Race Essentialism

So: a series of posts on race, this and the next focusing on race essentialism.

A couple of observations to begin with:

FIRST, black people living in America know a lot more about what it’s like to be black in America than I ever will. Ergo, I don’t plan to talk much about what black Americans experience in day-to-day life. I do not have the knowledge to do so. If I DO talk about experience, I will try to do so carefully.

That’s why listening to people who are different from us is so important. They too bear the image of God, and are precious to him and should be precious to us as fellow image-bearers. But their experiences may be so different from ours that we will never understand them if we don’t shut up and listen.

Listening does not = agreeing. But it DOES = not going into the conversation armed with our disagreements, ready to fight to defend them. We can’t listen when our fists are clenched.

In this thread, I want to talk about policy and think logically and theologically about policy and related issues. I’ll try not to talk much about the experience of being black in America. If I stray from that path, you can whack my knuckles with a ruler.

SECOND, I can’t talk about race essentialism without defining it. Which is surprisingly slippery, partly because the question What is race? is more complicated than it at first appears.

To illustrate the complexity: does African American refer to race? (It doesn’t, or at least not unambiguously.)

To clarify, we need to delineate between race and ethnicity.

  • Race refers to groups of people who share specific defining physical attributes, skin color, skull shape, etc.
  • Ethnicity refers to groups of people who share specific defining cultural attributes and experiences.

By these definitions, African American is at least as much an ethnicity as it is a race, perhaps more so. Black African immigrants to the US may have the same distinct physical attributes as African Americans whose ancestors came here as slaves 400 years ago; they are of the same race.

But do they share a common culture? They do not.

(Unless, that is, we believe that culture is somehow ingrained in people’s genetic material, so that it effects people hundreds of years after they leave the culture. I do not believe this. That’s a quasi-religious belief, not a scientific proposition.)

So: race and ethnicity are not the same, and we might get into trouble when we confuse them.

Race essentialism then is the idea that people of the same race will also share non-physical attributes. They will share aptitudes because of their race, including strengths & weaknesses, etc.

In the education world, this is often expressed as something like:

  • “Black people are bad at math.”
  • “Standardized tests are racist, because black students underperform on them.”
  • “Black students don’t think or learn like white students. Black students learn through stories and collaboration. White students learn through linear logic and isolation.”

What do I think about such statements? Pt 2 is coming soon.

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