I’ve always greatly respected the Enlightenment, the European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries led by philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, Newton, Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith.
The Enlightenment emphasised reason. I’d looked up to it as a way out of superstition, ignorance and oppression, and as the foundation of modern liberal democracy.
However, the Black Lives Matter movement has exposed the part played by Enlightenment philosophers in justifying the slave trade and slavery by coming up with the idea of white supremacy.
I didn’t know, for instance, that Immanuel Kant said, ‘humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites’. To be fair, he later recanted (re-Kanted?) but the damage was done.
Before changing his mind, Kant expounded at length from his Königsberg coffee-shop about the failings of the various ‘races’ as compared with the perfect whites. He babbled authoritatively about the qualities of different African ‘races’ in terms of their suitability as slaves.
Such ‘philosophy’ was extremely useful to slave traders and ‘owners’ – not in practical terms, but in terms of moral support for their inhuman enterprise.
Now we know about the Enlightenment’s dark side, and in the woke wake of that awareness students have – understandably – called for decolonisation of the university syllabus. (The Daily Mail‘s response: ‘They Kant be serious!’)
In defence of the Enlightenment, it’s said that Kant & co. were conservative, and we should look to lesser-known radical philosophers of the Enlightenment – Baruch Spinoza, for instance – for its heart and soul.
Maybe so, but those mainstream conservative Enlightenment philosophers built our foundations – which now feel shaky.
Luckily – switch of metaphor! – the fruit of the Enlightenment, liberal democracy (currently the worst form of government apart from all the others) seems not to be poisoned by its toxic past. So I’ll still praise the Enlightenment – but less wholeheartedly.
The poison wasn’t Enlightenment philosophy – it was colonialism. It’d be nice to think those two heavyweight phenomena – Enlightenment and colonialism – were fundamentally separate and coincidental, rather than horribly symbiotic.
We need to decolonise our democracy but it’s easier said than done. Having ripped off and destroyed colonial countries, the UK blithely invited large numbers of residents of those countries to move and live here to help rebuild postwar Britain – then blighted their lives with postcolonial racism.
As I argue elsewhere, colonial racism is apparently a twisted version of a redundant anti-stranger instinct (evolved to protect against communicable disease).
If we acknowledge that, we can choose to live above it (as with other ‘monsters from the id‘), so enabling us to oppose and end racism – and to decolonise our minds and institutions.
Is it OK to say ‘mixed race’? No – because there are no human ‘races’. But…
Even the Guardian (centre-left, the UK’s only national daily newspaper not owned by billionaire twats) uses it to describe, for instance, Meghan Markle. (The usually brilliant Guardian style guide is silent on the subject.)
I objected to the use of the phrase on a local Facebook page and got a hostile response. People said, ‘I’m mixed race – that’s what I call myself’. But why would anyone accept that phrase as a description of themselves, loaded as it is with outmoded prejudice?
‘Mixed heritage’ (or ‘mixed ethnicity’) is better. More syllables, admittedly, but meaningful.
Some people say they’re dual heritage. That’s understandable – they want people to know they have two ethnicities, two cultures, and to be aware of the challenges that brings.
However, ‘dual heritage‘ can be seen as pointlessly limiting – like the horrible ‘half-caste‘ – which leads to a hell-hole of racist numerical classifications such as ‘quadroon‘.
What if one of your parents had African heritage and the other parent had dual South Asian and white heritage? Would you say you’re triple heritage?
‘Mixed heritage‘ as a label gives enough information – without a number. It says, in effect, ‘Yes, as you may infer from my facial appearance, I have more than one ethnic identity. I’ll give more information if and when it’s appropriate’.
Why do skin colour and ethnic origin need describing? Mostly they don’t, but the concept of ethnicity allows people to identify themselves as, for instance, black British, Asian British, or mixed heritage, thereby voicing their own feelings about who they are in positive terms which include family origins, the colour of their skin, and their cultural allegiances.
Skin colour can also be useful to describe an unknown person. In the local Facebook-page incident a man harassing women in a park was described as ‘mixed-race‘.
Similarly, UK police use identification codes to describe suspects to colleagues, eg IC4: [South] Asian. (Interestingly, there’s no IC code for people whose skin colour indicates mixed heritage.)
(However, such ‘racial profiling’ can also be abused by the police, for instance in the controversial and problematic practice of ‘stop and search‘.)
So there may be a perceived need to describe skin colour and ethnic origin, in which case the words used matter.
‘Mixed race’ implies there are human races – but only science-denying racists believe that. They say there are different races, some of which are intrinsically superior to others. They’re wrong.
Pseudo-scientific racists, from ‘Enlightenment’ philosophers (eg Kant and Locke) onwards, tried to justify colonialism and racism by claiming Europeans are inherently more intelligent than other ‘races‘. They aren’t.
