Talking Changes

Because talking can change everything.

Lie #1: “Caucasian” is a Scientific Category

One of the ways racism is super-sneaky is that it provides terms we have come to assume are real, scientific, and factual, when really they are the stuff of legend and myth. In the 1700s, Johann Blumenbach coined the term Caucasian for “the White Race” as one of five subcategories of humans (the other four were: Malayan – The Brown Race, Ethiopian – The Black Race, Mongolian – The Yellow Race, and American – the Red Race, none of which we uphold as distinct racial categories today). He named the “white” race Caucasian because he felt the “most beautiful” skull in his human skull collection was from the Caucasus mountain range (“particularly its southern slope, which produces the most beautiful race of men” – J. Blumenbach), and thereby must represent his own people (he was German). The Caucasus Mountain Range, however, is in Azerbaijan and Armenia, places from which citizens would likely not even be considered “white” today: places that are nowhere near Europe or wherever “white” people are supposed to have originated.

When we use the term Caucasian, we are unwittingly upholding the white supremacy that Blumenbach promoted. We are also falsely suggesting that racial categories exist, which they do not. Our skin carries differing pigmentations depending on the intensity of sunlight wherever our ancestors settled. If they lived for generations somewhere in or near the equator, where sunlight is most intense (parts of Australia, Africa, India and South America), chances are good that their (and our) skin is darker in order to have better protected us from sunburn, skin cancers, etc.. If, however, our ancestors moved far from the equatorial band, they/we needed more vitamin D to penetrate our skin, and therefore our skin gradually lost its melanin in order to take in more sunlight. Skin color differs gradually by location, by distance from the equator – not by race. Think about it logically: if you were to walk from the tropics to the North pole, could you mark where people’s “race” suddenly changed? No – there would be a gradual change in the depth of color of residents’ skin. As Jay Smooth likes to say, “Race is a dance partner that was designed to trip us up.” For more information on this, please consider watching RACE: The Power of an Illusion, a PBS production which can be found on YouTube and Vimeo.

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Brave Ideas: Understanding White Privilege

Whoo-wee. If ever there were a term that sets white people’s teeth on edge, it’s this one. And I get it, because the folks who want us to remain segregated and mad at each other have done an excellent job of using the term to suggest that white-European folks should be ashamed of ourselves; that we had everything handed to us on a silver platter and never did an honest day’s work in our lives. I’d be mad about that, too, if I believed it. But I know better.

The term white privilege means that, while I have had hardships in my life – I have faced discrimination, bullying, being denied jobs, etc. – those difficulties did not happen as a result of my skin color. Then it’s just a tiny step further to be willing to acknowledge that yes, okay, having white skin does make *some* things in my life easier, but they might be things I don’t think about very often. Here are a couple of possible examples:

  • All the money I use – bills and change – has people with my skin color portrayed on it
  • When I learn about “civilization,” I am shown/taught that people with my skin color made it what it is (this includes art, music, literature, math, science, etc.)
  • I can be pretty sure that if I ask to see the “person in charge,” I will be met with someone of my skin color
  • I don’t need to worry that people will assume I am poor or a criminal because of my skin color
  • I can easily buy posters, magazines, greeting cards, etc. featuring people of my skin color
  • I am never asked to represent or speak for my entire “racial” group, nor am I judged as an “example” of my “race”
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being considered a credit to my “race,” or an exception to a rule
  • I don’t have to worry that if too many people who look like me move into a neighborhood, its value will decrease

Someone once said, “I don’t know who discovered water, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.” Part of white privilege is not having to recognize how I am centered by society, how whiteness is upheld as the desirable standard against which no other skin color can compare. I might not have even realized I was white until later in my life, whereas people of color are awakened to their skin (often quite harshly) from a very early age.

I do not know what it is to live a life where my skin color is either rendered invisible or associated with poverty, criminality, public assistance, and so many other negative traits. As a part of the group that doesn’t have to experience that, I believe it’s my job to extend the sense of belonging that I feel to everyone else. How to do that is fodder for another post. Or nine.

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