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MONTHLY BLOG 126, Does classifying people in terms of their ‘Identity’ have parallels with racist thought? Answer: No; Yes; and ultimately, No.

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

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© Michael Mapes (2013)

It’s impossible to think without employing some elements of generalisation. (Is it? Yes: pure mental pointillisme, cogitating in fragmentary details, would not work. Thoughts have to be organised). And summary statements about fellow human beings always entail some element of classification. (Do they? Yes, individuals are more than the sum of their bits of flesh and bones. Each one is a person, with a personality, a consciousness, a name, perhaps a national identity number – all different ways of summarising a living being). Generalisations are therefore invaluable, whilst always open to challenge.

Yet are all forms of classification the same? Is aggregative thought not only inevitable but similarly patterned, whatever the chosen criteria? Or, to take a more precise example from interpersonal relationships, does classifying a person by their own chosen ethnic identity entail the same thought processes as classifying them in terms of oppressive racial hierarchies?

Immediately the answer to the core question (are all forms of classification the same?) is No. If individuals chose to embrace an ethnic identity, that process can be strong and empowering. Instead of being labelled by others, perhaps with pejorative connotations, then people can reject an old-style racial hierarchy that places (say) one skin-colour at the top of the social heap, and another at the foot. They can simply say: ‘Yes: that is who I am; and I exult in the fact. My life – and the life of all others like me – matters.’  It is a great antidote to years of racial hatred and oppressions.

At the same time, however, there are risks in that approach. One is the obvious one, which is often noted. White supremacists can use the same formula, claiming their group superiority. And they can then campaign aggressively against all who look ‘different’ and are deemed (by them) be in ‘inferior’. In other words, oppressors can use the same appeal to the validity of group affiliation as can their victims.

There are other difficulties too. So reverting to the core question (how similar are systems of classification?) it can be argued that: yes, assessing people by ethnic identity often turns out, in practice, to be based upon superficial judgments, founded not upon people’s actual ethnic history (often very complex) but upon their looks and, especially, their skin colours. External looks are taken as shorthand for much more. As a result, assumptions about identities can be as over-simplified as those that allocate people into separate ‘races’. Moreover, reliance upon looks can lead to hurtful situations. Sometimes individuals who believe themselves to have one particular ethnic affinity can be disconcerted by finding that others decline to accept them into one particular ‘tribe’, purely because their looks don’t approximate to required visual stereotype. For example, some who self-identify as ‘black’ are rejected as ‘not black enough’.

Finally, however, again reverting to the core question: No. Identity politics are not as socially pernicious and scientifically wrong-headed as are racial politics.1 ‘Identities’ are fluid and can be multiple. They are organised around many varied criteria: religion, politics, culture, gender, sexuality, nationality, sporting loyalties, and so forth. People have a choice as to whether they associate with any particular affinity group – and, having chosen, they can also regulate the strength of their loyalties. These things are not set in stone. Again, taking an example from biological inheritance, people with dark skins do not have to self-identify as ‘black’. They may have some other, overriding loyalty, such as to a given religion or nationality, which takes precedence in their consciousness.

But there is a more fundamental point, as well. Identities are not ideologically organised into the equivalent of racial hierarchies, whereby one group is taken as perennially ‘superior’ to another. Some individuals may believe that they and their fellows are the ‘top dogs’. And group identities can encourage tribal rivalries. But such tensions are not the same as an inflexible racial hierarchy. Instead, diverse and self-chosen ‘identities’ are a step towards rejecting old-style racism. They move society away from in-built hierarchies towards a plurality of equal roles.

It is important to be clear, however, that there is a risk that classifications of people in terms of identity might become as schematic, superficial and, at times, hurtful as are classifications in terms of so-called ‘race’. Individuals may like to choose; but society makes assumptions too.

