K. Burke – Week Two – Systems of Difference

Throughout history there have been social divisions, hard lines drawn in the sand, which have been used to divide and separate people psychologically. I mention psychology because the biggest dividing force—race—has been proven to have no biological basis, and that even though we are genetically among the most similar of all species (Video 2.1, Race: The Power of an Illusion), we still rely on phenotypical distinctions and traditional cultural notions to ascribe certain sets of behaviors or cultures to certain races.

Human tendency to categorize and place things along a spectrum in a pseudo-scientific manner was one of the primary forces that led to the racial categorization of peoples throughout the colonial period of history. The Great Chain of Being was the original spectrum from which men drew their dominion over God’s creation, and set the stage for social discrimination on the basis of race, which was conflated with genetics at the time (Lecture 2.1, Colonial Encounters …).

Furthering the effects of racial categorization, the creation of the “cultural other” was, and still is to this day, one of the most pervasive forms of in-group out-group division in societal structure. “Otherness” was originally attached to the natives of the Americas, but throughout time the term “cultural other” shifted from one immigrant group to the next. Furthermore, Claude Levi-Strauss stressed that, “We have a tendency to consider the races most remote from our own as being the most homogenous as well,” (pg. 93) which is the fundamental aspect of “otherness”—that one subordinate cultural group who have relatively similar skin color, eye color, body type, etc.  have been boiled down to have a singular set of cultural values in direct opposition to the dominant culture. Although social awareness and public condemnation of denoting peoples as “others” has been part of contemporary attitude, the powerful traces of traditional thought can still be found in the media today with movies like Avatar who have, as Orin Starn states, “…the usual presumed radical divide between us and them, with whites, the Sky People, linked to technology, individualism, and reason and the indigenous Navi—Plains Indians in sci-fi drag with a dash of World Beat spice—tied to community, spirituality, connection to the ancestors, and needless to say, harmony with nature,” (pg. 179). And although the white-European cultural understanding of Native Americans shifted from the murdering savage to the wise forest people, the stigmatization of “cultural otherness” persists.

Another form of social division which has been man-made is the hypo-descent rule of ethnicity that western cultures have adopted. This one-drop rule claims that if a person has any percent of a subordinate culture’s blood then that person is automatically part of that subordinate socio-cultural group (Lecture 2.2, Race and Human Diversity). Again, nowhere is this ethnic clause written into celestial stone, but rather is a product of the arbitrary fears of racist men.

Altogether, the conclusion of all these different forms of social division has led to a grossly under-protested system of structural racism. Instead of racist actions occurring on an individual level, the performance of civilian actions has been made more difficult on a societal level in many different aspects. As was detailed throughout the hour-long video we watched, white privilege in this system allows easier access into the job market or the housing market without discrimination (Video 2.2, White: A Memoir in Color). Also in structural racism we see the persistence of police/authority violence used against people with “black” skin, especially in countries throughout the Americas who have a long history of slavery and offset power dynamics like in America or in Brazil (Smith, Blackness, Citizenship, etc, pg. 385). Here we see the overall effects of the social construct of race defining the rights of citizenship within a society, and effectively further separating peoples of all kind.

Two questions I leave with after this unit are: (1) is the focus of contemporary anthropology to erase the notion of “race”, is it to understand and appreciate the differences, or is it to shift the notion of race from a biological perspective to a socio-cultural perspective? And (2) why is so hard for humans to understand their humanity in an abstract nature, rather than through the lens of cultural tradition?

One thought on “K. Burke – Week Two – Systems of Difference

  1. I really enjoyed reading your post! I liked how you framed how race has been one of the many things that has been “hard lines drawn in sand” that has been used to separate and divide us against one another. Race is socially constructed which means that someone constructed this notion of the characteristics of a particular race, it was accepted by the majority as the norm and has been implemented ever since. After reviewing the material for this week I have realized that it is human nature for us to categorizes anything and everything in groups to understand the world but the notion that one individual can be deemed inferior based solely off of their skin tone and the fact that scientist are still trying to find an explanation that draws the line from someone’s race to their success, trials, etc. still shocks me to this day.

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