Sunday, April 5, 2009

Race, Bigotry & Tribes

If there's one thing a writer loves almost as much as a whopping book advance, it's finding exactly the right word to convey what he has in mind. Choosing the right word is the literary equivalent of not only finding but threading the needle in the haystack.
Using the wrong word, especially a word the writer should know is wrong, is the mark of a hack. Or a propagandist. It is a stick in the eye to the discerning reader.

That's why I so often grind my teeth when I read or hear the word race in a news story. If someone were to ask me my race, I'd say, "The 1500 meters." Though I'm not as fast as I used to be, I can still complete the metric mile in a respectable time.

I would never describe my race as white. That would not only be chromatically inaccurate—I'm too ruddy—but skin color does not define a person's race. Obviously, there are those who disagree. For some people race is all about skin color.

So let's take a look at that idea. Back in the 1950s, the heyday of Jim Crow segregation, the "racial" classification Negro not only applied to people whose ancestry traced back to sub-Saharan Africa but also to people living in Pacific Oceania (Melanesia). Both groups have dark skins and certain other physical similarities.

The problem with this racial classification is that the Pacific "Negroes," on molecular and genetic levels, are more closely related to mainland Asians than Africans.

So if color is useful in distinguishing between crayons but not people, what is?

Before we get to that, let's extend the vocabulary of this discussion. What the layman calls race, the scientist calls subspecies. (The overarching species to which we all belong is Homo Sapiens, Latin for wise man. In  many cases "wise man" is a vast overstatement of who we are, but it's our working title.) Subspecies are population groups that have distinctive features as a result of evolutionary development. Just for fun, though, subspecies are sexually compatible.

Oh, and those distinctive evolutionary features that define a subspecies, scientists say there should be several of them and they should be genetically based. You see what I'm getting at here? It's a darned hard thing to have your own race.

Buying into a concept of race is an especially knotty problem for those who don't believe in evolution. From a Biblical point of view, if we're all descendants of Adam and Eve, and there have been no evolutionary forces at work since the time of Eden, it's a mortal lock we're all members of the same club.

Being members of one big family should bring us all some measure of comfort because there's at least one subspecies science definitely recognizes: Pan troglodytes. Chimpanzees. Wouldn't want to put the sexual compatibility idea to that test, though.

So if race is just a social fiction, how can anyone be racist? How can you discriminate on the basis of someone being a member of the same species you are? Doesn't make any sense.

Nevertheless, racist and racism have become far too powerful as literal curse words to be discarded any time soon. These words have been imbued with the power of magic. To utter them against a person or a form of behavior is to cast a spell, one that puts its target beyond the boundaries of decent society.

A much better word to describe an intolerance of those whose looks, speech, prayers, tattoos, and body piercings differ from our own is bigotry. Bigot, bigoted, bigotry. Strong words. Accurate words. Well chosen words.

They're not magical like racist or racism, but they're still able to cause ostracism if applied vigorously. Blatant bigots are not to be tolerated in polite society, and I'm polite enough to agree with that. I want those people out of my tribe.

Of course, there are people who adopt bigoted behavior to exile themselves from polite society. Other people want to carve out elbow room for themselves and kindred spirits without leaving the mainstream altogether. There may be only one race of human beings, but there is an infinite number of tribes, and it's routine to belong to several at once: the professional or occupational tribe; the political tribe; the choice of news media tribe; the sports fan tribe; the hobby tribe; the type of car you drive tribe. The list is endless.

Trouble doesn't simply occur between members of different tribes, it occurs between people who have too few tribes in common. Or too many that are antagonistic.

So the next time you're tempted to use the word race, give subspecies or tribe a try instead. If you have an impulse to think someone is racist, refine that thought to bigoted or maybe tribalist, if you can. That's what someone of my tribe would do.

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