The double standard of race categorization

By Matthew Hammerton

Consider the following thought experiment: Barack Obama achieves a momentous and rapid rise to one of the highest political offices in his country much like what has just happened in the actual world but with one key difference. Rather than climbing the ladder of American politics, it is Kenyan politics that Obama ascends. This scenario is not as far fetched as it might sound as when Obama was two years old his Kenyan father left Barack and his mother and returned to Kenya. What if Mr Obama had taken his son with him and Barack had been brought up as a citizen of Kenya? In this case, perhaps Obama’s political ambitions would have been played out in a Kenyan and not an American context.

So suppose that Barack Obama, Kenyan citizen with an American mother and Kenyan father has just been elected President of Kenya. What will the headlines say? One thing they definitely won’t say is: “White man elected as President of Kenya for the first time”. In fact, many people would find this headline absurd – Obama is not a white man he is a black man. If Obama was elected president of Kenya it might be significant that he is the first president to have an American parent, or even the first president to have one parent who is white, but nobody would describe him as ‘Kenya’s first white President’.

But let’s pause on this. Obama’s heritage is one half black and one half white. So why does “Black man elected president” sound credible in a US context while “White man elected president” seems incorrect or even absurd in a Kenyan context? Why is it acceptable to describe Obama as ‘black’ but misleading to describe him as ‘white’? The answer has to do with the way racial categorizations are applied. The categorization ‘black’ (and the same can be said for some other racial categorizations like ‘Asian’) is applied in such a way that people are described as ‘black’ if they have any noticeable ‘black characteristics’. On the other hand, the categorization ‘white’ is applied such that people of predominantly white heritage but with noticeable ‘black characteristics’ are not counted as white. This means that most combinations of ‘white’ and ‘black’ heritage an individual can possess end up being classed as ‘black’. We can call this system of racial categorization ‘irregular’ as it involves applying racial categories in a way disproportionate to the actual racial heritage of the individual. A child with ½ black heritage and ½ white heritage is usually classed as ‘black’ and never classed as ‘white’. A child with ¼ black heritage and ¾ white heritage is often classed as ‘black’ and may also be classed as ‘mixed race’, but is rarely classed as ‘white’. A child with ¾ black heritage and ¼ white heritage is nearly always classed as ‘black’ and rarely classed as ‘mixed race’.

This account of racial categorization is very obvious when one cares to look. Several well-known ‘black men’ and ‘black women’ actually have combined white and black heritage, some even have predominantly white heritage (eg. Alicia Keys). Of course, the system of racial categorization I have described is not unanimous. Sometimes terms like ‘mixed race’ or ‘bi-racial’ are consistently used to describe anyone who has a mixture of races in their heritage. The term ‘African American’ is also sometimes used as an alternative to ‘black’ and in its typical usage does not involve irregular categorization.

Finally, people who have a predominantly black heritage (perhaps >90%), will sometimes class those with mixed black and white heritage as not ‘real’ blacks. But despite these exceptions, on the whole, the irregular racial categorization system I have described is dominant across the western world and is evident in folk discourse on race.

How did these categorization practices arise? One plausible answer is that they come from the crude racial theories that were adopted by Europeans during the slavery era and which regarded the white race as superior and more pure than other races. As a result of these theories, any noticeable ‘non-white characteristics’ where associated with inferiority or impurity and people possessing these characteristics where subsumed into non-white racial categories, even if they where predominantly white in heritage. That such an irregular system of racial categorization was used during a period when prejudicial racial science was dominant is not a surprise. What is surprising is that today in a post-colonial, post-slavery and post-segregation era, the same irregular system of racial categorization continues. Modern usage of this irregular system usually does not reflect explicit racial prejudice. Those inclined to judge someone of equal black and white heritage as ‘black’, do not typically do so because of racial prejudice, but because of force of habit and cultural osmosis. However, even if this practice is not explicitly racist, it is the legacy of a racist era and we should ask ourselves whether our use of irregular racial categorization is implicitly racist? If we think it is implicitly racist, then this suggests we ought to reform our practice and begin to describe people with a multiracial heritage in more neutral terms that neither privilege nor neglect any one part of their heritage.


