Friday, September 16, 2005

Blast from the past

Hurricane Katrina dusted up a lot of things including some old writtings on the issues of Race. To hear it said by the talking heads on TV Race is just skin colour. Here are some of my ruminations on this ancient debate. Whether it was class or Race it seems that the face of misfortune and misadventure in this pitiful situation is largely African American, it therefore stands to reason that their perception takes precedence. To the people of the Big Easy and those who have passed on let this be a turning point. 16/09/05

Race and oversimplification

The concept of Race represents a classic example how we oversimplify issues of human differences with negative and often comical consequences. In Race we deal with one of the most emotive subjects possible, on which everyone walks on eggshells. Nothing in this article is meant to justify racism or any form of discrimination.

Race as a concept is one of those that has endured for centuries out of an intellectual laziness and social dishonesty. It is now fundamentally established by the Human genome project that there is only one Race i.e. the Human Race. This biological fact is further magnified by discovery that confirms a common homo sapien ancestry traced to the African continent. In any other area of human enquiry that would have put paid to the belief that we are made up of different constituent races but we seem to be stuck on this haphazardly constructed model, we often signify this with skin colour which is a biologically insignificant marker and is environmentally adaptable. This enduring quality is based on something more powerful but far more complicated or complex, which is the power of culture that is reflected in ethnicity. Race is shorthand for ethnicity and in the Victorian world where African origin was associated with blackness and the relation of that colour to negativity and evil you can find the murky foundations of Racism. However in the 21st Century with its phenomenal access to information this cannot be sustained.

The way we use this redundant Race model is often misguided especially as a way to respond to the agenda of those who use it to hate, discriminate or manipulate. Let’s take the census categories used in the 2001 census in the United Kingdom. The official ethnic group classification or categories range from White, Mixed, Asian or Asian British; Black or Black British; Chinese or other Ethnic groups. The sub categories under these headings often deal with geography or nationality e.g. African or Indian. None of these categories are ethnic groups not even Caribbean or Indian. For example Africa is one of the most ethnically diverse continents in the world, the term black African covers people as fundamentally different as an Ashanti from Ghana and Fulani from Nigeria. Let’s take white even if accompanied by English or Welsh or other categories it still lumps a Romany traveller in with a Cockney. These choices of categories are largely reactive choices to the association of Race with pigmentation and nothing to do with collecting information that truly deals with requirements of the different peoples. For example a large number of asylum seekers were recently from Eastern Europe and like travellers end up in a white category even though the significant issue for travellers is lifestyle needs borne out of their culture.

Also these are not superficial simplifications, for example it is this thinking that has meant that the success of Gujarat Asian African migrants, who are mostly middle class or merchant class, has been extended to all Asian groups. This has meant that the needs of descendants of Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants’, who are largely working class and rural, had been overlooked. The economic shift from manufacturing to services amongst many others has radicalised these young men and led to serious confrontation on the streets of some Northern UK cities.

It is the same simplification that leads to stereotypes of disadvantage that in turn drives government policy. A glaring example is the much proclaimed underachievement of black boys in Secondary education; for the more sophisticated the focus is Black Caribbean boys. However the biggest gap is actually between children of parents of professional class and those whose parents are working class parents.

The solutions to addressing Racism as a peculiar and conscious perversion of reality cannot be found by adopting the very simplistic lenses of those of thrive on exclusion. The effect of this simplistic approach is to create a stereotype of perpetual Black victim hood which becomes internalised and institutionalised by both officialdom and those of us who are so labelled and it leads to lowering of standards and expectation by all concerned. There are those who want us to wait for discrimination to end before we exhale. This means that those who use Race to divide set the agenda and we all respond.

However there are real differences in culture, they are many, varied and complex, and they do not fit the simplification of skin pigmentation nor historical pseudo science. Culture is the basis of our differences in making meaning, the backbone of ethnicity and a major driver of our choices, it can be a source of conflict or when effectively utilised the bedrock of a new civilisation.

Part Two

Race and oversimplification ‘Culture instead of Race’

So what different insight would the world see if we exchange the concept of culture for Race? Imagine what the world looks like to me in terms of its operating culture. The default global operating software is European culture or more specifically Anglo American protestant culture. All the institutions that determine the nature and quality of human existence are largely built to operate this default cultural model.