The general moral is that classifications are unavoidable. But they always need to be checked and rechecked for plausibility. Too many exceptions at the margins suggest that the core categories are too porous to be convincing. Moreover, classification systems are not made by individuals in isolation. Communication is a social art. Society therefore joins in human classification. Which means that the process of identifying others always requires vigilance, to ensure that, while old inequalities are removed, new ones aren’t accidentally generated instead. Building human siblinghood among Planet Earth’s 7.9 billion people (the estimated 2021 head-count) is a mighty challenge but a good – and essential – one.

ENDNOTES:

1 For the huge literature on the intrinsic instability of racial classifications, see K.F. Dyer, The Biology of Racial Integration (Bristol, 1974); and A. Montagu, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (New York, 2001 edn). It is worth noting, however, that beliefs in separate races within the one human race are highly tenacious: see also A. Saini, Superior: The Return of Race Science (2019). For further PJC meditations on these themes, see also within PJC website: Global Themes/ 4,4,1 ‘It’s Time to Update the Language of “Race”’, BLOG/36 (Dec. 2013); and 4.4.4 ‘Why is the Language of “Race” holding on for so long, when it’s Based on a Pseudo-Science?’ BLOG/ 38 (Feb. 2014).

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MONTHLY BLOG 104, Is it Time to Look beyond Separate Identities to Find Personhood?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

Collectively, the 15th International Congress on the Enlightenment (ICE), focusing upon Enlightenment Identities, was a huge triumph. For five days in Edinburgh in July 2019 some 2000 international participants rushed from event to event. There were not only 477 learned panel presentations and five great plenaries but also sundry conducted walks, coach tours to special venues, a grand reception, a superb concert, a pub quiz, and an evening of energetic Highland dancing. So much was happening that heads spun, and not just from the jovial Edinburgh hospitality.

By way of introduction, I began the first plenary session, with its global array of speakers, by offering some basic definitions. The grand themes of the Congress were Enlightenment and Identities: Lumières et Identités. Powerful concepts, which are both much contested. Needless to say, the Congress organisers did not insist on single definitions of these grand themes, which were chosen precisely to promote debate.

In that spirit, the Congress logo displayed two iconic figures from the eighteenth century. Both are shown as questioning, as they flank the silhouette of the classic monument on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill to the philosopher Dugald Stewart. These two iconic figures may be considered as the Adam and Eve of the Congress, venturing out into the world to lead the collective intellectual journey.

The young woman was named Dido Belle Lindsay. She was aged 18 at the date in 1778-9, when her portrait was painted alongside her fair-skinned cousin. By heritage, Dido Belle was an illegitimate African-Caribbean-Scot. Yet she was given a resonant first name which evoked the celebrated Queen of Carthage. And by life experiences, Dido Belle Lindsay had a protected and affluent upbringing in the household of her great-uncle, an eminent London lawyer. She later married a Frenchman and lived quietly in England with her family.

Meanwhile, the man, who drew his own brooding self-portrait at the age of 40, was a German Swiss named Heinrich Füssli.3 He had travelled to Italy, where he Italianised his surname to Fuseli and then made a successful career as an artist in London. There he married an Englishwoman. Both these individuals embodied the flexibility and fluidity of eighteenth-century identities. Neither their social milieux nor their individual life-histories were static.

As educated people, the Congress’s Adam and Eve might well have encountered, in their reading and conversations, various catch-phrases like ‘It’s an Age of Light’ or ‘This Age of Reason and Science’. Specifically, too, Fuseli as a German-speaking Swiss could have read in the original Immanuel Kant’s celebrated enquiry, published in 1784, Was Ist Aufklarung? What is Enlightenment?

Moreover, Dido Belle Lindsay, the free daughter of a formerly enslaved African woman, would no doubt have appreciated the public appeal made by the leading African abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. He urged that slavery had no place in an age of ‘Light, Liberty, and Science’. He was thereby invoking the sense of a new Zeitgeist and new forms of knowledge. By contrast, the slave traders had custom and practice in their support, as well as financial vested interests. But, tellingly, the slave traders did NOT justify their business by saying ‘It’s an Age of Slave-Trading’, even though that was factually true. On this issue, the abolitionists were ‘seizing the narrative’, to put the point into twenty-first-century terminology.5

Nonetheless, the Congress’s Adam and Eve would not have thought about their era as one of fixity. They both lived long enough to see the emergence of conscious anti-Enlightenment thought, from the later eighteenth century onwards. Fuseli specifically contributed to Romanticism in his art, and expressed scepticism about the claims of cold rationality. So neither figure would have been surprised to learn that the concept of Enlightenment remains contested among historians, political theorists and social philosophers.

