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Race is arbitrary

Posted by Graeme in Uncategorized at 10:32 am on Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Willem Buiter’s blog post on the arbitrariness of racial classifications are spot on. I wonder if he is too decent to realise that the whole point of the concept of race is to divide people; to provide people with a sense of belonging to a tribe. Race is purely whatever society defines it to be. Both the countries I know well, Britain and Sri Lanka, show this.

In Sri Lanka your race is that of your father. This is not merely a matter of social convention, but of official record. Race is (appallingly) recorded on birth certificates and must be stated when making a statement to the police (as must religion). In addition nationalists regard Sri Lanka as a Sinhalese Buddhist country — much as some American conservatives regard the US is a white Christian country.

In addition, there is enormous social pressure to follow behaviours dictated by race. The most important of these are to follow a religion that is considered usual to one’s race, and to marry within one’s ethnic group, religion (and often caste). This is on top of the usual pressure to marry within one’s class — very restrictive constraints in combination.

The pressure to follow your parent’s religions degrades religion to ethnicity suffused with superstition, rather than a search for truth. The pressure comes from both society and agencies of the state. Someone who declares that they follow a religion that is not associated with their ethnicity will not be believed. It is also not possible to declare oneself to be an atheist or agnostic, as most people have never heard of these concepts — and declarations of religion are officially required. The pressure to conform, and the lack of knowledge of important options means that although freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, it is not meaningful to most people.

All this also means that one can almost always deduce someones race, religion and (where it exists) caste from their name.

In Britain racial classifications often follow the nationality of one’s ancestors. For example Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi. These would obviously be very different is the partition of India had not happened, or if Bangladesh had not broken away from Pakistan. Race is based on comparatively recent political developments. Different classifications of ethnicity cut across these groups: for example Bengali Indians and Bangladeshis share common ancestry, language and culture.

This classification exists partly to avoid mentioning another subject that difficult to discus is Britain: class. The Indians are largely middle class, the Pakistanis and Bangladeshis working class. That is why the former do better educationally and integrate better with British society. More elaborate explanations are redundant.

My own experience of the inconsistencies of classification are the differences between Britain and Sri Lanka. I am sufficiently dark skinned (by British standards) to be unambiguously classified as Asian. My Dutch surname (and, to a lesser extent, my light skin my Sri Lankan standards) means that I am equally firmly classified as a Burgher — strictly speaking this means of Dutch ancestry, although a less snobbish common usage includes those of Portuguese ancestry as well.

One perspective that I lack on this issue is how it feels to be a member of a majority. Even places like Hultsdorf ceased to be somewhere someone of my ancestry could blend in seamlessly long before I was born.

My own conclusion is much like that of Willem Buiter’s post. It can be stated as God (literally) knows who I am, nothing else is necessary. Alternatively (and this was obviously more relevant when I was an agnostic), this can be stated as what Terry Pratchett readers might recognise as a Granny Weatherwax approach: I am me.

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