domingo, 12 de septiembre de 2010

MALIK, Kenan. Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate. Oxford: Oneworld. 2009.

A few months ago, I visited Bogota’s Gold Museum. This wonderful museum exhibits a huge amount of gold pieces derived from pre-Columbian peoples. I was visiting Bogota with a good Mexican friend; as we approached the museum, we were informed by the authorities that I had to buy a ticket, but my friend could go in for free, since he was indigenous. According to their reasoning, in as much as that Gold Museum is made up of pieces taken violently from pre-Columbian cultures, it is a gesture of gratitude and redemption that indigenous people go in for free.
I did not want to argue about affirmative action, or about the merits of Western colonization in the Americas; so I let it go by and I went on to buy my ticket. But, I wondered: how could the Gold Museum’s authorities know that my friend was indigenous? He was, after all, wearing a Nike t-shirt and blue jeans, and he never spoke a word to them. For all they knew, he could have been an Englishman that plays the violin, recites Shakespeare and cheers for Manchester United. I quickly realized that they “knew” he was indigenous because of his physical traits: black eyes, brown skin, epicanthic fold, and so on; and I am not “indigenous” because of my light skin, green eyes, etc. In other words, by observing our physical traits, they inferred our cultural behavior.
This was a very popular procedure back in the 19th Century, during the heyday of racial science: racial traits could be used to infer behavior. Fortunately, today most people take offense at the idea that people with dark skin are less intelligent and more sexual; but as the example of my friend clearly shows, it is still very popular to postulate someone’s ethnicity (a category of cultural behavior) based upon physical traits. According to the implicit reasoning of the Gold Museum’s authorities, humanity may be divided in groups with well-defined, discrete physical traits. And, even if my friend were raised in London, spoke a Cockney dialect, read Shakespeare, did not know a single word of a Mayan dialect, had never been to Mexico or Guatemala and had never read the Popol Vuh, he would still indigenous (and not a Westerner) because his racial traits make him so.
This is, to say the least, plain confusing. And, indeed, all racial talk is. Kenan Malik’s Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate tries to tackle what the confusion is all about. Despite the confusion, the race debate appears to be quite simple: do races exist? If so, how different are they? Are blacks less intelligent than whites? Are whites more prone to certain diseases than blacks? These questions are prone to heated debate; too heated, in fact. James Watson’s remarks about Africans’ lower intelligence offended sensibilities worldwide. But, Malik wishes to prove that the race debate has just become irrational, to the point of even suppressing free speech and academic discussion, as Watson’s case clearly shows. Those who argue in favor of the existence of race, Malik believes, are wrong. But, so are those who vehemently oppose the existence of race. In fact, both race realists and those who today vehemently oppose racial talk have more points in common than they would like to accept.
The prime question surrounding the race debate is quite straight-forward: do races exist; i.e., is ‘race’ a biologically valid concept? Malik believes it is not. He offers the usual reasons (although not uncritically): most variation exists within populations, distinctions between races are arbitrary, Homo sapiens is a very young species, and so on. Malik argues that it is plainly false that there are ‘Jewish diseases’ (e.g. breast cancer), that ‘blacks’ have more athletic abilities, or that IQ test scores can be adequately correlated to traditional racial traits, such as skin color, hair type, and so on. Race is, at the most, an arbitrary way to classify human beings. ‘Race’ acquires its meaning in specific social circumstances; in other words, ‘race’ is not a valid biological concept, but rather, a social construction.
So, the race realists are clearly wrong. The concept of ‘race’ historically gave rise to racism. And as such, people have been discriminated on the basis of a few arbitrary physical traits. The legacy of racism has been quite harmful. And, perhaps because of this horrendous legacy, today anti-racists attempt to vehemently oppose racism. But, strangely enough, they have done so by resembling much of what the racialists have done. And, in that sense, anti-racists are also wrong.
Anti-racists are aware that a great number of people have been discriminated against. But, instead of doing away with racial distinctions, anti-racists have continued them. In this age of post-colonialism, most ‘liberals’ (although, as Malik shows, today’s liberals are very distant from classical Enlightenment liberalism) prefer to cultivate ‘identity politics’ and multiculturalism. Ethnic identity and diversity are the current liberal creeds. But contrary to what most people would think, Malik considers that identity politics and multiculturalism closely resemble old-age racism.
The Enlightenment was a project that celebrated mankind’s unity. True, some lumieres made racist comments, but overall, they believed in universal ideas, extensible to all human beings. The philosophers of the Enlightenment would have little patience for postmodern cultural relativism; quite the contrary, there are more similarities than differences among men all over the world. So, even if some Enlightenment philosophers may have held some racist ideas, the overall philosophy of the 18th Century was an antidote to racism.
Perhaps due to some of the failures of the French Revolution, the Enlightenment was soon reacted against. As an alternative, Romanticism rose up. Whereas the Enlightenment celebrated values and ideas shared by men universally, Romanticism celebrated diversity among human beings. Romantics were interested in the ways cultures were different from each other. Today’s multiculturalists are the heirs of Romanticism. But, Malik aptly shows that the Romantic celebration of diversity also fueled racial science. For, one of the premises of racial science is that there are fundamental differences among human beings.
Today’s multicultural creed celebrates differences and exalts cultural identity. Apparently, it is a reaction against the crimes of imperialism. European powers spread Western culture all over the world, and by doing so, acculturated the populations of the Third World. Today, multiculturalists desire to vindicate native identities. But, they attempt to do so by imploring something along the lines of racial science. In Malik’s words, multiculturalism has brought “the imprisonment of people within their cultural identities”. Thus, according to the multiculturalist paradigm, people belong to the ethnic group of their ancestors. Even if, say, my Mexican friend displays no Mayan cultural trait whatsoever and has never been exposed to Mayan cultural heritage, he is Mayan, because his ancestors were. And, as multiculturalists recommend, he should attempt to recover Mayan traditions. There is little my friend can do: even if behaves as a Yanomami, a Celt or a Basque, he will always be a Mayan.
In a sense, according to this way of reasoning, my friend inherits in his biology cultural traits from his ancestors. And, no matter how and where he is raised, he will always carry the cultural traits of his ancestors. But, precisely, this is exactly the way racialists reason: behavior is encoded in inheritable traits. In rude terms, even if a black baby is raised by white parents, he will behave ‘black’.
Thus, at first sight, the entry policy of Bogota’s Gold Museum is very progressive: after 500 years of colonialism, a minimum of sensibility would require that indigenous people go in for free, to contemplate their own cultural heritage. But, by imprisoning people in cultural identities (and ultimately, deciding cultural identities on the basis of ancestry; i.e. racial traits), such an initiative is in fact very reminiscent of old racism.
There are plenty of books that confront racism; and a few other books confront multiculturalism. Usually, critics of racism do not criticize multiculturalism, and viceversa. Strange Fruit is most welcome as a book that not only confronts both, but shows how closely related they really are. Although Malik would benefit from a more gracious writing style (there is barely any humor or irony in a book on a topic that could easily exploit them), I fully recommend Strange Fruit. I cannot say that I found a single phrase with which I would disagree.

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