Defining ‘race’ and ethnicity
‘Race’ is a highly problematic term. Categorizations of race are usually inflicted upon people in ways that carry judgements about their supposed inferiority. Sociologists recognize how ideas about race produce racial inequalities, even if those ideas are wildly inaccurate. Racism is a form of prejudice based on ‘common sense’ and inaccurate beliefs about
the differences between ‘races’. ‘Race’ was a concept used by Victorian scientists in their attempts to understand physical differences between peoples from different parts of the world. Skin colour was the most obvious observable difference and nineteenth century scientists were particularly obsessed with classifying black people as a ‘race’, separate from whites. These white European scientists measured skulls and discussed lip and eye shape and tried to prove that ‘whites’ were more civilized than and superior to blacks, Asiatic or other peoples. The ‘science’ used has now been discredited and it is accepted that there are no such things as distinct races; underneath superficial differences like eye shape or skin colour there is nothing biological that really distinguishes Asian from non-Asian people or black from white. A particular black African person may have more genetically in common with a white European than with another African. ‘Race’ is now recognized as a scientifically inaccurate and meaningless way of trying to make sense of superficial physical differences between peoples. Differences in skin colour or eye shape do not have any relationship to differences in intelligence, character, or behaviour. Nevertheless, the myth of ‘race’ remains influential in the commonsense ways people use to make sense of their relations to each other (Banton, 1998).
Sociologists usually prefer the term ethnicity to the term ‘race’, because it focuses on social and/or cultural differences between groups of human beings. Ethnicity is usually self-defined: a way of identifying yourself in terms of a group to which you feel you belong. An ethnic group is one that shares common ancestors, a set of cultural beliefs, traditions and ways of doing things. Usually this includes sharing a language (see Smith, 1981). So I might identify myself as Pakeha (a white New Zealander); many of my current students will refer to themselves as Australian, others as Indian; other people might identify as Finnish, Angolan, Iranian, Cantonese, or Samoan. Ethnicity is crucial for exploring the ways that such different groups of people live their lives and relate to each other. For example, comparisons between gender roles in different ethnic groups can help establish how gender is socially constructed not naturally given; however, care has to be taken in making such comparisons.
Looking at gender as it is done differently in a variety of cultural contexts helps us to undermine the idea that differences between women and men are ‘natural’, and to examine relationships between gender and ethnicity. If biology makes women behave differently from men, would we not expect women’s behaviour to be the same across cultures? But ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ behaviour are different in different cultures, as shown by the examples from different cultures that have been discussed elsewhere (especially Chapter 2). There are similarities, but this is hardly surprising within an increasingly interconnected world where most ethnic groups are aware of and influenced by other ways of thinking and doing gender. Nevertheless, most cultures think their way of doing gender is best.
It is important to avoid ethnocentrism in looking at cultural variations in practices around gender. Ethnocentrism is the belief that your own cultural practices are the most ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ way of doing things. White Western women, in particular, are prone to thinking that ‘other’ women are less liberated than themselves (Mohanty, 1991). For example, much comment is made about the oppression of Moslem women; but this is a gross generalization. For example, Pakistan is an Islamic nation that has had women participating in most areas of society including politics. A woman, Benazir Bhutto, was prime minister of Pakistan in the late 1980s. Note that the USA has yet to have a woman President. When talking about ‘Islamic nations’ we need to separate out religion, and political and cultural practices. Just as Western nations have, within and between them, varying interpretations of Christianity and different relationships between religion and the state, so it is the case with nations based around Islam (see for example, Afshar, 1997; El Saadawi, 1982; Saliba et al., 2002). It is not Islam itself that necessarily oppresses women, but other cultural practices within some societies where Islamic people live. There is little evidence, for example, that the Moslem women of Pakistan have less autonomy than their Hindu neighbours in India and regional differences in culture rather than religion are what determine how much education, the degree of participation in paid work and how much control over decision making women have (Jejeebhoy and Sathar, 2001). In some ‘Islamic’ countries, such as Iran (see Afshar, 1997) and Saudi Arabia, women do not enjoy the same individual rights as men and may be severely restricted in terms of their opportunities and movements. These are politically imposed restrictions, often condemned by more liberal interpreters of Islamic religious teachings. In addition, looked at from a less ethnocentric point of view about what is important, women in such countries may enjoy a status and respect within their traditional roles that most Western wives and mothers do not have. Of course not all women in Iran and Saudi Arabia will feel content with the limited roles offered them and often protest (El Saadawi, 1982; see BBC News, 2003), but these limitations are not always part of Islam or of Islamic women’s lives. It may be illuminating to consider what women from other cultures might make of women in the West. Just as Westerners are often critical of other gender practices, people in other cultures might find Western practices strange.
Awareness of different cultural understandings about gender is important but this can raise problems of relativism. Relativism means believing that you can only understand and judge a culture in terms of its own worldview. This tends to mean believing truth is relative to those cultural beliefs, rather than there being one truth or ‘rightness’ by which all cultures can be judged. A relativist stance can make it difficult to be critical of other cultures. For example, there have been heated feminist debates (see Moruzzi, 2005) over the practice of female circumcision in some African nations. This practice varies between tribal groups, but usually involves an older woman removing the clitoris of adolescent girls in order to ensure their fidelity to future husbands. Sometimes the vagina is also sewn up, leaving just a small opening for urination; on marriage, husbands literally cut open their brides. There are those feminists who see this in relativist terms. They may not agree with it, but look at the wider culture in which it takes place to understand why it happens and why it is women who do it to each other. Girls go through this painful procedure and older women inflict the pain because circumcision is seen as crucial in becoming a woman. Without being circumcized a girl cannot take her place as a ‘normal’ adult member of her society. The older women want to help and support her in doing this. If a girl remains uncircumcized she will be an outsider, looked on with some suspicion by other women, and men will be unlikely to marry her. Where it is difficult to survive as a single woman, this would be a serious problem.
Other feminists argue that harmful practices such as genital mutilation (as some call female circumcision) show that there are limits to a relativist approach. They believe that it is possible to have some cross-cultural or universal standards by which to judge cultural practices. Those practices judged as harmful to women should be campaigned against with the help of women in more privileged cultures. Relativists see this Western feminist view as interfering, patronizing and arrogant. However, while the relativist view helps explain why women may endure circumcision, it does not help us consider that many of the women involved would wish not to have to endure it. Relativists often end up in a trap of seeming to condone the way things are without being able to think about how they might change. This sometimes means taking a rather ahistori – cal view of non-western cultures, assuming that peoples living in ‘traditional’ cultures have gender relations that have not changed over time. Ethnicity is a concept that can help us avoid such static views of other cultures and to understand them in terms of that culture’s worldview. However, that worldview is likely to have been shaped in relation to other cultures and to notions of ‘race’.‘Race’ therefore still warrants attention as it is a myth upon which people continue to act. Ideas about ‘race’ produce racism.
The idea that ‘racial’ groups exist and that some are superior has been used in gaining power, and these ideas and practices are what constitute racism. In particular, ideas about white superiority were conveniently appearing just as European powers were becoming firmly established as colonial powers, with huge amounts of control over the non-white populations of the world.