Fools rush in…

If crime and punishment is my frying-pan, then I’m about to jump straight into the fire! Race and culture are areas fraught with danger and controversy, and wiser heads than mine might decide, having peeped over the parapet, that they’re better off staying well beneath its protective bulk. Unfortunately wisdom has never been my strong point, and a crazy, complacent confidence has once more won the day.

Moving swiftly on through my metaphors, you may be wondering why I should be dipping my toe in this hot water at all. I have a number of reasons. First, my son is, in chronological order of euphemism, half-caste, mixed race, a person of colour, and of dual heritage. This succession of descriptors alone is indicative of the emotive currents flowing through the concepts of race and of culture. Second, my wife is South American and black. Both the geographic and the racial tags are needed if you want to locate her in this minefield. Third, our intention is to retire to our house in rural France in due course (a course that is not as due as I’d like), and France, race, culture and the niqab go together like, well, like a burning fiery furnace. And fourth, on top of all that, my current job includes responsibility for “equality and diversity” so I have a professional interest as well. So I might be about to be foolhardy, but I do have a few excuses.

This is not an area that one blog post could possibly begin to explore adequately, and so this will be a series of articles over the next few weeks, interspersed with some more frivolous stuff, I very much hope. Indeed, in this first post I’m intending to do no more than define some of the terms for the future discussion and, if you’re willing to join me in this dangerous pond, debate. Even getting definitions straight is quite hard in this context, so please feel free to take issue with what follows. However, my intention is not to arrive at a consensus about what these terms signify, but simply an understanding of what I mean when I use them.

  • Genotype: The sum total of an individual’s genetic inheritance, encoded largely with their DNA, and which is fixed from the moment of conception barring genetic damage or random mutation.
  • Phenotype: The particular expression of the genotype in a given individual, and which is environmentally influenced. Identical genotypes could have different phenotypes, and a given individual’s phenotype could vary over time.
  • Race: An imprecise term borrowed from taxonomy which is popularly used to distinguish between different human phenotypes, mostly on the basis of skin colour.
  • Racial group: A collection of individuals adjudged to belong to the same “race”.
  • Culture: The nexus of social norms, behaviours, shared understandings, identifications, history, etc. that distinguish particular groups of people from one another, and which provides them with a sense of identity.
  • Identity: The association that an individual decides to make between themselves and a cultural group, and sometimes vice-versa.
  • Ethnicity: A combination of racial group, culture and identity that is considered to have a history and originally at least, a geographical location.
  • Racism: (1) A philosophical position that claims certain human attributes are inextricably and immutably linked to racial group. (2) A political and economic set of social relationships in which power and social goods are unequally distributed between racial groups.
  • Prejudice: Judgements made by individuals or groups in which assumptions are made in advance, and to the detriment of others.

There will doubtless be other terms I may need to define carefully as they arise, but I think these are the currency of the articles that will follow, and in which I don’t want to have to be constantly restating what I mean by them. Other terms are important, such as religion, but I think their meanings are clearer and less contentious.

I hope that this has both set the groundwork, and with luck also whetted the appetite! Please subscribe to the blog (use the button in the side bar on the right) if you want to be alerted to new articles in this series.

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6 thoughts on “Fools rush in…

  1. Years ago I was recruiting someone just to help with an office move and a little data entry. I found someone who had done both in her previous job.

    However, a senior colleague complained saying “but her degree was taken in Nigeria”! Clearly, the job does not require a degree, so the colleague’s comment was irrelevant.

    Would you say that was a form of racism or another type of prejudice?

    • This is indeed a minefield!

      I would say that this is definitely the expression of prejudice, since it rests on the untested assumption that Nigerian degrees are inferior. It might also be a prejudice based on racism (in sense 1) given that in the colleague’s mind Nigeria is probably seen as a black country, and that its inferior degrees may thus be being presumed to be inferior as a consequence of its blackness. Or not. I think you can’t be certain of the racist element in the same way that you can be certain of the prejudicial element.

      The fact the the quality of the degree is an irrelevance anyway is a classic example of the way prejudicial and/or racist behaviour infects decisions in complex and subtle ways.

  2. Pingback: Multi-culturalism is doomed « The At-Long-Last-I've-Got-a-Job Blog

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