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Is it Time to Part with the Word ‘Race’?

May 11, 2022
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Peter Mousaferiadis, CEO & Founder, Cultural Infusion

When working in the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) space, the most pressing issues that continually arise, yet are most vigorously avoided, are those of ‘racism’ and ‘anti-racism’. The question of how we can prevent ‘race’-based discrimination from occurring in the workplace and broader society is an important topic, with much already written on it. This is not a piece about that. Instead, I want to unpack and explain some of my thoughts on the very concept of ‘race’ so we can replace the word itself (and its derivatives) with more accurate and helpful words.

As the child of Greek migrant parents, my introduction to what is commonly called ‘racism’ occurred early. 

As Greek migrants in Australia, our names were used against us, hence why many of us Anglicised our names. In the early 70s, I grew up behind my parents’ milk bar, and was aware of people’s assumptions, as well as more acute episodes of aggression against them, such as vandalism and hate speech. Later in life, I myself experienced some of the systemic and structural discriminatory practices that riddle our society, in the forms of microaggression, ignorance and in the realisation that opportunities afforded to some people were not afforded to me seemingly because of my origins or ethnicity. This has been my lived experience – everyone’s is different. I do not write this to complain – life is what it is – but as a prelude to unpacking the concept of  ‘race’. 

In order to begin, we must discuss the intersection of appearance, culture and ancestry – and how these things interconnect with the concept commonly called ‘racism’.

‘Race’ is the least intrinsic aspect of ourselves, and yet, it is the most significant factor in how we are perceived. We in the Anglosphere have ascribed a great deal of false meaning to the concept of ‘race’, which is itself a social construct. ‘Race’ is not genetic – it is a fiction. But it is a dangerous fiction that can lead to mindless insults, genocide and everything in between. It is the dangerous fiction that led an Australian man to massacre 51 peacefully worshipping people in a mosque in New Zealand on 15 March 2019. 

All too many still give credence to a concept that has long been discredited by scientists. 

Research has found that people in Africa have less in common with one another than they did with people in Eurasia, i.e., on average, two individuals in Africa are less genetically similar to each other than either one of them is to an individual in Eurasia. Current science tells us that we share a common ancestry and that all humans are 99.999% alike. The 0.001% variation that exists in all humans is related to geographical and evolutionary processes. Genetic variation is an amazingly complex result of evolution and to reduce it to the concept of ‘race’ is plain wrong. It’s culture that sets us apart.

Given that we are so overwhelmingly biologically alike, it is worth unpacking why it is our biological differences – incredibly minor, usually superficial – that we fixate on. Let us be perfectly clear: ‘race’ is a purely sociopolitical construction, but belief in it has terrible consequences. ‘Racism’ is not a prejudice against humans of different ‘races’, because, as the above information tells you, there are no different human races. Rather, ‘racism’ is the process whereby certain characteristics – religion, skin, hair colour, facial features and even size – are taken as signs of essential biological difference and conflated with ethnocultural differences. 

Interestingly, and from a historical perspective, the idea of ‘race’ is actually quite recent. Previous empires, such as the Greek, Roman and Ottoman, did declare their supremacy, as empires are wont to do. This was based on religion, wealth, power. Previous civilisations did believe they were superior to others. They were not concerned, however, with people’s skin colour or other supposed biological differences. Race was not a concept until the birth of the American colonies where white supremacy was written into law in order to subjugate the black slaves kidnapped from Africa and justify slavery. 

Take note, this is a particular form of discrimination and we mustn’t perpetuate language that reinforces dangerous non-truths. So is it time now to drop the word ‘race’ (and ‘racism’ etc) and replace it with ‘supremacism’ or other language that is really describing what is going on?

‘Race’ as we know it today is a social construct that enabled one group of people to dominate another and perpetuates systems of inequality – this is what has commonly been called ‘racism’. 

