Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ethnocentrism: a problem of classification

A Nation... is a group of persons united by a common error about their ancestry and a common dislike of their neighbors
                           Karl Deutsch, Nationality and Its Alternatives, 1969

I had this weird thought yesterday. I had been thinking about my recent post and how a certain claim of ethnocentrism can merely be evaluated as a distaste for irrationality. I began to think about all the racists in this world and whether they unknowingly fall into the same trap, believing that some myth of heritage defines them as an identity separate from the greater universe. I thought about the real life white supremacists. Do they hate black people because of some mistaken idea they have about their own heritage? What defines a white person that makes him or her exclusively separate from a black person?

Is it purely behavior? In that case, black people who behave like white people ought to be considered white. But I have found this is not usually the case --- especially when the black person in question holds tightly onto a competing racial definition. By that I mean, most black people who act white do not consider themselves to be white, which one might imagine is a part of white culture. If no white people considered themselves to be white, the culture would have no framework. But let's say for the sake of argument that a black person both considers himself to be a white person and behaves that way. Would most white people think he is white? I think not. In this way, it can be said that race is not an "ethnicity" at all! It is far stupider than that.

Is it purely appearance?  In that case, a black person who happens to look exactly like a white person would be a white person. In this case, we can tell the person is "black" because both parents are "black." At first, this explanation seems very sound. If two black people gave birth to a red-headed, blue-eyed daughter, it would be front page news: "Black Couple Give Birth to White Baby!" However, the answer is a little trickier than that. For example, we have all seen white people who act black, and people consider them to be white-black people, which is different than white people. These people might even face persecution from white people! So, appearance is a much bigger factor than culture. Yet even that explanation falls short. Would a Brazilian who looks exactly like a Scientologist also be a Scientologist? (I fear the day that Scientology might actually have its own inbred characteristics.)

Or, is it some myth about heritage? In that case, anyone who can "prove" their relatedness to this mythology can claim membership in the group. This explanation actually makes a lot more sense than the other two. The answer is that it is pure culture, which means that ethnocentrism is actually an affiliation with an irrational set of rules. Let's say I am a white man, but I am able to convince the black community that since my ancestors were West African, I share in their current and past oppression. I even love fried chicken! I think this would ultimately make a white man a black man, if he could convince other black people that he shares in their mythological history. The history does not even have to be true, and of course, it almost never is.

Ethnocentrism is intrinsically a problem of classification. Culture obscures the inter-relatedness of all people through mythological group history, and these cultures blossom into fully functional, hateful and exclusive races. They have little to do with behavior, except that rules, even irrational ones, tend to create behavioral conformity. And appearance certainly does not explain what it means to be white. (Or else what are Jews and Armenians?) Culture is really the only explanation for all of this bloodshed, economic and social persecution, and outright egotistical stupidity. Culture doing what culture does best.

So how about we celebrate the multiplicity of these irrational entities? Or not.

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