Taxonomically, it’s generally agreed that all modern humans are Homo sapiens sapiens, the only surviving subspecies of the species Homo sapiens (the only surviving species of the genus Homo).
Race is a slippery word, but in biology it’s an informal rank below the level of subspecies, the members of which are significantly distinct from other members of the subspecies.
Genetic research has confirmed the obvious: the differences that evolved between different human populations are not significantly genetically distinct. The different populations are not races in any scientifically meaningful sense.
Single-gene disorders are the only significant genetic difference between the different poulations. For instance, cystic fibrosis is most common among people of north European heritage. Otherwise the differences, albeit visually and culturally obvious, are superficial.
There are no different human races, just human populations with differences which, apart from single-gene disorders, are superficial – and which are becoming increasingly mixed!
Before pseudo-scientific racism was rumbled, racists sneered about the danger of ‘miscegenation‘; and amongst ethnic minorities there’s pressure to resist assimilation and preserve cultural heritage by not ‘marrying out‘, but – some dodgy lyrics aside – Blue Mink were right: what we need is a great big melting pot.
In the meantime, words matter. Some say ‘race‘ is a social construct that doesn’t have to be scientifically meaningful – it’s just a way of describing the different human populations.
This is where it gets tricky. On the one hand, clever racists use the social construct idea to blur the issue and keep talking about ‘race‘ despite the scientific evidence that there are no races.
On the other hand, ‘race‘ as a social construct is also used by non-racists. It’s used as shorthand for different ethnic populations by people of colour and by both black and white writers and speakers in non-racist media.
‘Race‘ is also implied in the use of the word ‘racism‘. Antiracists speaking or writing about racism implicitly accept the notion of ‘race‘ – presumably, the social construct version.
For those wanting to identify and eventually eliminate ‘racism‘, the solution to this linguistic dilemna is to nevertheless avoid using the word ‘race‘.
Despite being an arguably useful social construct and the root-word of the useful word ‘racism‘, the word ‘race‘ is fundamentally toxic and redundant.
As for the word ‘racism‘, until the thing misnamed as racism ends, that word will probably continue to be used, trailing its toxic root.
‘Colour prejudice‘ is more accurate than ‘racism‘, but it’s out of fashion – and it wouldn’t cover white-on-white anti-Judaism. We need a better word.
‘Racism’ is the wrong word. There are no races. It’s also not really ‘colour prejudice’. That makes no sense.It’s culture prejudice. (That’s‘culture’, not ‘cultural’.) The skin colour of people of African or South Asian heritage living in Europe (or the USA) indicates a different culture. This doesn’t necessarily involve the idea that some cultures are superior to others. It’s the cultural difference indicated by different skin colour that provokes prejudice.
(Also, strictly speaking, there’s no such thing as the ‘human race‘. It’s an inclusive and relatively harmless phrase – and the ‘human subspecies‘ isn’t catchy – but ‘humanity‘ is better.)
Back to ‘mixed-race‘ – there’s no reason to say it. It’s loaded with colonial notions of white superiority. It should be left in the shameful past where it belongs. ‘Mixed heritage‘ is better – it celebrates our differences and embraces their mixing.
But… some people of mixed heritage say, ‘I’m mixed race – that’s how I describe myself. Don’t tell me what to say!’
It must be difficult enough being brown-skinned in a white world – facing microracism (‘Where are you from?’) and conscious and unconscious personal and institutional bias – without having a white saviour (I’m white, by the way – Hi!) tell you how you should or shouldn’t describe yourself.
Whitesplaining word-nerd, antiracist virtue signaller – who do I think I am? It’s like a white person telling African Americans not to use the N-word: ‘I say, you rapper chappies – you really shouldn’t use that bad word.’
Except it’s not like that. When a mixed-heritage person uses the phrase ‘mixed-race‘ to describe themselves, they’re not re-appropriating the word ‘race‘ in a playfully political way.
They’re giving white people permission to use that phrase – and they’re inadvertently agreeing with zealous racists, the only people who think there actually are different races.
Maybe mixed-heritage people call themselves ‘mixed-race‘, thinking, ‘So what? Who cares? It’s a social construct. It’s just what people say. And it’s only two syllables.’
Maybe mixed-heritage people call themselves ‘mixed-race‘ to wind up mitherers like me. If so, Damn – you got me.
Afterthought 1: I’m a white English man. I had a DNA ancestry test: I’m 36% Scottish. However, I’d never refer to myself as mixed-heritage – presumably because it doesn’t involve my skin colour, and its still North European culture…
Afterthought 2: A commenter on this post, Paul Staddon, kindly pointed out that young people of mixed heritage tend to refer to themselves as ‘mixed’. That’s a pefect solution!