In what ways can we anticipate our racial future by recalling how societies have acted on race in the past?
There are many ways we can predict our racial future. By looking at the ways in which societies have acted on race in the past, it can be explored which roads different theories of race may venture down. One way racial future can be anticipated is through the post-racial theory, and how ‘race’ as a construct may be transcended based on the greater awareness society now has of its destructive nature in contrast to how it was viewed in the past. However, our racial future may also be a future of continuity because even in spite of our intentions to eliminate ‘race’, it still very much exists today. The methods of anticipation I will be exploring in this essay are points of perspective based on understanding the prevalence of race and its impacts on our racial future.
One way we can anticipate our racial future is by considering the post-racial potential. This potential is sparked by a reaction to the awareness of ‘race’ as a socially damaging institution, allowing it to be considered as a possible future for ‘race’. I will begin first by briefly explaining historical examples of racial hostility and then go on to show methods of response to this, demonstrating reasons for the ‘post-racial’ future potential.
It is believed that “racial ideology breeds conflict” (Hobson 1972 cited in Bonnett 2008: 22) and we see this through history; apartheid, colonisation of Asia, Nazi Germany, economic dominance of the ‘West’, Mexican migration to America. Through the racial binaries we have created, people have been segregated and moulded to fit into specific racial identities. People stick to their “authentic racial personality [out of fear]… of being labelled as inauthentic” (St Louis 2015: 127), which may consequently lend authority to certain racial groups, one including ‘white’ people. In order to feel assimilated into society, there is a pressure to stay true to the characteristics of specific racial group, which can be dangerous in the future as it plants deep rooted racial anxieties that will act out if suppressed too long. In some traditional societies for example, “Christian symbolism portrayed ‘white’ as synonymous with purity… contrasted with ‘black’ impurity” (Meer 2014: 114) and with new consciousness of the conception of ‘race’ it can be seen how, “racial classifications have been a reflection of prevailing power relations” (Meer 2014: 115) in the past. This is important to note as it explains how power dynamics are controlled by specific ‘racial groups’, and this has been understood to become even more damaging in the future reflected by the way this racial labelling has caused problems before. ‘Black’ racism has been continuous with the African slave trade in the 18th and 19th century, the civil rights movement in the 1950s-60s and today with #blacklivesmatter. Furthermore, let us consider how history is taught in schools. What if topics such as slavery were not taught, would this help better with integration? Meer discusses politically modified teaching in schools using the example of English Literature in colonial India and how it helped achieve greater social order by instilling political ideologies and raising social perspective of the English. He describes education and teaching as a relationship between “knowledge production and power” (Meer 2014: 111). We see how historically race has been damaging to society and although distinctions must still be made between “post-racial as an objective situation or an idealisation that is yet to be realised” (St Louis 2015: 116), the bottom line is that there is an underlying determination for the abandonment of race.
’Race’ is a social construction used for organisation and ordering purposes to help keep society consistent, but comes with consequences. The post-racial theory emerges as one that is both “an ambition… also a dilemma” (St Louis 2015: 118) and this word ‘ambition’ connotes a desire for change based on the greater awareness of how ‘race’ has been dealt with in the past. We have already started making attempts at the ‘post-racial’ with regard to changing or moving past ‘race’ as a response to historical hostility. Attempts made intend to go beyond strict racial categories and one includes the creation of different social distinction methods, as “race is no longer the significant disadvantage it is often portrayed to be… education attainment, career progression, rates of criminality, social mobility - class and socioeconomic background are more important” (Mizra cited in St Louis 2015: 118). This provides an explanation to a method established to go beyond ‘race’ as a limiting binary and include other social brackets that may help define society better. It fits well with the post-racial theory as it shows how society is making steps towards trying to move past race and make it something more relevant today. This is also seen in anti-semitism and anti-muslim debates where perspectives on these sentiments have evolved into “constitutional religious minorities” (Meer and Noorani 2008: 196). What this argues is that both these sentiments are now being distinguished under ‘religion’ rather than ‘race’. There is an association with Muslims being a “radical” group of people, and as unworldly as this association may be, it is more of a religious one than racial, demonstrating how race is being transformed. A second attempt to transcend race focuses on the human biodiversity debate. Arguably, “human biodiversity is greatest within so-called racial groups and … genetic similarity is evident across so-called ‘races’” (Lewontin 1972 cited in St. Louis 2015: 124), which amplifies another way of looking at society. It can be claimed that humans across ‘labeled’ religious groups are more similar than we realise and these labels we have created, as well as the construction of ‘race’ could be an incorrect way of organising society. To further this, “the science of race read from pigment… or gene has been exposed as false” (Ashmin 2010: 2), supporting how ‘physical race’ is not substantial enough to provide an explanation of our entire humanity. Racial categories may start more and more to be replaced with other social binaries, allowing us to anticipate a future with an utterly different concept of ‘race’. This majorly results from the treatment and hostility of ‘race’ in the past and the growing desire to change this.
