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February 22, 2019

The question of race: What’s in the colour of my skin?

Race is a topic that generates a lot of discussion – most of it heated.

If it’s not a souring of Afro-Sino relations between Standard Gauge Railway workers, it’s an expatriate marketing specialist, who lacks “proficiency in English” but working in an African, English-speaking country, sending out a rather incendiary business strategy email that revolves around ‘whites-only’ supermarket vouchers.

The SGR workplace discord and the Chandarana Foodplus email debacle are not the only controversies surrounding race in the world. Race is a constant and often divisive presence in our lives.

So the question begs, where did this idea of race, the idea that people are different, and that they share an inherited nature of superiority or inferiority depending on the colour of their skin, come from?

Before the 18th century, debates on race were not about inherited characteristics. They were about the role of climate and geography in shaping colour and customs. No one thought of themselves as different, no one was regarded as different because of the colour of their skin. There were no hierarchies of hue.

But then came the 18th century, and the explosion of the transatlantic slave trade, and a widely held belief started to take hold. That being, the racial essence of being black ruled out any real intellectual capacity. Immanuel Kant, an 18th century European philosopher once declared that "the fact that someone was completely black from head to foot provided distinct proof that what he said was stupid". Interestingly, no one ever put forward the thought that because Plato was European, all Europeans were therefore as intelligent. This idea of racial essence was seemingly applied selectively.

Many historians have concluded that one reason for this increasingly negative view of black people through the 18th Century was the need to soothe the consciences of those who trafficked in and exploited men and women from Africa. As the French priest and abolitionist Abbe Grégoire put it then, "People have slandered negroes first in order to get the right to enslave them, and then to justify themselves for having enslaved them."

Propelled by aspirations of domination all through from slavery to colonisation, ideology was recruited to assert this idea of race. And by the 19th Century, the race concept had become ingrained. The first premise of this concept was (as researched by present-day philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah), we all carry within us something that comes from the race to which we belong. This something, this racial essence, explains our mental and physical potential, and it is biologically inherited.

Its second premise was, almost everything important about a person, the characteristics of individual human beings, is shaped by their race.

Twentieth Century modern genetics have proved that the idea of racial essence is incorrect. We now know that the majority of our genetic material is shared with all human beings, whatever their race. And that race has no role in fixing your taste in literature or philosophical thought or where you shop.

Race is something that we make; it’s not something that makes us—Kwame Anthony Appiah.

Divisions of colour though still persist, despite the scientific evidence and logic. One reason for this is, traces of outdated notions of race are still engraved within us. Think of race as a palimpsest – a parchment on which more than one text has been written, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and still visible.

Perhaps one day we will live in a world where colour will be merely a fact, and not a judgement on character.



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