Let’s Talk Opinion in conversation with Nina Kaytel
“I always felt omitting race would be more inclusive to the every reader. It is the one detail they can fill in themselves. Does that mean I have ‘white by default’ syndrome? By not including race in my stories am I helping to spread racism?” White by Default
Race is a slippery concept, a phenomenon rooted in political struggle, yet commonly believed to be a fixed characteristic of human beings. We come across it in everyday life. To the majority of us it may appear as omnipresent and real, but the idea of race is riddled with obvious contradictions. A biological fiction, nonetheless, race is regarded as a social fact.
Race is not something one is born with. It is something one learns. You may disagree. I’m aware that my views on matters of race, gender and difference are not necessarily part of the mainstream, so let me explain.
There are differences of ethnicity and skin colour, this I do not deny. However, the way we think those differences is not “natural” but rather socially conditioned. In addressing any concept, I always start with a definition, yet when it comes to race no coherent, fixed definition of race actually exists.
I was unaware that there was a perceived difference between the latin and slavic “races” or ethnicities until I was put in my place by those “in the know.” The slavs were the newcomers, the conquerers and therefore viewed themselves as superior; my own ethnicity, underlined by language, religion and culture, came short of the desirable ideal in my country of birth. I was different in the wrong way.
It was then – at the age of six – that I realised for the first time how negative connotations are attached to skin colour and bone structure, to language and culture, to anything that may be regarded as difference. This difference was used to oppress, to make one feel inferior for being “other”. I refused to accept this. Years later, when I had the chance to research the issue in some depth, the truth of that instinctive rejection of race as “natural” was confirmed.
Race is not biologically real – it is socially and politically constructed through law, public policy and social practices.
How was race first constructed? It emerged in human history as a social structure aimed at instituting systemic hierarchies where Europeans or “whites” were awarded privileges and rights over non-Europeans, “non-whites”. White supremacy went global and structured all societies, social relations and practices to reinforce those social, economic and political privileges.
Here are some snippets of the history of this systemic racial profiling of the world, inscribed by men, not nature: In 1856, Ralph Waldo Emerson delineated the significance of race. In 1899 William Z. Ripley wrote The Races of Europe, where he aimed to fix racial difference through head-type. In 1901, Two years later, Edward A. Ross wrote The Causes of Race Superiority, using the perceived differences between the Arab and the Jewish “races” to make his point. This was only the beginning and much more was written on the matter since – all attempts to create a theory of race that may justify discrimination.
When I say that race is a social construct, I mean to indicate that race is rooted in the social history of humanity, not in its biology. It only has biological significance because we have spent centuries giving it that significance.
No one would claim nowadays that there is any racial difference between Greeks and Romans, Saxons and Franks, because our narrative has moved on to creating a story of “white” and “black”, with many theorists doing their best to clothe an idea with “evidence” so that it may be accepted as fact.
This to me is the context in which Nina asks her question: “I always felt omitting race would be more inclusive to the every reader. Does that mean I have ‘white by default’ syndrome?”
And this is why I feel secure in giving a straightforward answer.
We tell stories about human beings and their lives. If racial discrimination is not a part of those characters lives – something they have to resolve for themselves and for the world which they inhabit, then the idea itself becomes superfluous. When those stories come from a place of honesty about the human condition, then the colour of one’s skin will not change the response of the reader. They will make the story their own.
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