Responses today range from appreciation and appropriation through to rejection and outright denial. Scholars analyse national and regional variations; and they debate differences between mainstream and radical Enlightenments. Meanwhile, in the later twentieth century, hostile postmodernist critics attacked appeals to rationalist reforms, which they identified as a single and oppressive ‘Enlightenment Project’.8   Yet rival sceptics denied the existence of any cohesive movement at all. Plenty to debate.

To those complexities, moreover, may be added the further complications of ‘Identities’. The terminology is warm and positive. But its impact is not simple. Viewed schematically, the rise of identity studies in the last thirty years has matched the decline of research interest into historical class, and the rise of ‘identity politics’ in the wider world.10  This fashionable approach is personal, individualistic. It rejects economic determinism. Instead, the factors that influence identity are seen as endlessly fluid and flexible. They may include gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and yes, social class; but they extend to religion, nationality, region, language, politics, culture, brainpower – and the power of physical appearances.

Certainly the Congress’s Adam and Eve would have known about identity issues, although they would not have described them in such terms. Dido Belle Lindsay lived with her great-uncle, the liberal judge William Mansfield. It was he in 1772 who heard the famous test case, when the captive African James Somersett sued for his freedom from the hold of an English ship in an English port. The case was an individual one. But the judge, when granting Somersett’s plea for liberty, pronounced publicly that the state of slavery was ‘odious’.11  Dido Belle Lindsay would surely have approved. As a result, Somersett gained the legal identity of a free man and judicial disapproval was directed at the entire system of personal enslavement. The case became a landmark in the long (and still continuing) struggle to abolish unfree personal servitude in its many different guises.

However, there are criticisms to be made of identity histories, as there are of identity politics. There is a danger that personal classifications may be interpreted too rigidly. In reality, people then and now may have multiple and overlapping identities. They may move between them as they prefer: an eighteenth-century gentleman livening in Northumbria might define himself as an Englishman when teasing a Scot from north of the border; but both might define themselves as Britons when opposing the French.

It’s also vital to recognise that identities are not always soft, liberal and inclusive. Group identities especially can become aggressive, bellicose, and coercive, formed in contra-distinction to ‘other’ groups. So identity politics may lead not to shared pluralism but to harsh conflict and polarisation. In sum, these big organising concepts may contain light – but also darkness.

Today it is surely time to look beyond the sub-divisions, not in blind denial but in awareness that there are also universals alongside diversities. In gender history, there is also a concept of personhood, beyond the rivalries of men and women.12  In terms of polymorphous human sexualities, there’s a potential for agreed boundaries of non-exploitative behaviour, beyond the rhetoric of individual sexual gratification. In the context of historical ‘racism’, there’s also significant movement towards a non-racialised understanding that all people are members of one human race.13  And, legally and politically, there is scope for a renewed endorsement of universalist human rights, as triumphantly if controversially expounded in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, applying not to one section of the globe but to all – and applying in practice as well as in theory.14

These communal issues are becoming especially highlighted in the light of the global climate emergency.15  They make a huge agenda but a very human one, to be pursued with a spirit of unity which underlies diversity: avec l’esprit de l’unité, qui sous-tend la diversité …

ENDNOTES:

1 Edited text of presentation given to Edinburgh Congress Enlightenment Identities, on Monday 15 July 2019, introducing first Global Plenary. My esteemed colleagues on the panel were, in order of speaking, Deirdre Coleman (University of Melbourne); Sébastien Charles (Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, Canada); Tatiana Artemyeva (Herzen State University of Russia); Sutapa Dutta (Gargi College, University of Delhi, India); and Toshio Kusamitsu (University of Tokyo, Japan).

