The first thing I learned in Lit Theory was that the relationship between the Signifier and the Signified was completely arbitrary and it blew my mind. This is the theory of Semiotics and quite frankly it makes a huge difference on how I look at language as a whole. Basically, we have words for things (signifiers) and we have things (signified) and there is literally no logical connection between them, no fixed state. The word is not the thing and vice versa.
Completely lost yet? Yeah, that’s how everyone starts with this theory. So I’ll give you the example my professor used to make it less foggy. Take the word “chair.” You know what a chair is. You can picture it in your mind. And even if everyone in the room with you is picturing a different chair, they are all essentially a chair. There must be, then, a Universal Chair, one which embodies the word and is imbued with the word at the same time. Except, well, no there isn’t. The word chair has a basic definition, true. But it is also burdened with connotations. Let’s look at a synonym for chair, “throne.” Now, a throne is definitely a chair, right? But is a chair a throne? Not really, no. Throne has different connotations. If you follow this logically, moving from synonym to synonym it is possible to eventually reach a word that is absolutely not a synonym for chair. Or to think of it in another way, we could translate the word “chair” to a different language. I went onto Google Translate and did just that. I went English to Spanish to Chinese to Russian to Scottish/Gaelic. And then I noticed that when I switched the Russian back to Gaelic, the words changed. So I went back and forth between them a few more times and then translated the Gaelic back to English. Suddenly the word was “home.” I could probably stretch my thinking to where home and chair are synonyms, but it’s a pretty far stretch. Language is pretty neat like that.
What this means is that the word “chair” and the object “chair” are not intrinsically linked. In other words, all language is made up and each and every word is encumbered with rich meaning and history. When we name things, we define them and those definitions shape them. But we must never forget that the name itself is arbitrary. The name isn’t the thing. The thing isn’t the name. The words change, the meanings change and this is absolutely the way it should be.
I started with that because I want to talk about race, color, heritage, and identity. These words are powerful and dangerous and sticky. They are not synonyms for each other and should not be treated as such. Are they connected? Yes, as are all words. That is the nature of language. But we need to divorce ourselves from the notion that it is all one and the same.
Heritage and Identity are big words. I may touch on them later.
Race and Color are also big words. I’ll deal with those now.
To lay out my credentials, I have none. I read stuff. I have a bachelors in English. I am white. I have no right to speak on this, but I’m gonna.
Race and color are not the same thing. Race is a social construct. Color has to do with skin pigmentation. The connection between the two is arbitrary, just like the word “chair” and the object “chair.” You probably already know this if you think about it.
When Europeans colonized (re: raped and pillaged indigenous civilizations in a quest for power and resources) the world, they did so under the banner of spreading civilization and the Christian faith. I’m generalizing, of course. That’s a huge chunk of history that includes hundreds of years and dozens of empires, but that’s the gist of it. Europeans needed resources and the best way to get them was to discover new lands, that coincidentally had been discovered thousands of years before by other people. And instead of abiding by the dibs rules, they decided to bring plague and slavery to the natives. They called it civilizing the savages, even when those savages were significantly further along in the indoor plumbing department. And then they had to justify all the violence, because even in those days you couldn’t just enslave a people without good reason. Ah, well, they’re savages, they aren’t really people. How do we know, well, LOOK THEY’RE BROWN.
Now I am definitely conflating the conquest of the New World (the Americas) and the colonizing of Africa, India, Australia, etc, which are not precisely the same thing. The motivations are the same (Europeans want more stuff), but it’s not like Europeans forgot that there were brown-shaded people when they traipsed across the Atlantic. People with darker skin-tones have always existed and Europe was never some kind of pale utopia wherein a time traveling sunscreen salesman could be king. For all of human history, race wasn’t a thing. Color was, sure, definitely not contesting that. But race? Nyope. Do I have sources for this? I have a NatGeo article which is very interesting and points out that scientific racism wasn’t a thing until the 1800s.
There are actually a ton of articles on the subject and most of them seem to agree that the concept of race as we understand it is incredibly new. And it’s confusing really. Cuz we have this idea that people can identify as their race. I’m white. Other people are Black or Asian or Indian or Middle Eastern or Hispanic or First Peoples and you know what they are because they look like their race, right? That guy is black because he looks black. I’m white because I look white. But again, we all picture that Universal Chair and it turns out we mean home.
Race isn’t synonymous with skin color and the proof is the concept of “passing.” Now how is passing as another race possible if color and race are inherently linked? Someone who passes as white can still be black or Hispanic or Native. To be defined as POC, all you need is one POC in your bloodline (defined, not identify, which is something else). To be defined as white, you can’t have any. Which is impossible since all bloodlines started in Africa. If you’re a white supremacist, DO NOT get one of those ancestor DNA tests. You will be very disappointed. No, nevermind, do it. Enjoy some reality. (Did you know that some DNA tracing businesses will falsify data for customers who refuse to believe they have any African heritage?!?)
But wait, if race doesn’t exist according to science, how can people identify as a race? I’m glad you asked. It’s pretty complicated. You see, when Europeans colonized places, they gave priority treatment to pale people. And then they came up with science that made that okay because the not-pale people were OBVIOUSLY a different species. They labeled people, created boxes for specific characteristics and then said THIS BOX IS BLACKS AND THEY ARE INFERIOR AND YOU CAN TELL THAT BECAUSE THEY’RE DARK-SKINNED. In this way, colonizers not only justified the murder and enslavement of entire civilizations, they convinced the conquered people that they deserved to be murdered and enslaved because they didn’t look European. This was totally new. You murder and enslave people for land and ideology, not because they look different (I’m guessing).
