Belief in the magical power of language may seem like something that only affects poor ignorant souls, probably living in the past, probably living in some country without cable TV. We’re not like that. We’re logical and reasonable. Our lives are guided by factual information.
Here in our clean, modern, civilized world, maybe we avoid blatant superstition. Sometimes. More or less. But the impulse that drives belief in curses and blessings, a foolish belief in words, is not an outgrowth of a less educated, less technological, or less socially free society. A belief in the power of words is inherent in our functioning as human beings.
It can be very hard—or impossible sometimes—to see beyond the fact that words are, really, truly, just noises to which meaning has been added by social agreement. The process is remarkably complicated, but the effect is: Let’s all agree that when we add together the sounds of “water” we mean the stuff in the lake, wherever we find it.
Once a word exists, it is almost as though the thing or idea is now real in our mind because it has a name, whether that thing is physical (like “water”), abstract (like “unity”) or real sort-of, but still abstract (like “oxygen”). We can also add an interesting fourth category here—ideas that seem real but are not.
In that group of ideas that seem real but are not, we find a word like “witch”. Many people have believed, and some still believe, in a witch as a woman with evil power who can do harm. Although witches have never existed, there was plenty of harm done alright—many women have been tortured and murdered because they were suspected of being witches. As this example illustrates, words for ideas that seem real but are not can have deathly consequences.
“Race” to describe human beings is such a deadly word. The word as it is used in social practice means a division of people in ways that do not exist in biology. The consequences of dividing people based on race are so enormous that they hardly need discussing. In its impact on our society (and many other societies) race is extremely important. However much decent people wish it didn’t matter, it still does, though less than when I was young. I was born in 1953, and that was a vicious time in America.
It is all the more tragic that we have committed such atrocities, that we have inflicted such misery, that we have damaged so many people, in the name of an idea that does not exist in reality. Recall, however, the women who were tortured to death as witches.
Let’s pause to let the howling die down, the objections to how the dumb liberal doesn’t even believe what’s right in front of his eyes. Race doesn’t exist?
No, it doesn’t.
If you really do believe that race exists as a clear physical distinction, then define it. We’ll wait for you to do it. By skin color? You can find members of the “black” and “white” races with exactly the same color of skin. By hair color and texture? Again, you can find members of different “races” who are exactly the same. If you try to define race, and if you are honest, you will give up.
I am now talking about biology, not about social practice. Here is one reference from a biology text, Biological Science by Keeton and Gould (W. W. Norton, 1986): “Many biologists have argued against the formal recognition of subspecies or races. One reason is that the distinctions between them are often made arbitrarily…” Illustrating the impossibility of racial definition and the arbitrary nature of that definition is the fact that at various times there have been many different concepts of who constitutes a “race”. I have seen references to the “Irish race” or the “Nordic race”, made up only of people living in Northern Europe. We may as well talk about the “red-headed race”. We can even give them a Latin name, the Rubescians, to make it seem real.
In the place and time where I grew up, we were raised to believe that race was an absolute reality, as definite and unchangeable as the sky. When you grow up with such a belief, it can be very difficult to realize that you have been misled by the word “race”. There are differences between humans, obviously, far more differences, in fact, than we have names for “races”. There are differences between humans, certainly, but there are no biological races that keep us apart, only social practices.
And those social practices gave us words, which have tricked us. We have abused one another too long because we’ve been tricked.
Have you ever met someone whose race you could not easily identify? Have you been unsure how you should relate to that person because you didn’t know what word to call them?