Determination

Tom Condit tomcondit at igc.apc.org
Thu Mar 16 22:48:47 MST 1995


Hmmmm, ....

I'm certainly enjoying this discussion, although I haven't read
most of the authors people are citing.  I want to make a brief
comment on one aspect of the discussion.

Kenny Mostern says, in a post of 16 March, "race really is
nothing more than skin color and features,  and that the reason
they are determining of social being is not because  of anything
biological but because of the cultural arbitrary:  in the U.S.,
they do."

I don't think "race ... is nothing more than skin color and
features."  Race is, in fact, whatever it's socially determined
to be in a given society ... It has little or no basis in
material reality.  The very concept didn't exist prior to the
African slave trade and the age of imperialism.  Some societies
(apartheid South Africa, antebellum Louisiana) elaborate endless
racial categories.  Others essentially ignore them.

Let me give a specific example of race as a social construct.
Kenny Mostern lives in Berkeley, so if he want to he can turn on
KPFA radio (94.1 FM) on Saturday mornings and listen to the
Johnny Otis Show.  Otis was one of the pioneers of rhythm and
blues and a major figure in African-American cultural history.
Sometimes he has other old bluesmen on the show and they
reminisce about the old days, and the difference between the
status of Black musicians (like them) and white musicians in the
1940s.

The interesting thing about all this is that if race is defined
by skin color and facial features, Johnny Otis is "white".  He is
the son of a Greek storeowner in predominately black West
Berkeley in the 1930s.  He was part of the "black" crowd in his
neighborhood grade school and junior high school.  When he
entered high school, he was informed by the principal that he had
to be "white" now.  He deferred, continued to run with his same
crowd, and became "black".  He was (and is) accepted by other
black musicians as black.

Now that doesn't mean I can walk to West Berkeley with my blue
eyes and tell people I'm black (although Walter White, long-time
leader of the NAACP, had eyes as blue as mine).  It means that
whether Otis was black or white was determined by the social
consciousness of his peers and himself, and not by skin color or
facial features.

Tom Condit



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