(De)Constructing Race

Nick Lising-White investigates the history of race as a concept and examines the ways it has been shaped and reshaped around the world to maintain hegemonic power.

Image courtesy of @ccshotss

Racial difference has come to bear heavily on the lives of many but, genetically, it is not a useful factor by which to differentiate one human from another (research shows greater genetic variance within Africans than between Africans and those from Europe and Asia). Though socially constructed, the more empirical understanding of race many hold today lies in European colonialism and its use of scientific racism, an assemblage of ‘knowledge’ to which Geography and UCL have contributed, to justify an arrogant and insidious mission of white supremacy masquerading as ‘civilisation’. Rudyard Kipling would later outline these rather horrifying ‘virtues’ in The White Man’s Burden, a poem encouraging and glorifying U.S. colonial expansion in the mould of the European one he had already born witness to. The logics of scientific racism and the social construction of race continue to appear in ever more nuanced and dangerous ways, profoundly affecting the outcomes and opportunities of people of colour the world over.

What follows is a brief introduction to the ideas contributed by scientific racism and how they were disproved.  Then there will be a few examples of differing temporal and geographical interpretations of racial difference that will highlight the pliability of the social construct that is ‘race’. It should also shine a light on how this particular characteristic has been wielded for the preservation of an incumbent racial hegemony.

One of the earliest examples of scientific racism is craniometry, whose most famous proponents, Samuel Morton and Anders Retzius, measured skull capacity and shape respectively. Morton proposed that the greater average capacity of the ‘Caucasian’[1] skull indicated greater intelligence. We might now point out the irony in Morton’s idiotic assertion disproving itself but at the time Franz Boas would refute this by noting a significant size difference between the craniums of Sicilian and Jewish migrants to the U.S. and their children. Cranial development was therefore a product of environmental factors and not a heritable trait.

These logics also appeared in the form of eugenics, a practice whose institutional birthplace is considered to be UCL thanks to the establishment of the laboratory set up for its research there by Francis Galton. It was Galton who coined the term eugenics, which subsumed Darwinian concepts of sexual selection and Malthusian concerns of overpopulation coalesced in the political valuation of life and there was increasing pressure for social laws to reflect the idea that those deemed most morally and physically able, should procreate. This was based on the incorrect belief that traits of personality and character such as gambling, ‘sexual passion’ and ‘criminality’, were heritable. Evolutionary biologist and geneticist Richard Lewontin would later state that only 6.3% of human genetic difference could be attributed to what we call ‘race’. His findings have since been corroborated by numerous studies.

In glaring examples of the contingency of race and the use of this for the maintenance of a hegemony, both Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant to the US, and Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian immigrant and US army veteran, had their claims to US citizenship denied. In 1915 Ozawa, who having lived in the US for 20 years was eligible for naturalisation, filed for state citizenship on the grounds that being Japanese the colour of his skin made him a ‘free white person’ (a stipulation of the naturalisation act). In 1922 his request was denied by Judge George Sutherland because ‘free white person’ was popularly understood as being of ‘Caucasian Race’. Soon after that, Sutherland oversaw the case of Thind, whose claim was made on the basis that hailing from the Punjab region meant that he shared ‘Caucasian’ lineage with the white settlers of the US. You’d be forgiven for thinking that with the precedent set by the Ozawa case, his claim was pretty airtight. He was denied on the basis that the word ‘Caucasian’, as it pertained to the naturalisation act’s requirement for being a ‘free white person’, could only be applied as it was popularly understood. In other words, Judge Sutherland moved the goalposts, finding that despite ‘Caucasian’ heritage Thind was ineligible simply because he didn’t appear white. Ozawa was refused because despite having white skin and displaying ‘white European virtues’ (like going to church) he was not ‘Caucasian’. Thind was refused because despite being ‘Caucasian’ he did not appear white. In the eyes of this court whiteness, and by extension race, is whatever the white men say it is.

