The Illusion of Racial Identity

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In common sense thought, race is simply a fact: humans are not all alike, there are whites, blacks and yellows, maybe reds and browns too, and these different kinds are races, and that's just a feature of the way the world is. However, recent work on the concept of "race" shows that "race" and "race"-talk can be understood by analogy to what Foucault suggests about psychiatry and mental illness coming into being together: (1) it is now beginning to appear than "race" and racism came into existence together as well. It is racism that has made talk of race something that we can take seriously. A statement attributing intelligence or laziness to a person on the basis of her/ his skin color, can only be judged true if there are resources in the vocabulary for associating personality traits with skin colors. The major resource providing this association is the concept of race. So, for instance, we find David Hume in the 18th century commenting on racial inferiority, in a way that we are perfectly used to, appalled by but not astonished by. He writes, "I am apt to suspect the negroes to be naturally inferior to the whites. There scarcely ever was a civilized nation of that complexion, nor even any individual, eminent in either action or speculation... Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction between these breeds of men". (2) But we don't see philosophers or writers of antiquity saying this sort of thing about other peoples. It is appropriate to ask what made it possible for such a statement to be taken seriously, so that it could be thought true. Ivan Hannaford's Race: The History of the Idea in the West, (3) provides a great deal of informa... ... middle of paper ... ...dgar, eds., David Hume Selected Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 360. (3) Ivan Hannaford, Race.The History of an idea in the West (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press: 1996). (4) Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson(New York: Harper and Row, 1962). (5) Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness translated by Hazel Barnes(New York: Washington Square Press, 1956), pp 432-434. (6) Simone deBeauvoir, The Second Sex, translated by H.M. Parshley (New York: Random House, 1972) p. xxx (7) Anthony Kwame Appiah, In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosphy of Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) (8) Karl Marx, 1973. The German Ideology, New York: International Publishers, 1973), p. 39. (9) bell hooks, Yearning: race, gender and cultural politics (Boston: South End Press, 1990)

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