Philosophy Discussion Group – Consent – Tuesday 19th

The Socratic Society’s Philosophy Discussion Group meets again on Tuesday, May 19th in Morven Brown 205 (note new location) from 1pm until 3pm. Anyone with an interest in the topic is welcome, and you can come and go at any time; you don’t need to be there for the whole two hours. The discussion group is very informal.

The topic is: “Consent”

Consent is fundamental to many of our interactions with other people. It is most controversial in relation to sexual activity but is also an element of many other activities, such as medical treatment, scientific research, contact sports, and even seemingly innocuous acts such as getting a tattoo or borrowing a car.
Next week the discussion group will be considering the concept of consent, attempting to answer such questions as:

1) How do we know when consent is present?
2) Does consent need to be active or is passive/implied consent good enough? In other words, does the participant need to indicate through words or actions that he or she consents, or is the absence of refusal or protest enough?
3) Can consent be given in advance, or does consent only apply to what is happening now? Can consent be revoked?
4) Is there a responsibility to obtain consent before a particular act? In other words, does responsibility rest only with the person giving consent, or does the person receiving consent have an obligation to act to obtain confirmation that consent is present?

Anyone (not just discussion group participants) is welcome to post answers to one or more of these questions in the comments below.

Tharunka – Is an inhumane world worth preserving?

The following first appeared in UNSW’s Tharunka magazine as part of their regular “Hypothetically Speaking” column.

“Cruelty to animals is bad. So is environmental degradation. Is it better to eat food produced using humane but environmentally destructive methods, or food which involves cruelty to animals but has minimal environmental impact?”

By Rachel Hayter

Option 1: Endorse cruelty to animals in food production and ensure a sustainable environment, and thus the survival of life on earth.

Option 2: Endorse the humane treatment of animals in food production and condone the destruction of the environment, and thus the demise of life on earth.

Food and a sustainable environment are both necessary for survival. The humane treatment of animals is not. Protecting animals in the short term, while degrading the environment, is a self-defeating act—in the animals’ case, a different means to the same end. Eventually the environment, sustainer of all life, will be destroyed. Surely the ultimate end, or rather the avoidance of ours, is what matters most?

Although it seems the practical choice, the ethical implications of subscribing to Option 1 are dire. Yes, life on earth is ensured, but at what cost? When our ‘humane-ness’, our humanity, is compromised, what have we left but mere subsistence? Is an inhumane world even worth preserving?

Let’s imagine a world sustained by the logic of Option 1. The moral worth of an action is not determined by intention, or the character of the act itself (e.g. cruelty), but dependent purely on its outcome (e.g. survival). By this reasoning, any apparent moral action which is not necessary for the ultimate survival of the human race is worthless.

Anthropocentrism assumed, let us hope a perfect definition of what it is to be an animal has been established. It seems the only thing protecting individuals from this fundamentalist utilitarianism is our membership to the species Homo sapiens.

Is the distinction between Homo sapiens and animals, including great apes and whales, as pronounced as Option 1 would imply? Is it enough to warrant the institutionalised cruelty by the former to the latter?

Rejecting Speciesism entails an alternative understanding of what it is to be human—a quality of personhood, rather than the evolutionary providence of belonging to a species. The concept of personhood is vague. There can be drawn no precise line between classifications of ‘is’ and ‘is not’. DeGrazia outlines distinguishing properties of autonomy, rationality, self-awareness, linguistic competence, sociability, capacity for intentional action, and moral agency.

By this definition, great apes and whales are cases of paradigm persons and severely mentally handicapped and infant humans are not persons at all. Support of Option 1 has suddenly become more dangerous than anticipated— parallels with Nazism are clear.

Before subscribing to Option 1 based on your animalistic survival instincts, trace the consequences of your decision. Once cruelty has been institutionalised, our moral watershed has been sacrificed.

