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"Issue of the Moment: The Changing Face of Race"

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"ISSUE OF THE MOMENT: THE CHANGING FACE OF RACE"
January 22, 2009

Kate Meiman

In response to the observation of the International Day of Tolerance and the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN has planned a number of events to continue to examine the issues of discrimination and intolerance.  In the lead up to an upcoming review conference evaluating progress made since 2001’s World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, this briefing was the first of several in a series designed to examine these issues more closely.  The briefing was held in the Dag Hammarskjöld Library Auditorium and welcomed several professors of a variety of disciplines as speakers. 

Dr. Tukufu Zuberi, Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania spoke first.  Dr. Zuberi emphasized that the context of race varies from country to country and is socially constructed.  Though in Rwanda, the Hutu and Tutsi would consider one other very different, in the United States, both groups would be seen simply as black.  Therefore, as race is constructed and seen differently from place to place, the problems confronted by each country is different and requires a different approach to healing the rifts and inequalities that exist.  The violence resulting from racism and intolerance, according to Dr. Zuberi, has been more damaging than the atomic bombs.  Such intolerance has also meant the exclusion of far too many people from achieving their full human potential.  We have no idea what the whole world’s potential is until we include everyone in the discourse and see all people as equal, in Dr. Zuberi’s estimation, and we must end our long habit of privileging some over others.

Many of the other speakers reiterated Dr. Zuberi’s points.  Dr. Jorge Duany, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras, discussed the myriad ways race is defined in Latin America.  Defined much more specifically based on skin tone, there are dozens of different categorizations around race in Latin American countries.  Across the board, however, Dr. Duany described a privileging of whiteness.  A lighter skin tone signifies higher class, and has historically due to its suggestion of more European blood and features.  Race is largely silenced in political discourse in these countries, however, and remains an undercurrent rather than something that is spoken of openly.

Next, offering a comparative analysis of the perceptions on race in the Caribbean and the United States was Dr. Cary Fraser, Professor of African and African-American Studies at Penn State University.  For Dr. Fraser, the transition from Colonialism in parts of the Caribbean has been much more peaceful than in many other regions, though legacies of that era remain.  The islands each have very different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and as a result of this diversity, Dr. Fraser says, there is no single Caribbean reality.  Though whiteness was privileged for a long time, there has been a concerted effort over the past 50 years or so to create a more inclusive society and economy.  As a result, Dr. Fraser says, race has become much less of a divisive force.  With pervasive diversity and people of all backgrounds in good jobs and social positions, race is still acknowledged, but is no longer the “totality of the experience.”  In the United States, though segregation laws are no longer on the books, schools are still largely segregated because of housing patterns, and the housing patterns are no accident either.  Until more Americans have more diversity in their everyday interactions and begin to see people of all backgrounds as equal, Dr. Fraser says the U.S. will not see a true improvement in its racial problems.

Finally, Dr. Imke Brust, Visiting Professor of German at Bucknell University, discussed the perceptions of race in Germany.  According to Dr. Brust, the word “race” is not used in the German language because it conjures up images of the Holocaust and as a result discuss “xenophobia” rather than racism.  Most Germans relate more to their sense of “German-ness” and identify by nationality rather than race, though many see their culture as mono-racial.  This of course is untrue, as people of many racial and ethnic backgrounds live in Germany, and many are German citizens.  Dr. Brust says that racial data is not collected in Germany because to many, it is reminiscent of the Nazi era when people had to prove their “Aryan-ness.”  As a result, however, she says it is difficult to normalize the idea of many backgrounds making up the German people.

Overall, the speakers underlined similar points, namely that race is a social construction.  This point is made more evident by the vastly different ways that race is perceived in each nation or region.  Though many countries have improved race relations and some of the inequalities that exist based upon race (and gender), there remains much work to be done.  As Dr. Zuberi said, until all the world’s people are seen as equal and receive equal opportunity, we will never know our planet’s full potential.

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