We need to understand this form of socio-cultural discrimination by recognising what drives groups of people to want to dominate others. The key drivers are that evolutionary biological mechanism called ‘fear’ and its loud, insistent siblings, ‘ignorance’, ‘trust deficit’ and ‘risk aversion’.   

Where did this fear come from? Fundamentally, even though ‘race’ is a social construct, fear is very much a neurobiological mechanism. As children we learn the importance of seeking sanctuary in other people. It starts with our mothers and other family members in early childhood. We are social the moment we are born and we, as people, are hardwired to want to congregate and group, for survival, with other people we perceive as ‘like us’. 

The trouble with this way of functioning is this: when those ‘like us’ are our ‘family’, by default, those we deem ‘not one of us’ are cast in the role of ‘others’, even hostile enemies. This is instinct, but we can overcome it. We do not need to await some biological evolution that may never come.   

The conflation of appearance, culture and ethnicity perpetuates inequality, poverty and division that ultimately benefits no one but imperils our survival as a species. We can disaggregate these concepts by taking a data-driven approach to developing anti-discrimination strategies. 

In the US, Australia and many other parts of the world, ‘race’ is often mistakenly conflated with ethnicity. For example, in the US, one can be:

·        White

·        Black or African American

·        American Indian or Native Alaskan

·        Asian

·        Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander

The category of ‘white’ is defined as a person having origins from Europe, the Middle East or North Africa. This illustrates the arbitrary nature of such categorisation.  And when did I become ‘white”? I have no idea. 

Almost all encounters are, to a greater or lesser degree, discriminatory. This is to say, they are approached by the values and standards of our own culture. It is natural to use what is familiar to us as the benchmark for normality in all those we encounter.   

The social construct of ‘race’ is one way we ‘other’ those we perceive as unlike us.  Anti-discrimination work is not the mere absence of discriminatory behaviour, but describes actions and changes in thought processes that prevent discrimination in the first place. It is an answer to how we restore relations and create environments in which discrimination of all kinds cannot flourish.  

Effective anti-discrimination work means focusing on ethnicity and ancestral heritage, including religion and class, rather than ‘race’, and appreciating how this intersects with other dimensions of diversity. It means learning from and respecting different cultural and religious backgrounds and ethnicities, without stereotyping. It means ensuring no one is excluded or othered in our societies. This is why we need a data equity approach that goes beyond markers of ‘race’ and provides an intersectional data set where no one is otherised.

We get stubbornly attached to words and language, which is why it is so important to investigate the words we use. Huge progress has been made in the past decades around the world, especially by Indigenous and African American thought leaders, towards dismantling the conceptual structures that placed ‘white Anglo’ at the top of a constructed hierarchy of worth in the Anglosphere. Most of this work has used the term ‘race’ and has helped redefine the word for many people. I know I stand on the shoulders of giants. Nor am I at all the first to suggest it’s time to lose this word. Geneticists are finally refraining from using this term.

There’s no doubt this word has served good purposes. But for a stubborn core of our population, the biological connotations behind the word ‘race’ are unshakeable, and this is where the danger lies. Every time the rest of us use the term ‘race’ (and its derivatives) it inadvertently validates the concept behind the word for these deluded people who have not caught up with the current scientific consensus and hold onto supremacist beliefs that scientists in the 19th century did actually help validate. This is why we need to lose the word. 

Audre Lorde famously wrote, ‘For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.’ 

Those of us working in the DEI space, and all who want a just and peaceful society, need to consider whether the word ‘race’ has led us as far as it can go in dismantling the concept of ‘race’, and whether we would be better served by other words. DEI is a dynamic space and if we are not self-interrogating and updating our terms of reference we are not doing the work.

It is crucial that we apply a forensic and intersectional lens to anti-discrimination work, and that we use effective language and tools to lead us through these challenging but potentially highly rewarding spaces. 

To this end, just as a generation of us Anglified our names for fear of them being used against us, what else will it take to structurally and systemically create a world that is safe enough, so that none of us feel compelled to compromise any aspect of our identity?

So, what words could replace ‘race’ and ‘racism’?

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