“Race”: The “Unspeakable” Word of the 21st Century

Race—The “R-Word” that should be deleted from a gentleman’s vocabulary.

There are two infamous “R-words” in the human language: religion and race. But whereas a cogent argument can be made that “religion” has done humanity at least as much good as harm, one would be hard-pressed to demonstrate how the word “race” has not wreaked immeasurably more havoc than benefit bestowed—from xenophobia to slavery to hate-crimes to ethnic cleansing and genocide. The word “race” is without a doubt the single most emotionally charged, divisive concept of the human experience—more so than disparities of wealth and education and differences in nationality and religion. As such, if there is ever a word to be declared “unspeakable,” it is the word “race.”

Even if one were to subscribe to the traditional anthropological construct put forth in the 17th century then honed in the 19th century, which relies primarily on phenotypical (physical traits) divisions to separate and categorize humankind, the irrefutable fact remains that all humans are of the same species (Homo sapiens) and subspecies (Homo sapiens sapiens) and are, as such, as “different” from each other as a black German shepherd versus a white German shepherd versus a black-and-tan German shepherd. Man’s best friend seems to see the “distinction” as a distinction without a difference. But, alas, humankind has not.

Clearly, Usain Bolt is black; Bruce Lee is Asian; and Cate Blanchett is white. They are the easy cases— a racist’s dream team. But at least half of humanity—take for example much of the Middle East, South America, and the Indian subcontinent—does not conveniently fit into one, traditional race division. “Race” then, as it is anthropologically defined, is as accurate as it is inaccurate, rendering the concept, for scientific purposes, untenable. Nowhere else in science can something be “right” half the time and “wrong” half the time, yet be regarded as scientifically sound.

As a social construct, race is even more problematic: No one gets half-lynched; quarter-admitted to the exclusive men’s club; or eighth-ghettoed. Who can tell Halle Berry that she is not black? And if Rachel Dolezal can declare herself black and convince the NAACP that she is, what is to prevent Oprah Winfrey from declaring herself white?

Race, as a concept, serves little social purpose other than to divide humanity. And it is those divisions that are at the root of much human suffering. And to the extent that racial classification has been and can be used to achieve positive social ends, is it, in the long run, worth the inevitable down-side?

Considering the destructiveness of the concept of race, then, a gentleman should avoid it like the plague. And he should advocate for the deletion of the concept from the human psyche, the human vocabulary, and the human experience. Eliminating the word “race” does not, as some contend, eliminate a people’s heritage, identity, history, ethnicity, culture, etc.  Words such as  “heritage,” “identity,” “history,” “ethnicity,” and “culture” already do an excellent job at expressing those concepts.