Friday, April 08, 2016

Racial lensing

An issue which the kerfuffle over James White's statements regarding the juvenile delinquent raised is whether Christians should be colorblind or view the world through a racial lens. 

i) One objection to a colorblind policy is that race is an integral element of what we are. Hence, we inevitably view the world through a racial lens. And if we consider racial diversity to be a natural good, there's nothing wrong with racial lensing.

ii) However, there are problems with framing the issue that way. It's true that we inevitably view the world based on what we are. I can't avoid using myself as an ultimate frame of reference. And that includes racial identity. 

But a racial lens is just a small part of that. What I am, and how that affects the way I view the world, is far more complex than the racial component. Even at a biological level, whether I'm male or female has far more intrinsic impact on my outlook than my racial genetics. 

In addition, where I grew up, when I grew up, my parents, my social class, &c., are lenses through which I view the world. So we're talking about a multifocal lens. There's no reason the racial lens should be dominant. Each of us views the world as whole persons. 

iii) Moreover, even though race has a biological component, when we talk about a racial lens, arguably the most significant aspect of race isn't biological but socially constructed. 

Take Icelanders. Due to their relative geographical isolation, they've developed a fairly homogenous culture over the centuries. In a sense, you could say Icelanders see the world through a racial lens: they are paradigmatically "Aryan". Yet the racial dimension is incidental to the cultural lens. It's their time and place, rather than racial genetics, that's the constitutive factor. 

Put another way, a cultural outlook is transferable in a way that racial identity is not. Take the question of Jewish identity. Is it primarily ethnic? Religious? Cultural? Historical? 

For instance, you have philosophers who happen to be Jewish (e.g. Ronald Dworkin, Hubert Dreyfus, Saul Kripke, Hilary Putnam, Ludwig Wittgenstein), and then you have philosophers whose central orientation is Jewish (e.g. Maimonides, Abraham Heschel). 

iv) Another problem with racial lensing is that race and ethnicity are not monolithic. Take a short list of Latinos:

Luis Borges
Che Guevara 
Claudio Arrau
Gloria Estefan
Cain Velasquez
Eduardo Saverin
Carlos Castaneda
Alicia de Larrocha
Jorge Mario Bergoglio
Héctor-Neri Castañeda
A Mexican migrant farmer

Do they view the world through a common racial lens? Isn't this a very disparate group of people? Differing widely in their nationality, social class, education, formative experiences, &c. Is it not hopelessly reductionistic to superimpose a single racial lens onto their outlook on life? 

Put another way, who speaks for Latinos in general? Is there one particular vantage-point to appropriate? 

v) A final problem with this framework is the need to distinguish between the racial lens through which a "person of color" views the world, and the lens through which Caucasians are supposed to view "persons of color". At least in my experience, when people commend racial lenses, they are saying white folks should view ethnic minorities the way ethnic minorities view themselves or view the world from that (minority) perspective. White folks should adopt the racial lens of the minority. That's a part of becoming sensitized to the outlook of those who don't share "white privilege". 

But a problem with that recommendation is that it's a recipe for racial stereotyping. Telling white folks to imagine what it's like to be non-white is demanding that I treat an Asian (to take one example) based on my idea of what it's like to be Asian. My projected notion of minorities onto minorities. 

This involves an outsider pretending to see things from the viewpoint of an insider. But unless I actually privy to their experience, that's highly presumptuous. 

vi) This doesn't mean we can't ever get inside other cultures to some degree. For instance, if I have multiracial friendships, then I can gain some insight about what it's like for that person to be from Singapore. (Same thing with interracial marriage.) But that's learning about individuals from individuals. That's not applying a generic racial lens. Indeed, categories like "Asian," "white," and "Latino" are terribly coarse-grained. And operating with those categories can easily blind us to all the fine-grained differences within different nationalities, regions, religions, social classes, &c. 


  1. 1) Given that ethnicity and cultural distinctives often follow similar lines, it's natural if sometimes inaccurate for people to refer to race in cultural terms.

    2) Given that a primary factor in the spread of the Gospel has been it's transcendent adaptability to various cultures, it's reasonable to analyze the role race plays in each culture for the purpose of evangelism.

    3) Given that one aspect of evangelizing is addressing sin, it's reasonable that people in cultures being evangelized who greatly desire to remain unrepentant will be put off by that aspect.

    4) Elevating one's race or culture to the point of idolatry is sin. Many so-called whites have done this. Many so-called blacks have done this. If it's racist to point that out, then I'm a racist. But it would also be the case that people who level that charge are idolaters and don't like being told so and inasmuch as they intend to vilify such a racist, they are slandering someone who would call them to repentance in order for them to demonstrate the fruits of the very salvation Christ affords us.

    This is why "white", "black", "Asian", "Hispanic", whatever, people who wish to be called by the name of Christ need to get over their racial and cultural pride.

  2. In reading through this thread and the other James White post combox I was struck by how Biblically unthinking the discussions appeared to be.

    After all, "race" and "racism" (scare quotes!) are modern, not Scriptural constructs. The Bible says that God "made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation" (Acts 17:26).

    There are precisely two "races" on the earth, the race of the redeemed and the race of the unredeemed. That's the witness of Scripture.

    The Lord has promised to redeem men and women, the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve from every kingdom, tribe, tongue and nation (the families of mankind He has sovereignly brought into being).

    I don't see these types of discussions as being particularly helpful at all for Christians except as apologetic opportunities when unbelievers attempt to moralize about "racism", as if they had some objective reason why "racism" is immoral, wrong, etc.

    It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, survival of the fittest, right? Where do they get their "ought" from?

    That's basically the only discussion I can see that's worth having in the current context. The opportunity to press the unbeliever for an answer, and to unmask his utter inability to provide a cogent, coherent, logical, objective basis for his moralizing and sermonizing, and second to gently instruct believers to think Biblically.

    Just my two cents worth.

  3. There's a bit of a jump in your first argument. You set out explaining that some people don't like the colorblind idea, but then you give an argument that seems to be intended to resist them. You then explain that sometimes other things besides race are more definitive or dominant than race. Okay, fine. That would then justify being not blind to that too. It wouldn't justify ignoring race if it's still a concern.

    On the social construction issue, I'm not seeing how that's relevant. We don't pretend there are no plumbers, college students, Republicans, dollars, or national boundary lines just because those are social constructions. Of course race is a social construction, which is to say that it's a social reality and therefore not something we can ignore by pretending to be colorblind (no one really is, no matter what they say, except perhaps autistic people and small children, who can be blind to social realities).

    Then you point to the fact that the social realities of race are complex. Well, isn't that a reason for our lack of colorblindness to be attuned to the complexity of racial realities rather than ignoring the complexity that you're pointing to? It's a good argument for not thinking monolithically, but it's not a good argument for ignoring race.