Let’s illustrate this with a few choice examples from the subtle to the sledgehammer. Imagine what happens when the United Nations has a dinner for all members Head of States, what crockery do you think is used to eat the food, chop sticks? You bet they are served with a bewildering array of finest silver forks, knives and spoon. My point is if you are from Ibadan like me where dinner etiquette is allowing your elder to choose a big piece of meat from the communal bowl with their hand why should it be assumed in an international body that the polite or civilised way to eat is to position metallic contraptions in your mouth.
Maybe this example does not exemplify the power and omnipresence or pre-eminence of Anglo American cultural assumptions. Another example is the definition of ‘professionalism’ this is culturally loaded term because it assumes effectiveness is shaped by a dispassionate and objective approach that is able to detach the personal and exercise the rational. This is more in line with cultures that view emotion with suspicion and delineates human transactions and roles into water tight compartments. It is not only debatable whether this is ever truly achieved but it contradicts the cultural framework of many other civilisations that make up the world. Lets consider whose cultural frame work is used to develop something as important as the United Nations Human development Index which classifies national progress, what assumption are the indicators based on.

The unit called the Nation state emerged from European cultural history, the assumption of the marketplace being determined by the mechanism of demand, supply and price is also culturally shaped. We decide on countries who are justifiable to apply sanctions upon whether they a democratic or not even though democracy is only one tradition of representation and accountability from the European experience. Other civilisations have viable and alternative solutions but they are not allowed to evolve as every multilateral institution pushes this method as a prerequisite for support and now it’s a justification for invasions and other extra legal intervention. Lets not talk about the costume of choice the morbid suit, shirt and tie. It is also scary that education has now been narrowed to the certification approach that evolved from the European experience only.

The purpose of this excursion is not to say that these cultural devices are not beneficial to the world, in fact they are significant contributions to the interaction and progress of humans. However it creates a cultural superiority where it is assumed that European or Anglo American culture is the normal aspiration and achievement of civilised and developed societies. It often means that those who are not brought up in that tradition are at a disadvantage and since most of these devices are indoctrinated or coerced rather than a matter of choice it leads to dislocation for outsiders. It often means that their indigenous culture is rejected, relegated or subverted and they do not develop solutions that are consistent with their meaning system or their own circumstances. The effect of these on communities in Africa, Asia, Middle East and South America is profound as their choice is to become European caricatures or rebellious outsiders.

We all lose by this failure to respect and develop the different cultural frameworks from other civilisations and have a healthy dialogue about best solutions to some of the critical problems of the world. The assumption of European cultural supremacy often means that we have only one perspective and tradition to draw on for accepted ways forward. We are not using diversity where it counts the most and it has it greatest efficacy. Is it as surprise that we continue to use sanction and force with those whose cultures are at odds with ours, we dehumanise them and characterise them as underdeveloped. On individual levels it destroys human potential but on a society level it facilitates dependent cultures that depend on outsiders for solution. It is these that are the real challenges not a manufactured difference called Race.


ijakadi said...

Your comments about race are spot on. The various attempts to group people have always been over-simplfied because there has never been the correct or justifiable reasons put forward to classify people accordingly. Statistics which people seem to base /analyze a lot studies on, depends on interpretation. A simple illustration of my point. Arsenal FC has played at the time of writing 4 games as against teams that have played 6 games and therefore in 10th place in the EPL. The correct way to interpret the table is to group according to the number of games played (apple vs apples) although this also does not paint a correct picture. The correct table is the one at the end of the season. The bottom line is that statistics lie and are subject to interpretation and over-simplification.

On to an issue at hand. Another proposed census in Nigeria. A lot has been said by different groups of people on what format the census should take. This is evident in the fact that groups cannot agree on how Nigerians as a group conduct a proper census. Ugandans have already insulted Nigerians on the fact that they cannot conduct a viable census. See article Nigerians bristle at census jibe. Conducting a census should not be a divisive issue as it is playing out in Nigeria.

I will now add my 2 cents to the culture debate. Culture(food, language, customs, attire, etc) in its various manifestations is what is projected by a peoples to the world beyond them. As your example suggested, you will not be going to dinner hosted the Japanese ambassador and expect to eat a hamburger. You will be subjected to Japanese cuisine and chopsticks. This has been what the Japanese has consistently projected. The English has said no one should hug their queen and no one hugs their queen not even her husband. This has been consistently projected. There are foods in other cultures that you can only eat with you hands ie BBQ spare ribs (Chinese & American) to mention one. Culture has also been diluted, Peoples migrate to different places taking and adapting there culture to suit the situation which they find themselves. African culture is currently undergoing a rennaisance of sorts, even though it comes across as an exotic novelty.

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