There exist cases of healthy whales, voluntarily, temporarily beaching themselves, as displays of solidarity to dying, beached group members. Is it morally justifiable to endorse cruelty to one of these animals in the interests of sustaining the life of a human mass-murderer, or rapist? Is an inhumane world even worth preserving?

Discussion group – what is love?

By Asra Gholami

“You know what love is?

It is all kindness, generosity

Disharmony prevails when

You confuse lust with love, while

The distance between the two

Is endless” (Rumi) 

So the question is: what is love?

I’ve been hearing different definitions of love recently, strange definitions actually. The discussion in the Socratic society at week seven about “dating” showed that many people are confused about love. I think the confusion is that people are looking to satisfy their physical and emotional needs, and they call these satisfactions “love”, which is not correct. Love does not have a reason, love is not for benefit. You simply love the beloved because you love him or her. Indeed in many cases you should sacrifice for the beloved and suffering is an integral part of love.

I read something interesting on the internet the other day. In a survey of 4-8 years olds, kids share their views on love. Some of these views are:

“Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you left him alone all day”.

“Love is when mommy gives daddy the best piece of chicken”

“Love is when you go out to eat and give somebody most of your French fries, without making them give you any of theirs”

To make me sad on the weekend one of my friends told me:  “Guess what, I’ve changed my opinion about love. Love doesn’t exist. It’s just people getting used to each other. Love is just a word to describe our thoughts about someone when we don’t see him or her for a while.”

However there are some other friends who keep me hopeful that love has been understood by a few people at least. One of these friends once told me his idea of love which I really liked. I think it was wonderful. He described love as “magic and hard work”. The magic occurs in the meeting of two souls. The hard work is what it takes to grow this “meeting” into something strong and robust, something lasting. A perfect description of love I think.

So I think it would be interesting and depressing at the same time to discuss about the meaning of love, so as I said before the question is: what is love?


Last Monday’s Pub Debate

Our Pub Debate was held on Monday 20th April, with about 50 people attending the discussion of “Are human rights natural rights?”
Thanks very much to Damian Grace and Michaelis Michael for a very interesting debate.

Cut the Crap…about Dating

The number of people who are single has doubled in the past 30 years. This increase comes hand-in-hand with the rise of speed dating, internet dating and the acceptability of dating agencies.  In a similar way that “more of us are on diets than ever before but obesity rates are rising, something about dating is making us single.” (Times website)
I will assume that “to find a partner” is the aim/motivation of dating, in order to outline some of the problems with the practice of dating.  There are other motivations certainly, but let’s leave them to one side.  Then, later, I will challenge this assumption.
 1)       Problems with the practice of dating:
Dates are high-pressure situations – It is in informal and relaxed settings, rather than on a high-pressure date, that people make the deeper connections that lead to love.
Superficial qualities – competitive style of dating encourages us to rate appearance and superficial qualities over personality, even though, ultimately, this is not what makes for a good long-term partnership. When researchers at the University of Kent asked students to rate the most important quality in a potential mate, friendship came out top, followed by honesty. Just 5 per cent of men and 1.5 per cent of women rated looks.
The more people you meet, the better – This is particularly relevant to speed-dating.  The internet is encouraging us to rate people.  We are comparing our date not only with the others in the room but with millions of potential mates online.  Seeing more people is not the answer; getting to know people better is what’s required.  Market researchers in the U.S. interviewed women coming out of marriage licence bureaux. Twenty per cent had not liked their intended when they first met.
2)       Problems with aiming to find a partner:
The whole idea of “finding a partner” is wrongheaded.  If someone were to ask “Why do you want to have a relationship with this person?” dating encourages such responses as “They’re the most suitable I’ve met” “We get on well” or “We have a lot in common.”  There’s only one acceptable response to that question, and that is “because I think they’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met.”  Anything less is not enough.
Finding a partner is something that can only occur indirectly.  It is something that you should not seek but should be open to and allow them to happen to you.  C.S. Lewis: “Love makes a man really want not a woman, but one particular woman.”  And as multiple pop groups have sung (see, for example, Everything But The Girl), “I didn’t know I was looking for love until I found you.”
Relationships and partners are not something we should be seeking to acquire.  Alasdair Macintyre calls them “networks of giving and receiving”.  Relationships must flow in both directions.  If we go into a relationship primarily focused on what we’re going to get out of it, we’re doing something wrong.  But the activity of “finding a partner” is a matter of acquisition, a calculation of costs and benefits.  There’s no sense of giving to the other person.  It’s as though “being with someone” – anyone – is more important than the intimacies of the relationship itself.  Where’s love in that picture?  People are more concerned with finding “a partner” than with taking the time and giving the necessary investment to create a wonderful, lasting love.
3)       So what should we be doing?
Obvious as it sounds, we should be spending time with other people and mixing, getting to know people instead of looking for potential partners.  We should focus on understanding people, making and developing friendships.  We should be trying to deepen our friendships, to move them beyond the often superficial level.  It is likely that, on occasion, ‘partnerships’ will flow from this, but that is an additional benefit and not the intention.
George Orwell wrote, “The essence of being human is that…one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals.”  There’s no place for this in dating, which reduces relationships to a cost/benefit analysis, so no place for dating in human life.