Portrait “Redenção de Cam” (1895), showing a Brazilian family becoming “whiter” each generation

In Brazil racial hierarchies manifest themselves differently again. Brazil is thought by many a racial democracy. Proponents of this idea cite a history of mixed marriages, little history of legally sanctioned racism and economic underdevelopment that impacts its entire working class. However, Donna Goldstein’s ethnographic research centring the experience of working-class women reveals a gendered and sexualised hierarchy. She found that dark-skinned working-class women living in shanty towns joke about how seducing older white men might achieve racial and social mobility. These jovial fantasies are quotidian and codified evidence of Brazil’s racial hierarchies. This works in combination with the fetishisation of Mulata (mixed race) women and the ‘taken-for-granted nature of black ugliness and white beauty’ in quotidian conversation to establish a highly eroticised racial hierarchy in Brazil wherein darker skinned women are subordinated to their mixed race counterparts who in turn wield less power than white men (Goldstein, 1999: 572).

Trinidad and Tobago, heavily impacted demographically and culturally by its complex history of colonial occupation and slave/indentured labour, has a discourse that stresses the symbolic localness of being mixed. However, there are still numerous understandings of race and racial difference. For example, it is possible to identify as both ‘mixed’ and African, though being a mixture of Indian and anything else makes one not Indian by definition. The offspring of African and Indian Trinidadians are pejoratively referred to as Dougla, understood as meaning ‘mixed’ in Trinidad and Tobago but originates from the word Dogala which is more synonymous with ‘bastard’ in Northern India. Despite a local discourse that leans on the mixed heritage of its people there is still political conflict between those of African and South Asian heritage (the two largest ethnic groups). There is hope that an increasing amount of people identifying as ‘mixed’ can help foster national unity, but whether or not it is possible whilst bearing antiquated conceptions of impurity and dilution remains to be seen. Here Trinidad and Tobago is another prime example of colonial history influencing interpretations of racial difference. The geographical inconsistency of race being evidence of its contingence.

In Germany Black men straddle the dual identities of the hypersexualised object of white German women, and the asylum seeker who lives in fear of racialised violence. Both of which are inscribed upon them through preconceptions of exoticism and adventure. Legislation makes it nearly impossible for Africans to migrate to Germany but German women have a discretionary bureaucratic power by virtue of their ability to provide citizenship through marriage. However, in what is termed ‘exclusionary incorporation’ it is only through living up to hypersexualised and exoticised stereotypes that this possible. Even then the stigma associated with asylum seeker status stalls the progress of many potential relationships. Here African men migrating to Germany arrive to find that they have already been given at least two simultaneous identities that are born from the same set of exoticised and uninformed ideals, and harbour potential for vastly different outcomes. This suggests that race has always been contingent and dictated by a hegemonic power.

Japan’s colonial expansion was branded as one of unification as opposed to conquest. It distinguished itself from neighbouring countries through its hybrid culture and ethno-racial diversity. Korean migrants, amongst other colonial subjects, were granted citizenship, but in the early 20th century negative sentiment toward these labour migrants developed. This hostility manifested itself in a reinforcement of assimilationist policies in Japan after anti-colonialist protests in Korea in 1919. Though under pressure to dismantle colonial institutions after World War 2, their logics continued through officials and bureaucrats who remained part of the reformation. As such Koreans have since been assimilated into Japanese society, attributed by many to complicity for fear of racist encounters. Though assimilation and the subsequent erasure of Korean identity and culture ignores the migrant histories of Japan and actually works to preserve the alien qualities of incoming migrants by virtue of perpetuating a myth of ethno-racial homogeneity. Here racial difference, even if it is attributed to more to institutional path dependence than malice, is proven to be malleable historically. Its iteration meant that the coloniser/colonised dichotomy became Japanese/alien which sustained and accentuated the notion of intrusion associated with those deemed outsiders.

The above examples are not even close to exhaustive in number or depth, but they demonstrate the temporal and geographical pliability of race as a concept. Despite variation and iteration, the outcome is the same. The concentration of power in the hands of an (often white) ethno-racial hegemony. What this article has sought to do is to highlight the arbitrary nature of race, not because it is inconsequent, but because its construction and reconstruction has had wide reaching and debilitating consequences for People of Colour the world over and particularly for Black populations in countries with colonial histories of slavery and indentured labour. It is imperative that we understand these legacies in order to confront not only explicit racism but also that which is so intricately woven into our cultures and institutions that it requires introspection and interrogation to uncover.


[1] The use of the word Caucasian is problematic because of the false empiricism imbued in it by the likes of Retzius and Morton. It was in fact a contingent term defined rather fluidly for the disenfranchisement of anyone who was not white. As such it will appear in inverted commas.

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