On Racial Divides

Ernest,

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I am a white person.  That is an indelible facet of my human identity.  I carry my whiteness with me wherever I go, and it invades every corner of my life: not only my appearance, but also the way I talk and act, the sensibilities I have for style, even the subconscious decisions I make about how to move my body and what kind of physical bearing to use as I walk through my life from day to day.  Race is a deeply entrenched element of human culture, and it isn’t going away.  The influence that ethnic heritage and racial identity has on an individual is even a good thing; it affirms the capacity of peoples to affect meaningfully the lives of future generations.  But the disconcertion that comes with racial identity is how something so natural and right could ever become so perverted.

Ernest, as you know, many bright minds have wrestled with this question lately, and in the wake of recent events, plenty of folks more clever than I have expressed a frustrated and profound confoundedness over the issue, which seems to escape the reaches of reason itself.  But it is because I sincerely believe that the philosopher’s duty lies not only in quiet condolence, but also in speaking to the sufferings of the world, that I write to you now on this question, which has most often silenced the voice and immobilized the pen of the discerning.

how something so natural and right could ever become so perverted

I believe, Ernest, that the answer has a lot to do with the way our society makes sense of the reality around it.  The primary tool we use to do this is language.  Language lets us render incoherent information into intelligible meaning, and it does this by means of opposition.  Perhaps when you were only a couple months old you felt a wet and slimy something on your cheek and saw that it belonged to a brown and furry something else.  It wasn’t until you learned the word ‘dog’ that you were truly able to make sense of that experience.  As your vocabulary expanded, your words enabled you to give a meaningful opinion about the creature; it was a ‘good’ dog precisely insofar as it was not a ‘bad’ dog, because ‘good’ is the opposite of ‘bad’.  By means of linguistic opposition, you found meaning in your environment and were able to assign distinct identities to yourself and everything around you.  As it turned out linguistic opposition was a very powerful tool, and there’s no telling what great (or not so great) things might come of this new discovery.

Maybe when you were still very young you searched for new words only when you absolutely needed them—like when you later encountered a ‘cat’.  Eventually, though, you grew out of that childish habit and came to appreciate words also for their own sake, even if they didn’t correspond to anything you had ever yet experienced.  Language is in fact useful not only to communicate existing realities but also to express potential alternatives.  You can use language to tell fictional stories, to express intangible emotions, or to describe objects that do not exist.  As you grew up you came to value this impractical use of language, because you saw how it could enrich your life and make everything more meaningful.  When you fibbed to your mom about the fate of a missing cookie, the immoral deed carried meaning because language could surmise in your mind the perilous state of a society governed by falsehood. When you got married, it was the best day of your life in part because you knew the word ‘love’, which you had bothered to learn even though it didn’t correspond to any tangible reality in your environment.  And when you lost someone very dear to you, it meant so much more because the bereavement was wrapped in the symbolism of a thousand losses that you had found in the literature of novelists and poets, all of whom now shared in your present suffering.  Each of these experiences carried identifiable meaning due to the opposition not of two existing realities but of something actual and something potential or hypothetical.  Today, Ernest, as the intelligent man you have grown to be, you are capable of identifying a ‘good dog’ without relying on any actual experience with a real ‘bad dog’—a hypothetical bad dog would suffice just as well.

But when man falls back on childish habits, his concept of identity becomes perverted.  In this scientific age of ours, knowledge comes only from empirical data, not from the wisdom of fairy tales or even the predictions of hypothetical reasoning.  It is this epistemological stupidity that is responsible for racial divides.  Racial divides exist because we cannot identify ours as a ‘good race’ in its own right without there also existing an empirical ‘bad race’.  If there exists an ‘us’ then there must equally exist a ‘them’, and that them must be observable to us via our five senses.  But while this rudimentary use of language was sufficient to identify a ‘good dog’ or a ‘bad dog’, it is not sufficient for creating human identities.  When we identify ourselves only in opposition to empirical others, we deny that aspect of our humanity which transcends empirical measurement.  The human soul is not in fact fungible.  If one human dies, we can’t simply replace them with another human of equal or greater value.  A materialist understanding of human identity will not do.

Ernest, I confess that this is less a scholarly opinion than a personal apprehension, but it appears to me that man and science today are in a kind of metaphysical arms race with each other.  Science continually tries to codify and categorize the human experience in terms of quantifiable data, while man repeatedly shows himself to be more complicated than any concrete measurement can communicate.  If only we could fit people into square simple boxes that compare neatly through standardized tests.  But our whole undefinable nature is repulsed by the proposal.    These are troubling times, and the human spirit is aching for a change of heart.

Your servant,

TWM