Taking responsibility seriously

By Andy Crosbie

Many people bemoan the growth of the so-called Blame Culture. Pedestrians trip over uneven pavements and blame local councils. People gorge on fatty fast food then blame McDonalds for their consequent obesity. Placing causal responsibility at the heart of our moral concepts is a simple and well-practised step to blaming. Philosophical analysis has thus far done so as this notion ties to metaphysical questions about personhood and free will, but therein we see thateven philosophy has a role to play in the culture of blame.  If we continue to limit our notion of moral responsibility to that of causal responsibility, if we insist we are only responsible for what we ourselves have caused, then we will find that much responsibility will slip through the cracks.

This point is perhaps well-illustrated by reference to the military term ‘collateral damage’. This term has emerged in recent years to become part of common parlance, but referred originally to the foreseen but unintended killing of civilians through their close proximity to a genuine military target. (In this way it closely resembles of Doctrine of Double Effect.) Collateral damage is typically spoken of as something that happened but not anything that anyone did. Since there was no intention to kill civilians, it is taken to follow that nothing active was done, hence that no-one can be attributed with the responsibility for the action. Mary Midgley makes the same point, saying “the administrative complexity of the modern world makes such cases increasingly common. Bureaucracy tends to look like ‘the rule of nobody’… [an] obscuring of individual responsibility…” And Anthony Bandura writes, “Euphemistic language is used widely to make harmful conduct respectable and to reduce personal responsibility for it.” All this leads to what he has termed “the disengagement of moral self-sanctions” or “moral disengagement.”

The notion of attributing responsibility (causal responsibility) is highly susceptible to the threat of moral disengagement because it requires something akin to the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ condition in criminal courts of law. If we have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a person can be held responsible for a particular action, there are going to be many actions for which no-one can be held responsible. In order to counter this trend towards moral disengagement, we need to bolster the notion of moral responsibility to include that of ‘taking responsibility’.

Attributing responsibility is, at heart, a curtailing notion. Moral responsibility should not be limited to the concepts of legal liability, contractual responsibility and mere accountability. Reliance on these notions alone serves to turn morality into a matter of ‘do no wrong’ instead of ‘do good’ – a matter of moral minimalism. In seeking always to find someone to blame, someone to hold responsible, the very notion of responsibility is weakened.

Taking responsibility, on the other hand, allows us to extend ourselves outwards, to go beyond organisational boundaries to do something which nevertheless is neither exceptional nor supererogatory. The moral agent is one who assumes responsibility, takes responsibility, and doesn’t wait to have this assigned. We should emphasise taking responsibility in our moral practices, seeking principally to make things better instead of to minimise personal blame. By shifting our emphasis thus, we will not merely be supplementing our concepts. More importantly we will also be changing our ways. Instead of suing McDonalds, people would control their own diet and eat better. Instead of saying “I’m not to blame” or “It’s not my responsibility” people would instead recognise “I can do something to help” and would act in such a way as to make a positive difference. And this certainly would be a valuable step forward.