2 For Dido Belle Lindsay (1761-1804), see P. Byrne, Belle: The True Story of Dido Belle (2014); and an intriguing outreach film Belle (dir. A. Asante, 2018).

3 For Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), see M. Myrone (ed.), Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli Blake and the Romantic Imagination (2016).

4 O. Equiano, The Interesting Narrative: And Other Writings, ed. V. Carretta (1995), p. 233.

5 For a huge literature, follow leads in B. Carey and others (eds), Discourses of Slavery and Abolition: Britain and its Colonies, 1760-1838 (Basingstoke, 2004); and R.S. Newman, Abolitionism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2018).

6 See e.g. R. Porter and M. Teich (eds), The Enlightenment in National Context (Cambridge, 1981).

7 See e.g. J.I. Israel, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750 (Oxford, 2001) and ensuing debates.

8 S-E. Liedman, The Postmodernist Critique of the Project of Enlightenment (Amsterdam, 1997); G. Sauer-Thompson and J. Wayne Smith, The Unreasonable Silence of the World: Universal Reason and the Wreck of the Enlightenment Project (2019).

9 G. Garrard, Counter-Enlightenments: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (2004).

10 See e.g. critiques like W. Egginton, The Splintering of the American Mind: Identity Politics, Inequality and Community on Today’s College Campuses (New York, 2018).

11 For the complexities of the case, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somerset_v_Stewart.

12 See e.g. commentary in P.J. Corfield, ‘Enlightenment Womanhood, Manhood, Sexualities and Personhood: Thematic Overview’, in L. Andries and M-A. Bernier (eds), L’Avenir des Lumières: The Future of Enlightenment (Pars, 2019), pp. 89-105; L. Appell-Warren, Personhood: An Examination of the History and Use of an Anthropological Concept (Lewiston, 2014).

13 For the shared genetic history of humankind, see L. Cavalli-Sforza and F. Cavalli-Sforza, The Great Human Diaspora: The History of Diversity and Evolution, transl. S. Thomas (Reading, MA, 1995).

14 Consult A. Brysk, The Future of Human Rights (Cambridge, 2018).

15 See calls for more urgent responses as in D. Spratt and P. Sutton, Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action (Victoria, Australia, 2008); and many other publications.

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MONTHLY BLOG 38, WHY IS THE LANGUAGE OF ‘RACE’ HOLDING ON SO LONG WHEN IT’S BASED ON A PSEUDO-SCIENCE?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2014)

Of course, most people who continue to use the language of ‘race’ believe that it has a genuine meaning – and a meaning, moreover, that resonates for them. It’s not just an abstract thing but a personal way of viewing the world. I’ve talked to lots of people about giving up ‘race’ and many respond with puzzlement. The terminology seems to reflect nothing more than the way things are.

But actually, it doesn’t. It’s based upon a pseudo-science that was once genuinely believed but has long since been shown as erroneous by geneticists. So why is this language still used by people who would not dream of insisting that the earth is flat, or the moon made of blue cheese.

Part of the reason is no doubt the power of tradition and continuity – a force of history that is often under-appreciated.1 It’s still possible to hear references to people having the ‘bump of locality’, meaning that they have a strong topographical/spatial awareness and can find their way around easily. The phrase sounds somehow plausible. Yet it’s derived from the now-abandoned study of phrenology. This approach, first advanced in 1796 by the German physician F.J. Gall, sought to analyse people’s characteristics via the contours of the cranium.2  It fitted with the ‘lookism’ of our species. We habitually scrutinise one another to detect moods, intentions, characters. So it may have seemed reasonable to measure skulls for the study of character.

