Monday, July 31, 2006

Continuing the campaign

A post or two ago (, I had written about replacing the word "black" with "South American" in the Charles Darwin article on Wikipedia. The original line is:

"He learned taxidermy from John Edmonstone, a freed black slave who told him exciting tales of the South American rainforest."

This change was reverted, and I responded by simply deleting the word "black", as South American was evidently speculation on my part. This time, I did write my reasons on the talk page. Here they are:

Mankind, as we know it, is marked by distinctions, some more immediately apparent than others. Race (= ethnicity?) is a complicated question. Specifically, it is not easy to pinpoint any person's race on the basis of photographs, or literary evidence (the latter especially when derived from a time where race theory was far different than it is now, or did not exist). In some churches in Poland (so I've read in a German book), Jesus was shown with blue eyes. In one American movie (I think it was American anyway), he was shown with black skin. These obviously contradictory representations merely illustrate that race is often a matter of identity, and in the case where peoples mix, often the race of either the mother or the father decides what race the child will identify himself with, or be deemed by his community to belong to. Some years ago I visited a natural history museum in Edinburgh which declared that there were three races of man. Kant said there are four. Others create races at will - in phrases like "our great island race" or "Jewish race" etc.. Hence, I suggest that the concept of race, as used commonly, is not in keeping with honest scientific straightforwardness. It is also accepted that skin colour does not automatically fix a person's race. (there are additional factors such as eye colour, hair, skull shape etc., or so I understand, not being a anthropologist myself)

What does the word "black" here mean? That the person (if something described by just its colour can still be accorded the dignity of human identity) had black skin all over? Or that he belonged to the negroid race? Can we be sure that he indeed was a pure-blooded negroid? Does it make any difference to our perception of him as one who inspired Darwin with stories? I usually avoid using the word "racist" as I think it has meanings beyond what it really should. (similar to democracy, holocaust, Bosnia, terrorist etc.) However, making a reference to his skin colour here is just that - racist. Actually, it's not even racist - it's just petty, and slightly insulting.

What next? In a similar vein, we might have the Wikipedia article on Schopenhauer which states "Schopenhauer, a white Pole, indicated that he was influenced by Kant, a white philosopher, and Buddha, a brown prince." Or the brown crown prince, as he hadn't inherited when he left his father's kingdom behind.

I'm certain there are occasions when a person's skin colour, or race if you will, need to be pointed out. For example, if a certain medical drug causes different reactions based on a person's genetics. Or if a dark skinned person is being photographed - perhaps more light is needed, as compared to when a fair skinned person is the subject. Or commandos with dark skin might be chosen for a covert mission in Ghana, where those with fair skin might stand out. Or in museums of ethnology, where the actual race is defined. And numerous other such situations. But these are far from commonplace.

Everytime we use pejorative words like black, white, brown, kook, eyetie, commie, chink etc. to refer to a human being, we reinforce an image of him which uses his skin colour, race, nationality, religion, political views etc. as his defining attribute. We strip him of his dreams, songs, poetry, ability to make us laugh and think and love - all that makes him human.

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