Race and the Enlightenment

Race has always been an interesting subject to me, especially being raised in the South by two Northerner parents. It was always a topic that I would bring up to them because the racism that I would experience in school was a completely different lesson than I learned from my parents. True, this sounds completely stereotypical, the northern non-racists and the southern racists, but the world I come from is just that, stereotypical. I remained completely ignorant of skin colors until I realized that there was meaning that came along with them. As in Omi and Winant’s “Racial Formation” says, one the first things that humans notice about one another is the skin color and from there we interpret a person without truly knowing anything about them and categorizing them. Regardless of a person’s upbringing, regardless of whether or not we “want” to see a person’s skin color, we do and those racial prejudices that we fight or embrace will always come with it.

            While reading Equiano’s autobiography, I could not help but compare it to my process of understanding racial divides and stereotypes. In his piece he quotes, “the change I now experienced was as painful as it was sudden and unexpected. It was a change indeed, from a state of bliss to a scene which is inexpressible by me, as it discovered to me an element I had never before beheld, and till then had no idea of, and wherein such instances of hardship and cruelty continually occurred, as I can never reflect on but with horror.” What I found interesting was that this understanding of race was from this Enlightenment era so many years ago and here I was in the 21st century. Equiano exposes the problems against blacks and truly embodies the exposure of race coming out of the Enlightenment period.

            Race is without a doubt a social construct, but whether or not that is a bad thing is all a matter of opinion. We have no choice over our skin color, its permanent regardless of what we want; as said in “Racial Formation” people see race as “an essence, as something fixed, concrete, and objective”. Seeing someone’s race is acknowledging the difference between the races as well. Seeing someone as “black” or seeing someone as “white,” however, is acknowledgement of our personal background. True, stereotypes come along with it, but should we not be proud of our race and background?

            There are so many social constructs that I have found myself a player in over the years. My most recent one was being an American. Last semester, for six months, I did an internship for Walt Disney World, working and living beside people from all over the world. My little “family” I became a part of was all Australians and New Zealanders. They would sometimes make stereotypical American jokes even when I would gently remind them that I was American. Their response would always be, “well… you’re not the typical American though that’s why we love you.” I probably heard this a hundred times over the six months and although I found it amazing I fit into our group so well with coming from a different culture, it made me think about what Americans must come off as. They saw Americans as lazy and fat, among other things, and regardless of me being an American that they loved, it did not change the social construct of it all. Regardless of where we are from, what skin color, what language we speak, it is up to us to acknowledge social constructs and work at improving them in our daily lives.

Equiano      http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1h320t.html

Omi and Winant



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