Another way of anticipating racial future is acknowledging these efforts to move beyond race as a reaction to the past and acknowledge that, in spite of this, race still exists. Race is changing but cannot be eliminated entirely and will continue to exist in the future. We can predict this from the way societies have acted on race in the past because even with our greater awareness of it, it is still very much alive. The ‘post-racial theory’, is something “conceptually dependent on race” (St Louis 2015: 117), enforcing the idea that in order to even begin to try and transcend it, we must first acknowledge it, which is ironic because we must see race before we can even begin to unsee it. The problem with ‘unseeing’ something such as race is that it is so deeply woven into our social framework that it will be difficult to remove entirely. This second anticipation of race will be discussed first through the rise of digital media consistently affirming the existence of ‘race’ and then through examples of ‘racial categories’ that still exist.
“The significance of race might be declining in the present, but its historical cumulative effects are still being felt” (St. Louis 2015: 120). It can be agreed that history will always have a significant impact on society however, it is difficult to argue that race will not. The significance of race in the present is extremely ubiquitous and this quote contradicts itself because if the effects of history are ‘still being felt’, that must imply that race is still a relevant topic of discussion today. It is paradoxical that in efforts to remove or change ‘race’, we are only affirming its presence. This presence of race is furthered by the media with greater exposure and faster connection to information. By recalling how societies have acted on race in the past, we see how humans continue to repeat themselves because it ‘makes sense’ in theory to have society organised. The patterns of how ‘race’ has been treated historically are only going to intensify with the digital technology age. This affirms that media can craft how racial / ethnic minority groups may be viewed in the way that the media believes they exist or in a way that they want them to. The growth of media makes it difficult to hide ‘race’ and leads us to assume that the future may hold many continuities from the past by keeping racial categories alive. They present stereotypes of characteristics associated with particular racial groups, which exist just as much as they did in the past.
It is important to discuss this continuation of ‘race’ as a connected path from the past through the eyes of existing ‘racial categories’, one being the debate on ‘whiteness’. Bonnett argues the “decline of whiteness” as being linked to how “the language of race begins to be challenged and the rise of geopolitical labels of ‘the west’” (Bonnett 2008: 17). This suggests that ‘whiteness’ as a racial definition may be less relevant today as it is becoming interchangeably replaced with the concept of ‘the West’. There are many ways society can be defined that do not include ‘race’, however whatever the label we give it, race still exists. Race is so deeply engrained, it is not going to suddenly disappear and the future still sees the construction of race. The ‘West’ is also still very much associated with a ‘white’ population and minorities within these regions are referred to as such. Mexican migrants in America face “various economic, racial and ethnic assimilation pressures in New York” (Smith 2005) demonstrating that they are still labelled under a different ‘racial category’ and struggle to assimilate fully into American life predominately because of their contrasting ‘race’. Racial categories are also still seen in Asia, specifically Singapore as “while multiplicity and diversity are important characteristics of contemporary Singaporean society, Singapore’s multiracial ideology is firmly based on separated, racialised groups” (Zarine 2011: 96). This demonstrates how diversity is important, agreed the idea of ‘race’ is still changing in modernity, but the existence remains. Racial categories tell us that society has continued to keep the binaries that organise humanity because historically and in the present, people like to understand things because there is an undoubtable human desire for control. These examples continue to highlight that even though we understand ‘race’ as a social construction, we repeat our histories. By recalling how societies have acted in the past to the idea of ‘race’, we see that our racial future has a very similar image due to the socially deep rooted conception of it.
Our racial future is a future of attempted possibility to turn race into something beyond a segregating construction, however it is undeniably real and this may be too difficult to remove completely. There is a pulsing need to see ‘race’ as a changing but nevertheless existing concept in the future. The past helps us predict this future because of the nature in which ‘race’ has been used traditionally: segregation, categorisation and organising mechanism, an excuse for violence. By seeing this, we see a desire to change ‘race’ however this is inevitably impossible due to its deep rootedness in society. By also reflecting on consistencies in the past, we see how society is still very much the same in how we continue to use race to control and understand humanity.
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Bonnett, A. (2008) ‘Whiteness and the west’, in C. Dwyer and C. Bressey (eds) New Geographies of Race and Racism. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp. 17-28
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Zarine, L. R. (2011) Multiplicity within Singularity: Racial Categorization and Recognizing “Mixed Race” in Singapore. Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 30(3), 95.