What follows is an essay that I recently wrote for one of my classes (entitled Classics 305: Inventing the Barbarian). I decided I would post it here, as it might make for some interesting reading.
Prior to giving serious study to the subject, my thinking process and attitudes on race were shaped largely by my experiences the social climate in which I spent my formative years. When I was knee-high to the proverbial grasshopper back in northern New Jersey, my family was one a few gentile families in a predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood. My next door neighbor and best friend for years was a girl with a white mother and a black father. A diverse selection of races was present in my kindergarten and First grade classes. People were aware of the differences, but by and large they accepted one another. This is not to say that I lived in some sort of egalitarian utopia; there was some discrimination, as there will be in any human society, and there were times when I myself was on the receiving end of it (which, I suppose, is to be expected when one is part of the minority). Bearing in mind my experiences of being one of the others made me somewhat doubtful of Snowden’s description of an egalitarian classical oecumene, as appealing as his portrait was. When I moved to Kansas City I was quite aware of the difference in the cultural climate, even at my relatively young age. This was the first time I ever really gave serious thought to the issue of race.
For many years thereafter, my way of defining race was in lock-step with the cultural norm—race, I thought, was a matter of physical traits and cultural practices (the latter including language). On the other hand, the more I read about history and the movements and intermingling of nations, tribes and ethnoi, the more that definition becomes ambiguous. Some of what I have read has questioned whether or not race was a scientific fact, or a concept created by humans. As we have seen in Jared Diamond’s article, people can be classified and race can be ascribed in a variety of ways, depending on what criteria one wants to use. For my part, I still believe that race is a fact; that Zulus and Scotsmen are different from each other in several noticeable ways is quite obvious. On the other hand, I don’t think that race is the be-all-end-all of anthropology. To put it another way, I find that race is like gravity—it exists, and it is important, but actually defining race is something of a Sisyphean task.
None of the various criteria that I have seen used have been able to encompass all aspects of race. Physical characteristics—perhaps thanks to miscegenation of different ethnic groups over time—do not define race completely. For example, we tend to think of both Taurinese and Sicilians as being Italian, but the former group tends to have noticeably lighter skin than their southern cousins. I still believe, however, that physiognomy is an important element of race. Neither is language a satisfactory barometer for determining race—the dialect of Italian spoken by a native of Turin is not at all what a native of Syracuse would speak, to return to my earlier example. For an even starker contrast, one may consider that Haitians and Quebecois both speak French dialects, though it is plain to see that they are not the same race.
I think that much of the difficulty in defining race can be ascribed to the historical tendency of various peoples to come into contact and intermingle with one another (with sometimes violent results, as has been the case throughout history). The very reason that black Hatians in the Caribbean speak roughly the same language as white Parisians is a direct result of French colonialism, of which the abominable (at least by modern standards) practice of slavery was an integral part. Similarly, the gradient of physical attributes visible among the various peoples of Europe (or indeed most other places in the world) owes much to the fact that myriad tribes have invaded and fought over land and resources for untold centuries. Of course, this is all just a theory for which I have no solid evidence. Nor do I have an explanation for why the different tribes should have been so different in the first place—evolutionary response is a tempting scapegoat, but here too there is a troubling paucity of evidence.
Much of our difficulty in understanding race, I believe, arises from social and cultural obstacles. Primary among these is the phenomenon political correctness. It has been my suspicion for some time that we as a society tend to dance around the issue of race, typically for fear of offending someone or sounding racist or otherwise discriminatory, and thus many of the conflicts regarding race often go unresolved. On the other end of the spectrum, our xenophobic tendencies can lead to violence when left unchecked—consider, for example, the 1967 race riots in Newark and the 1992 riots in Los Angeles, or the immigration controversies in the United States and the United Kingdom which continue to this day. In this day and age, where ethnic and cultural diversity is considered a point of pride, the crux of the problem may be that we either do not acknowledge that race is an issue or are unable to deal with racial tensions in a nonviolent manner. Not that I mean to belittle diversity—it does a species well to introduce new genes into the collective gene pool; dogs of mixed breeding, for example, are often more intelligent than their thoroughbred counterparts.
So where does this leave me? I still believe that race is a naturally-occurring phenomenon, and that it is a matter of no small importance. Defining race, on the other hand, is a troubling matter. Yet if we are to come up with a satisfactory definition of race, we perhaps ought to reconsider out attitudes concerning the subject in the first place.