The Illusion of Black and White

January 17, 2017 | Culture & Community, Diversity & Inclusion, Overcoming Bias

by Ashley Diaz Mejias

As we are living in the midst of a rather strange historical moment, I’ve been reflecting on how this moment might shape our biases in the future and the impact that history has on our negative biases. Obviously, it’s important and fruitful to examine our personal life experiences for the roots of negative biases about gender, race, and socioeconomic status. However, the historical narrative about groups of people also shapes our biases and can do so for generations!

What do I mean? For the sake of our conversation here, we’ll take a brief look at race.

You may have heard it said that race is a social construct rather than a biological reality.

If it were a biological reality, race would be a constant in various locations and would be identifiable by a set of genetic factors. In other words, members of a race would share some genetic identifier that sets them apart from members of another race. However, this is not so. Of the 30,000 genes that a human being has, not one of those genes separates and classifies one race from another. Agustín Fuentes, anthropologist at Notre Dame, puts it this way: “There is more genetic variation in the diverse populations from the continent of Africa – who some would lump into a “black” category – than exists in ALL populations from outside of Africa (the rest of the world) combined!”i In other words, there is not one gene that all “white” Americans share that sets them apart from “black” Americans.

As a social construct, race has been fluid across social and historical boundaries.

A person’s racial identity has almost always been determined by the social, economic, and historical influences at play during their lifetime. For example, today it would seem odd to classify a person of Irish descent as other than white. When large numbers of Irish immigrants began arriving in the United States in the 1850’s, though, these immigrants were immediately classified as “not white”. They were poor, many of them were Catholic, and they were often seen as illiterate, unskilled, and a threat to a young Protestant nation’s ethics and values. Michael O’Malley, art history professor at George Mason University, has collected cartoon caricatures from the second half of the 19th century that demonstrate the way many Americans were biased against the Irish – as brutish, ape-like racial inferiors who were threatening their jobs and values. It sounds a lot like the way African, Hispanic, and Native Americans have been described, right?

The concept of blackness in America also has roots in American history.

At the end of the 18th century, our infant nation was beginning to live underneath the idea that “all men are created equal.” Simultaneously, the United States was significantly economically sustained by the free labor force of African slaves – the amount has been estimated to be the equivalent of trillions of dollars in modern day currency. Thus, one can see the tremendous economic pressure at play; how would this new nation hold to its ideals of human equality while enslaving large groups of people? How would the nation survive if it suddenly lost an enormous source of free labor?

Well, if those slaves were, in fact, collectively inferior in their humanity, then they, like women and children of that age, did not have to be counted under the Declaration of Independence. The United States could both proclaim these radical ideas of equality and freedom and continue to be sustained by forced labor. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, is credited with the earliest pronouncement that, “blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”ii He wrote this in 1781, only four years after the signing the Declaration of Independence.

There is obviously a lot to unpack – and scholars have written many helpful texts on this subject.

But these stories can help expose the nature of race as a social construct rather than a biological reality. As a social construct, race’s power lies in the way it has been employed in social, economic, and political history – not as an accurate biological explanation of the way things are. As leaders committed to creating more inclusive working and living environments, we have a great deal to learn from exploring the ways that our American history has shaped our racial narratives and consequently, our personal biases.

Perhaps most importantly in this historical moment, we can learn from taking a hard look at the vast racial disparities in our nation.

We must refuse to accept them as the natural state of things – but rather name these disparities as resulting from historical pressures, and we can move into this new moment with a greater sense of our power to make a difference.

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Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, Queries 14 and 18, 137–43, 162– 63