Think of it this way. Some people like to point out that a lot of the slaves sold in Africa were sold by natives. See?!? Savages! Blacks sold their OWN KIND! Except that assumes that Africans are all one people when they are in fact the most diverse continent on the planet. They weren’t selling their own kind, they were selling slaves from other tribes. Slavery has been around a loooooong time and just about every civilization has had a hand in it. It was only in the recent past that it became hereditary, but I digress.
So Europeans invent race. We are good because we are White. You are bad because you are Black/Asian/First Peoples/etc. If you aren’t white, you are secondary, subservient, less than. Even in your own country. Even if you outnumber the white colonizers. Even if you have generations of much better personal hygiene and sophisticated calendars and managed to sail to your land in tiny boats while white people were still figuring out the Sun doesn’t orbit the Earth. And Europeans propagated this message for generations. They erased entire languages, cultures, and peoples trying to force homogeneity. Not to make everyone white (which is impossible from the white perspective because having a drop of POC blood means you aren’t white no matter how white you dress, talk, act), but to make everyone want to be white.
White is basic, normal, the standard. The only proof you need of whiteness is to look white. By that I mean you have pale skin and European facial features. Whiteness has more to do with skin color than any other “race.” That’s how it is possible to “pass” as white, a social strategy most commonly used to escape being not-white. Imagine that concept? To be a POC, all you have to admit to is one non-European ancestor. To be white, you have to erase 200,000 years of human history. And I know that feels like a leap, it’s simply math. When a white slave owner raped an African slave, the children were half black and still slaves. When those children were raped by a white slave owner, their children were a quarter black. When those children were raped by a white slave owner, their children with an eighth black, and so on. You can approach whiteness but never achieve it.
And not to put too fine a point on it, the slave (Sally Hemings) who bore Thomas Jefferson’s bastards and is the reason Jefferson is a common surname in the Black community, was three-quarters European and still somehow Black by race. She was also probably Martha Jefferson’s half sister, so you know, ew.
I have a friend who I served with for most of my military career and I was shocked (SHOCKED I tell you) to discover pretty early on that he was Black. He’s as pale as I am and has blond hair and blue eyes. But his father is Black and apparently if he grows his hair out it’s an afro. But when he enlisted, his recruiter told him to write down that he was White. Because it would be easier. That was only 20 years ago.
Which brings me to Black Africans. Black Americans have the distinct (what’s the opposite of privilege?) of being descendants of dark-skinned people who were kidnapped from their native land and forced to work to death for several generations. This great sin sundered our nation according to an arbitrary designation of race and has left devastating, unendurable damage to our people. We will never heal from it because we continue to cover the wound with diseased bandages and telling ourselves that the noxious smell is just bad apples. But anyway, when we (the ruling White class) legally defined slaves as Black because it didn’t matter what nation/people they came from, we erased their heritage. When we took their names and their children and their futures and their pasts, we erased their identity until all they had was the word Black to define who they were. And they took that word and remade it into their identity based on a shared trauma. That’s pretty damn neat.
But what about Black Africans. If Black Pride is rooted in the shared trauma of slavery, does that mean Black Africans are excluded from that pride? Knee-jerk reaction was no, of course not. Why? Well, they’re still Black. Obviously. What a stupid questions! Just look at them… ah, that’s right. Race and Color are not synonymous. Hmmm.
That right there is the problem with Euro-American, white-centric education. I learned barely anything about my own nation’s filthy racial histories and nothing at all about the rest of the world. Slavery in America didn’t exist in a bubble, apparently, and racial inequity was the norm in most of the world thanks to the British Empire (and the French and Spanish and Portugese and Dutch). Colonialism plagued the whole planet, not just the Americas. POC’s suffered under brutal, racist regimes for centuries and that left lasting, irreversible trauma. Black Pride, Native Pride, Indian Pride, that all stems from shared trauma at the hands of Whites. They flourish in spite of an entire system engineered to make them fail. That’s something to be proud of.
Right now I’m reading a book called Black Skins, White Masks by Frantz Fanon, who was a French West Indies psychiatrist and political philosopher in the middle of the 20th century. It goes over my head somewhat (neither philosophy nor psychology being strong suits of mine), but it is giving me incredible insight into the generational psychological trauma of colonialism on Black people. It is disheartening to read about all his pain and anger throughout the text, relaying the same dehumanizing treatment many of the Black community are still dealing with almost 70 years later. This is looking at what it is to be Black outside of America and it is literally no different. Trust me, Blackness doesn’t exclude based on geological origins.
I’m running out of steam on this and I appreciate you for sticking with me. I know this sort of meandered all over and probably doesn’t make a bit of difference in the grand scheme of things. The people who need to understand these concepts won’t read this. To be fair, a lot of people won’t read this because I don’t have a lot of followers. But it was something I had to parse out for myself and maybe this will help others put into words exactly what is wrong about any calls for White Pride.
All lives can’t matter until Black lives matter.