel like a black sheep
Jamie Whyte

I am white, my wife is black and our daughter, unsurprisingly, is brown. I think she is lucky. Her skin is almost golden and her hair falls in beautiful black ringlets that, thanks to my Celtic ancestors, reveal copper undertones when caught by the sun.

But according to Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, my daughter may be in grave peril. In a recent speech he claimed that, as a person of mixed race, she is at risk of “identity stripping”. She may “grow up marooned between two communities”.

Like many others in the race industry, Mr Phillips is a racialist. He thinks that your race is the most important fact about you. It is so important that it determines your identity and your community. If you are mixed race, you will have neither.

Mr Phillips is mistaken. Despite her brown skin, my daughter is no harder to identify than her white father or her black mother. She is a no more vague, nebulous or otherwise indefinite creature than any other human being.

Nor is she marooned between two communities. For I do not live in the white community and my wife does not live in the black community. As far as I know, there are no such communities. Despite our different colours, all three members of the Whyte family live in the same community, a nice bourgeois suburb.

My daughter knows she is brown but, at the age of 3, she does not believe it to be the most important thing about her. If anything, she is currently obsessed with her sex. She points to the characters of her illustrated books and declares: “I’m that one.” She often identifies herself with a blonde princess, but never with a dark-haired prince.

Alas, this state of blissful racial naivety will not be allowed to persist. She will hear people like Mr Phillips talking about “racial identity”, as if this absurd notion signified something real and important. One day someone will assure her that there is nothing wrong with being mixed-race, thereby suggesting to her for the first time that perhaps there might be.

I do not worry about my brown daughter suffering racist discrimination. That is rare in our community. I am more worried that she fall for the idea that her skin is her identity, and believe herself the victim of fantastical injuries such as identity-stripping. Then her “racial identity”, or lack of one, really will become a problem for her.

The interests of do-gooding organisations are always at odds with their goals. Succeed and you put yourself out of business. With racism in rapid retreat and mixed-race children on the rise, there is one great contribution the Commission for Racial Equality could make to its official cause. Stop existing.

Races don't exist, but physical variations (principally in skin pigmentation, eye shape and build) among groups have arisen over the thousands of years of human history, usually because people have had no choice but to mate with people who live in the same geographical vicinity.

Unless human societies change dramatically, this general state of affairs will continue for the forseeable future in most places of the world - China, central Africa, etc.

But in heavily multi-ethnic societies like Britain, that multi-millennia process of physical change will be largely wiped out within a few hundred years at most. The number of people calling themselves 'mixed race' rises exponentially with every new generation, both through more mixed marriages, and because the children of those marriages have their own children.

Ethnic cultures will probably survive longer than 'race'. That is, skin colour, eye shape etc will be increasingly poor indicators of ethnic group. People will essentially be able to choose which cultures they wish to 'belong' to, or slip between them as the mood takes.

It is important that even good 'racialists' like the CRE come to realise this - not just racists.


Anonymous said...

But in heavily multi-ethnic societies like Britain, that multi-millennia process of physical change will be largely wiped out within a few hundred years at most.

Well, I hope so, but I suspect that all that will happen is that the racialist will start talking about the English race again.

Anonymous said...

That's what happened in Japan.

Brit said...

The model is Hawaii. I find the idea that people will choose their own ethnic identity an interesting one.

Peter Burnet said...

But these debates aren't just about race/culture. Time and territority play big roles too. If you are talking about minority immigrants, then discrimination by the majority is the issue at play. But if you are talking about a minority that had a collective, territorially-based identity before the majority (or in some cases, more prosperous minority) arrived, the whole debate takes on a different tone that emphasizes the protection of differances as much as the defeat of discrimination.

That's why the Hawaiians and aboriginals are so race-conscious and the Quebecers so culture conscious and the Scots so territory conscious. They want separateness, not integration. And that is why they are so resistant to liberal, individualist arguments from the majority about how everybody should be prejudice-free and equal, especially when they know that the majority is pretty sure who is eventually going to assimilate into whom.

Brit said...

Yes, human affairs are of course vastly complicated and the idea that people can be classified into scientifically distinct Races is just one strand in the great tangled web of human misery. But it has been an incredibly destructive one.

Peter Burnet said...

That is also why the whole transnational human rights gig can be such a con. The average decent citizen of English-speaking countries just assumes it is about eradicating racial or cultural prejudice, but it is about artifical protection and establishing privilege as often as not.

Harry Eagar said...

Not sure what you mean by 'Hawaiians are so race-conscious.'

'Ethnically aware,' perhaps. The most popular person in Hawaii, Frank DeLima, is a comedian who satirizes ethnic differences. People here LIKE that.

There is a lot of one-upmanship in claiming as many different national origins as possible; a perfect score would be eight different great-grandparents, say, Hawaiian, Chinese, Japanese, English, Puerto Rican, Korean, Filipino and Norwegian.

But while people are sensitive to WHAT background they and the people around them are, most do not CARE.

With one exception, ALL identifiable ethnic subgroups in Hawaii marry more often outside the group than in. And the exceptional group -- men of Japanese ancestry, who have until recently been under heavy social pressure to marry nice Japanese girls -- marries out 40% of the time.

Nearly 20 years ago, Robert Schmitt, retired state statistician, actually lamented that soon he would be unable to analyze origins of Hawaii residents because we are all 'chop suey,' as we say here.

40 years ago, my father used to say that he looked forward to the time when Americans 'would be a tea-colored race.'

How people perceive themselves is unpredictable, but my father will turn out to have been right about skin color.

martpol said...

Trevor Phillips is indeed a loud-mouth who often seems to be in the wrong job, but it's hard to argue with the CRE's fundamental aim of eliminating racial discrimination.

Interestingly, 'race' seems to exist in Britain more as a means of identifying those who face inequality than as a living, breathing concept of daily importance.

When educational inequality is reported, it's said to be particularly prevalent amongst Afro-Caribbean children; demographic surveys talk about black populations living in the most deprived areas. Rarely do we hear about those 'communities' in a positive cultural context. Whether that's a function of media priorities or an indicator of British society as a whole, I'm not sure.