By David E.J.A. Bennett
The term ‘race’ is a somewhat broad and ambiguous term, and, as such, its use and meaning are changeable depending on the context in which they are used, and the intention of the user. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines race as “each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics”; however, it also defines ‘race’ alternatively, or simultaneously, as “a group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc.”, thus, at the same time, ‘race’ can be both distinguishable by physical features and/or not distinguishable by physical features.
For instance, “African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males” in America’s profit-driven prison system (sentencingproject.org), which demonstrates the widely documented, systemic racism at all levels of the American justice system, from stop-and-search to prosecution. At the same time, black Americans are welcomed into the military to fight alongside white Americans and other minority-background Americans, all under the cultural and historical, collective banner of the American flag, and labelled as heroes and patriots for joining. So, in the same instance, the ambiguity of ‘race’ allows for it to be manipulated to mean both an inclusive blanket-term, and a tool for segregation.
‘Race’ in terms of “distinct physical characteristics” may be the most basic way of determining an idea of a person’s cultural heritage, but this is also perhaps the most prevalent cause of discrimination, deriving from ignorance and a blinkered view of cultural identity. The way a person looks may lead another person to jump to a conclusion of a perceived notion of cultural background, although physical characteristics and cultural backgrounds are not exclusively connected. Categorising someone by their physical characteristics based on a preconceived idea of personal traits is what may be deemed as racism.
However, a person from a certain background and culture may feel obliged to align themselves with that culture in order to fulfil the traits of a preconceived identity. Thus ‘race’ from a personal perspective is perhaps as much about ‘fitting in’ socially as it is about a literal, physical identity. For example, if a person is born to Chinese parents they will have distinct physical characteristics, yet if that person is adopted as a child by white British parents, they will not necessarily have any connection to Chinese culture or history, thus further proving ‘race’ is merely a concept and not a quantifying identity.
In the case of Maxie Hong Kingston, demonstrated in her masterwork, The Woman Warrior, there is a conflict of two, perhaps three, cultural identities, which is demonstrative of the ambiguity of ‘race’ and the confusion it can cause. Kingston is arguably torn between the racial identity of Chinese cultural history (exemplified by the myth of Fa Mu Lan); the reality of Chinese social culture, in Kingston’s view (exemplified by the suicide of her aunty, and what effectively is the murder of her baby cousin, both deriving from the oppression of women and the cultural stigma placed on reproduction); and the American/western identity obtained from the place of her upbringing.
From the perspective of race being “a group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc” it is perhaps contestable to suggest that Kingston was aligned with, or conflicted by, three separate derivatives of the same ‘race’: the mythological, the culturally historical, and the geographically removed versions of the Chinese ‘race’.
All of this points to ‘race’ being a malleable, abstract concept with the sole purpose of categorising people for whatever reason, and people finding categorisation for themselves. The significance of ‘race’ perhaps comes from the mass acceptance of categorisation and the feeling of being aligned with something bigger than the self. On the other hand, collective persecution based on ‘race’ is probably the single most heinous crimes against humanity that history has to offer, and has offered.
‘Race’, in both its most positive and negative form, is a divisive concept, and, some may argue, the only true race is that of the human race in its entirety. However, as a counterargument, some may say the human race is merely a subsidiary of the mammalian race, which in turn is a mere offshoot of entire animal kingdom. What one’s intentions are when categorising humans is surely the main factor for how much significance they place on the concept of ‘race’; if one’s intentions are world peace, ‘race’ is perhaps a massive hindrance to any plans.