The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Swapping Races

ah, the thought experiment of swapping races seems to have struck a nerve.  I got a few posts that seemed to think I think "all white people are alike"--and that, I find darkly humorous.
“I think there are striking differences between the behavior patterns of different ethnic groups -- even within allegedly identical racial groups, such as whites”

What?  No one said that whites were identical.  Only that you have to apply the same standards across the board.  If you break whites into sub-groups, you have to discuss blacks the same way.  If you don’t, or can’t, it is only fair to “lump whites together” in the same way.  So: English, Jews, Italians?  Great.  Break Blacks into Ibo, Masaii, and Hausa, or whatever.  Can’t?  Then just confine the conversation to whites, blacks, and Asians.

“I'm just awfully impressed by how disproportionately represented Azhkenazi Jews and east Asians are in molecular biology.”

So am I!  It’s great.

I also think this:

"I would consider Jews a sub-set of white people, and their resiliancy might (or might not) be matched by some particular group of Asians of Africans--only white people care much about the difference between Jews and other white people..."

is understandable, but pretty misguided. I am sorry, but even if they look that way to you, all whites are not identical!”

No one said that, and I’m surprised you’d think I thought that way.  Only that I react to race as a sociological phenomenon, and sociologically, it’s pretty clear that there is a wide and flexible group called “whites” and then there are “Asians” and “Blacks.” Anthropologists argue about how to draw these distinctions, whether there should be more, or even if any distinctions matter at all.  For the sake of social observer, I’m pretty simple.  I allow white people to define themselves for me in the following way: If watching a sexual or romantic scene between a white woman and a member of this ethnic group, do they have a powerful ab-reaction?

Yup, there it is.  And over the years I’ve watched Desi Arnaz, Ricardo Mantleban, Omar Shariff, William Shatner and so forth in various sexual and/or romantic situations with white women, and not a peep from the audience.  Hispanic, Arab, Jewish…all treated as family under the big tent.  Now…go far enough east to get Jackie Chan, or Jet Li or whoever, and the audience rejects them.  Look at The Rock or Vin Diesel, with that racial ambiguity going on…and they can have sex onscreen.  Any darker than that, and the audience rejects them, or has a serious discomfort reaction.  I’ve watched it happen in hundreds of movie theaters over the forty years I’ve noticed this, and it’s no fluke.

“As you would already know if you'd grown up in a family belonging to some elitist-minded ethnic subdivision (e.g., German-American) that actively demanded the "completely unambivalent love of intelligence" in a surrounding white majority culture that pretty much denigrated intelligence (e.g., mainstream L.A. in the 1970s).”

Again, an incorrect assumption.  I did grow up in such a group, called Bougouis black folks in L.A. in the 1960’s.

“It's your prerogative to talk and think and write as if all non-blacks were the same, and it's even understandable that somebody in your position would feel that way -- but that viewpoint's simply balderdash, and it'll lead you to write poorly about other people if you give it its way.”

Wow.  Are we being a bit too sensitive?  Again, I never said anything of the like.  But I won’t let people  break apples into Pippin, Granny Smith, etc., counting them each as different apples if you label  oranges simply “oranges.

Again the thought  experiment  was on the “what if Godzilla fought Superman” level—magical, not science fiction.  When I wrote “Lion’s Blood” I certainly didn’t “simply” switch races—that wouldn’t be possible, given any theory I could believe concerning the formation of civilizations.

But there were other changes I made, for the sake of readability.  For instance, the conditions of the Middle Passage were actually BETTER than those I found historically.  I did this not to make blacks look better, but so that white readers wouldn’t throw the book across the room. There’s only so much people can take, and as it was, readers still had a hard time.

And the slaves themselves were grouped ethnically, a no-no in American slavery, which worked very hard to specifically destroy ethnic groupings.  When someone says “I was taught that Irish were superpeople” that’s great!  But in a truly inverted America there would BE no Irish, no Jews, no Greeks—only a mish-mash, melded together with no memory of their language, culture, religion, or history.  No names.  Grew up reading history books without images resembling them at all.  Every dollar in their pocket would have the face of a black man.  Every president they are told to idealize would be a black face. In a perfectly inverted world, even the God they are told to worship from childhood would be personified as a black man, and every day, in every way, for the first 400 years they were in America, they are told in a thousand different ways that they are worthless second-class citizens.  So that foundation of strength, of identity, would be gone.  Just gone.

Instead, the only shared identity would be one of deprivation and pain.  Recent immigrants from Europe would look at American whites and feel pity: “you don’t know who your people are?  What is your name?” and feel a mild confusion and contempt, as African immigrants often do toward black Americans.

As I said, my contention is clear: that the difference between people is more in their software than their hardware, and that major racial groups are pretty similar.  There is much more in-group than out-group variation.  And that the historical differences between major racial groups are the result of external circumstances more than intrinsic differences.  THIS IS MY POSITION, and extrapolating from it, one clearly gets that, if you slipped white and black babies from their skins and swapped them, and swapped families,   those “white” babies would be performing like typical blacks, and the “black” babies would be performing like typical whites.

That’s my position, clearly labeled.  I suggest that there is a HUGE amount of resistance to the idea, that deep inside, whites feel that, were positions reversed, they would do better than blacks have done.  Just as many or most blacks feel that if the positions were reversed, THEY would do better than whites have done.  This is a natural, and human thing…and I invite you to look more closely at reactions and assumptions, and see where that programming affects you.

Of course, you could take the position that, no, the way we are in the world is an indication of essential, intrinsic qualities, and that whites would indeed have done better.  That is a position that many intelligent, honorable people hold.  The only problem would be with not being able to look directly at the fact that you feel that way.  That preassumption, sitting deep in the back of your mind, will filter much of the way you see reality.  I invite you to dredge it up, look at it directly, and decide if that is really what you want to believe.  If so, cool—but be clear, and honest about it.

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