Phrenologist’s view of the human skull: point no. 31 marks the bump of locality, just over the right eyebrow.Yet, despite confident Victorian publications explaining The Science of Phrenology3  and advice manuals on How to Read Heads,4  these theories turned out to be no more than a pseudo-science. The critics were right after all. Robust tracts like Anti-Phrenology: Or a Chapter on Humbug won the day. Nevertheless, some key phrenological phrases linger on.5  My own partner in life has an exceptionally strong sense of topographical orientation. So sometimes I joke about his ‘bump of locality’, even though there’s no protrusion on his right forehead. It’s a just linguistic remnant of vanished views.

That pattern may apply similarly in the language of race, which is partly based upon a simple ‘lookism’. People who look like us are assumed to be part of ‘our tribe’. Those who do not seem to be ‘a race apart’ (except that they are not). The survival of the phrasing is thus partly a matter of inertia.

Another element may also spring, paradoxically, from opponents of ‘racial’ divisions. They are properly dedicated to ‘anti-racism’. Yet they don’t oppose the core language itself. That’s no doubt because they want to confront prejudices directly. They accept that humans are divided into separate races but insist that all races should be treated equally. It seems logical therefore that the opponent of a ‘racist’ should be an ‘anti-racist’. Statistics of separate racial groups are collected in order to ensure that there is no discrimination.

Yet one sign of the difficulty in all official surveys remains the utter lack of consistency as to how many ‘races’ there are. Early estimates by would-be experts on racial classification historically ranged from a simplistic two (‘black’ and ‘white’) to a complex 63.6  Census and other listings these days usually invent a hybrid range of categories. Some are based upon ideas of race or skin colour; others of nationality; or a combination And there are often lurking elements of ‘lookism’ within such categories (‘black British’), dividing people by skin colour, even within the separate ‘races’.7

So people like me who say simply that ‘race’ doesn’t exist (i.e. that we are all one human race) can seem evasive, or outright annoying. We are charged with missing the realities of discrimination and failing to provide answers.

Nevertheless, I think that trying to combat a serious error by perpetrating the same error (even if in reverse) is not the right way forward. The answer to pseudo-racism is not ‘anti-racism’ but ‘one-racism’. It’s ok to collect statistics about nationality or world-regional origins or any combination of such descriptors, but without the heading of ‘racial’ classification and the use of phrases that invoke or imply separate races.

Public venues in societies that historically operated a ‘colour bar’  used the brown paper bag test for quick decisions,  admitting people with skins lighter than the bag and rejecting the rest.  As a means of classifying people, it’s as ‘lookist’ as phrenology  but with even fewer claims to being ‘scientific’.  Copyright © Jessica C (Nov. 2013)What’s in a word? And the answer is always: plenty. ‘Race’ is a short, flexible and easy term to use. It also lends itself to quickly comprehensible compounds like ‘racist’ or ‘anti-racist’. Phrases derived from ethnicity (national identity) sound much more foreign in English. And an invented term like ‘anti-ethnicism’ seems abstruse and lacking instant punch.

All the same, it’s time to find or to create some up-to-date phrases to allow for the fact that racism is a pseudo-science that lost its scientific rationale a long time ago. ‘One-racism’? ‘Humanism’? It’s more powerful to oppose discrimination in the name of reality, instead of perpetrating the wrong belief that we are fundamentally divided. The spectrum of human skin colours under the sun is beautiful, nothing more.

1 On this, see esp. PJC website BLOG/1 ‘Why is the Formidable Power of Continuity so often Overlooked?’ (Nov. 2010).

2 See T.M. Parssinen, ‘Popular Science and Society: The Phrenology Movement in Early Victorian Britain’, Journal of Social History, 8 (1974), pp. 1-20.

3 J.C. Lyons, The Science of Phrenology (London, 1846).

4 J. Coates, How to Read Heads: Or Practical Lessons on the Application of Phrenology to the Reading of Character (London, 1891).

5 J. Byrne, Anti-Phrenology: Or a Chapter on Humbug (Washington, 1841).

6 P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (London, 2007), pp. 40-1.

7 The image comes from Jessica C’s thoughtful website, ‘Colorism: A Battle that Needs to End’ (12 Nov. 2013): www.allculturesque.com/colorism-a-battle-that-needs-to-end.

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