Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Race and Ethnicity

The next few posts are going to explore ethnicity and race in South Africa.  To begin, I’d like to discuss the differences between the two terms so that we begin on common ground.  Most of my information will be taken from Elvin Wyly’s class notes for his Urban Studies 200 course offered in the UBC Geography Department.  I highly recommend reading his whole paper by clicking HERE.

We’ll begin with the term “race,” which refers to genetic characteristics attributed to a socially-identified racial group. 

As Wyly wrote:

The simplest way of defining race is “members of a group who see themselves — and whom others see — as having specific physical traits that set them off as different.”  The concept of race operates as a means of “social classification and differentiation that attempts to essentialize political and cultural differences by linking physical traits (i.e., skin, blood, genes) … to innate, immutable characteristics.”  Race is thus based on the notion of essentialism; it

“presumes that characteristics (tendencies, behaviors, dispositions, interests) of an individual can be projected to understandings of essential traits of a population or that the presumed traits of a population can be discerned through the characteristics of an individual.”

To be “racist” means that you associate certain traits with inherent genetic ability.  For example, assuming black people are lazy.  But this can also apply to positive characteristics, such as “Chinese people are good at math” or “Latin Americans are great dancers.”

Ethnicity, on the other hand, encompasses culture and history.  Again, I’m going to borrow directly from Wyly:

Ethnicity “is seen as both a way in which individuals define their personal identity and a type of social stratification that emerges when people form groups based on their real or perceived origins.” Ethnicity is fundamentally about a shared sense of history and experience, a “consciousness of kind.” 

And, to discuss both terms, I’m again copying and pasting from Wyly’s notes.  Seriously, you should just read the whole thing HERE.  It’s got pictures and footnotes and everything.

Most scholars today are extremely suspicious of the idea that racial categories or identities have any external reality.  But racism and racialization are very real indeed.  Racism is “any act that links tendencies, affinities, behaviors, or characteristics to an individual or community based on innate, indelible, or physiological characteristics, intended or not.” Racialization is the process by which individuals, groups, and institutions interact in ways that create and sustain understandings of racial difference.  These understandings can and do change, sometimes dramatically, over the course of just a few generations.  Racial categories and hierarchies are always under construction and reconstruction.  For many scholars, “race” has evolved from a noun to a verb, emphasizing process rather than taxonomy.

The contemporary emphasis on racialization as a process is an explicit challenge to the legacy of five hundred years of history, geopolitics, and science.  The concept of race was systematically developed, refined, and deployed with the rise of European colonialism and the making of the western capitalist world from the sixteenth century onward.  Racial identities certainly existed prior to the colonial era.  But

“Most scholars agree that earlier forms of social differentiation and hierarchy were different from modern ideas of race.  In the ancient world, for instance, the Greeks distinguished between the ‘civilized’ and ‘barbarous,’ the Romans between freedom and slavery, and the Christians between the savage and the saved.  But in all these cases difference was not fixed:  barbarians could become ‘civilized’ in Greek cities, Roman slaves were not determined by inherited traits, and Christians were offered the possibility of salvation through conversion.” 

Things changed with the exploration and conquests of the Portuguese, the Spanish, and other European powers beginning near the end of the fifteenth century.  Race became constitutive of modernity.  A doctrine of “blood purity” governed the Spanish Empire’s treatment of various indigenous populations in the Americas, and established a precedent for the hierarchical classifications that would flourish with all the scientific innovations of the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment.  Racial taxonomy became a key justification for slavery and colonialism, even as the methodology of racial classification became an important medium for the advancement of scientific knowledge.  The critical race theorist Cornel West puts it best:

“the authority of science, undergirded by a modern philosophical discourse guided by Greek ocular metaphors and Cartesian notions, promotes and encourages the activities of observing, comparing, measuring and ordering the physical characteristics of human bodies. … The creative fusion of scientific investigation, Cartesian epistemology and classical ideas produced forms of rationality, scientificity and objectivity that … prohibited the intelligibility and legitimacy of the idea of black equality in beauty, culture, and intellectual capacity.  In fact, to ‘think’ such an idea was to be deemed irrational, barbaric or mad.”

The second area of debate involves the contingent meanings of ethnicity.  Ethnicity

“is one of the most difficult concepts in the social sciences to define:  researchers disagree on the meaning of the term; social groups differ in their expressions of ethnicity; and some theorists challenge the credibility of the concept in the first place.” 

Geographer Daniel Hiebert notes that the term’s usage as a noun first “occurred in the early 1940s, when researchers sought to find a replacement for the word ‘race’ once it had become associated with the genocidal policies of the Nazi party.”  As a result, “ethnicity” is often used interchangeably with “race.”  As scholars raise critical questions about the validity of the concept of race, one consequence is an increasing use of “ethnicity” as a simple and presumably less controversial alternative; yet in many cases the same essentialist notions of physical racial difference are still at work.

Despite these problems, ethnicity remains an important part of social and cultural identity.  Scholars may not agree on the meaning or rational basis of the concept, but individuals and groups engage in a wide variety of practices based on beliefs about shared ancestry, culture, history, and origin.  These practices inevitably involve both inclusionary and exclusionary moves, and help to create boundaries of identification between “us” and “them.”  The construction of ethnicity, however, is a process of self-definition, while “racialization is always an imposed category.”


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