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In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


In the second section of REDEFINING THE RACIAL OTHER, I made reference to my concept of racial markers, speaking of a given subject's "conscious or subconscious responses to persons who do or do not share the overt physical markers" of the people he considers to be his ingroup. I'll elaborate this first.

Not long ago, I had a long discussion with some relatives regarding the current concept that "race does not exist." Most of the rhetoric for this position is based in biological studies that demonstrate the genetic unity of humankind-- which I do not dispute--and the supposedly concomitant idea that therefore the only reason the concept of race came about was as a strategy to tout one or more races over others in a superior/inferior relationship. This online essay is an adequate summation of this position. The author asserts that "biologists have set a minimal threshold for the amount of genetic differentiation that is required to recognize subspecies." Because so-called human "races" do not possess this level of differentiation, race does not exist.

In my debate I argued that this is an oversimplification, devised to combat all intellectual justifications of racial superiority-- to which, incidentally, I am also opposed. In the debate I used the term "markers" as a makeshift term to describe the outward features by which members of ingroups define themselves, even in times and climes that predate the spread of institutionalized racism. Such physical manifestations of a tribe's shared history heritage are far from the only way in which human beings define those ingroups. Still, while those associations are socially constructed, this is not quite the same as deeming race to be nothing more than a social construct. More on that later.

The linked essay also quotes Ashley Montagu as stating that "there are no races, only clines." Since Montagu's term means the same thing as my own makeshift term, I will henceforth use the word "cline" in place of "marker," as defined here.

Now what do I mean by saying that those clines that can be recognized by any ingroup are socially constructed, yet are not social constructs as such? My argument is based in my position that any ingroup forms its own inevitable aesthetic preferences regarding facial and body types, but that these are not rooted in any mechanism of social control. If these preferences are are any sort of construct, they would be psychological in nature, and then only socially constructed after the fact of their existence. In the 19th century many anthropologists, particularly Durkheim. chose to view every facet of tribal life to be reducible to some function by which order and the status quo was maintained. Malinowski, who coined the term "functionalism," seems to have been among the few anthropologists who believed that society strove to accommodate the individual rather than making the individual fit society's needs, but I confess that I've not read Malinowski in the original.

In any case, I'd argue that the aesthetics of any ingroup "just grow, like Topsy," and that even any ingroup-members with a mind to social control are influenced by those aesthetics whether they wish to be or not. No scheming priest or dictatorial ruler created the desire of parents and grandparents to see their own physical characteristics reflected in the parents' offspring. Admittedly, most if not all societies require some degree of exogamy to avoid inbreeding-- but most societies will be chauvinistic toward outgroups that possess a pronounced difference with respect to the outgroup-member's outward physical clines. While a given tribe may have elaborated social rules to prevent outsiders from joining the tribe, I suggest that these rules reflect the aesthetic preferences of the ingroup, which values visual solidarity, much as do many members of the animal kingdom.

At the same time, though the initial reaction to "the other" may be one of competitiveness and/or fear, I believe Sartre was wrong to believe it dominated all affects. Curiosity about "the other" who looks like your people, but isn't one of them, is attested throughout both mythic and historical narratives. In addition, though two tribes may initially compete over resources even as animals do, animals do not, to the best of our knowledge, feel pleasure at having a good fight against an equal from another species. Human myth and history, however, attest to the excessive joy that humans take in seeing their "home team" come to grips with the representatives of an outgroup.

Nietzsche caught the uniquely human contradictions of this desire for validation in this quote:

Ye shall only have enemies to be hated, but not enemies to be despised. Ye must be proud of your enemies; then, the successes of your enemies are also your successes.

Keeping in mind this prioritizing of the aesthetics of physical clines, I shall next try to demonstrate that the apparent stigmatization of the outgroup's representative-- particularly in the form of the "racial other"-- does not necessarily signify only fear or conservatism, even when "the other" is given dominantly negative traits. Those negative traits also function less as a means of social control, as many many Marxists have averred, than as an excuse to mount a challenge between two groups. I do not deny that many of these fictional challenges result in simplistic "racist myths," but there also exists the distinct possibility that they may result in the more benign "racial myths," which reveal a more complex level of meaning-- as I will next demonstrate with one of the best-known racial myths, that of Fu Manchu.

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