Iran: equal opportunity oppressors

As you’ll see this week, I am at times very lucky to have a handful of countries, without whom my job would be a lot more difficult and would require me to actually WORK to produce material, rather than just commenting on stories in the news.

But, luckily for me, Iran is still going strong:

The imposition of headscarves is deeply resented by more liberal-minded women. Now the government is tightening up on men’s hair as well. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has published a guide to men’s hairstyles. Short, neat hair is approved; ponytails are definitely not.

You’ve got to hand it to religious authorities: they are consistent in their stupidity. After passing laws essentially requiring women to dress like the Paper Bag Princess, they decided that strictly controlling only half of their population wasn’t quite enough. After all, as everyone knows, haircuts lead to talking, talking leads to dancing, dancing leads to touching, and touching leads to earthquakes.

I am reminded of a fantastic ditty from the musical Hair:

The bizarre twist of this whole thing is that this abject moronity is not coming from the government:

Strangely, it is the hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has been arguing that it is not the government’s job to crack down on people’s style of dress. For this he has been criticised by various conservative ayatollahs and politicians, who thunder against “naked’ or “half-naked” women roaming the streets. Their version of naked usually means a headscarf slightly out of place.

I lived in Toronto around the time that a law was passed permitting women to be topless at beaches. We could have had literally half-naked women roaming the streets. Do you know what happened? You guessed it – not a hell of a lot. Some women went topless, most didn’t. Now and then when you go to the beach, you might spot an uncovered boob… no big deal. Strangely enough, like prohibition of alcohol, the more illicit and forbidden you make sex, the more alluring it becomes. Iran is spiralling into itself in its own obsession with sex.

I’ve written before about religion’s strange sexual fetish. Sex is part of the human experience – it’s a thing that we do. We are fortunate enough to be smart enough that we can have sex essentially whenever we want, and if we take the proper precautions it can be virtually risk-free. Provided that both parties (or all of the parties… whatever lifts your luggage) are consenting (and capable of consent, obviously) then we should feel free to boink the night away. Religion doesn’t like that – it wants control over every aspect of our lives: our thoughts, our actions, and even our most private moments with those we love (or those we’ll love until the sun comes up). At least the religious authorities in Iran aren’t simply picking on the women anymore. That’s equality!

What is “black”? – Part 2: self-identity

I have allowed myself to become too focussed on religion, and so I am posting some essays on race and race issues that I wrote for Black History Month in February, 2010. This is part 2 of a 6-part discussion of what I see as significant questions in the discussion of race. This post originally appeared on Facebook on Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010.

Now that we have done away with (hopefully to your satisfaction) the idea of blackness, or indeed any racial identity, as being based on skin colour (or other characteristics) or heritage as being the sole explanatory factor for what black means, there’s another idea of black identity that I’d like to discuss. Namely, this is the idea that being black is simply a matter of self-identification – that if you think you’re black, then you are black.

I’ve mentioned the idea of people “self-identifying as black” a number of times, particularly in my previous post. This speaks to the idea that what someone calls him/herself speaks more to her (gender non-specific, I’m just tired of him/her… too cumbersome) “real” racial identity than arbitrary taxonomic classifications based largely on trying to quantify someone’s non-whiteness. But does that mean that what someone calls herself is all it takes? Are we all just whatever we say we are?

We’ve all heard the phrase “wigger” – a white person who appears, by all counts, to self-identify as black. They walk black, talk black, engage in stereotypically black activities, listen to black music, etc. etc. Assuming for just a moment that it is possible in any measurable way to walk, talk, or live “black”, as though black people were some homogeneous group, would a wigger’s self-identification qualify them for “black status”? Is a black person who works as an actuary or the head of the air and space museum or is a worldwide polka champion really just a white person with black skin?

It is fairly clear that the self-identification criterion is, on its own, insufficient to categorize people. It lacks what is known in the sciences as face validity – the extent to which something appears to make logical, rational sense. Some things that lack face validity – quantum physics for example, are saved by the fact that they have real internal validity – that is, they are based on observable scientific phenomena that, despite being hard to fathom, are in fact real descriptions of what is going on. Since racial/ethnic identity is not based on these underlying scientific principles (fun fact, there’s more genetic diversity in people of African descent – black people – than in those of European descent – white people), the lack of face validity is enough to reject this idea out-of-hand.

To summarize the above paragraph: if you don’t look black, you ain’t black.

Tiger Woods is perhaps the best-known example of the self-identification paradigm. Tiger Woods was raised by his Thai father (edit: thanks to Adrian Anantawan for pointing out that his mother is Thai, and his father is black), which is where he got his unusual name. Tiger self-identifies as Thai, and has said so in interviews. Little problem: Tiger Woods is a black guy. His self-identification is not sufficient in this case to be a practical measure of his blackness, whether he likes it or not. I’m coming precipitously close to tipping my hand on my final definition of blackness, which is a topic for my next post, so I’m going to stop here.

Tragic story from the Maldives

Anyone who thinks that religious involvement in politics is good, or even neutral should feel free to move to the Maldives:

A man in the Indian Ocean island state of the Maldives has died, apparently by suicide, after complaining of being victimised for not being a Muslim.

Suicide of any type is tragic. This hits me personally because of the reasons behind his taking of his own life. Having to kill yourself due to religious persecution is terrible. Obviously this couldn’t have been the only reason he killed himself – many people who are persecuted do not commit suicide; however, it is certainly a contributory cause.

The Maldives’ constitution demands that all its citizens be Muslim, and religious office-holders regularly stress the unacceptability of other faiths being accepted or propagated.

I can’t imagine how you could pass a law requiring someone to believe something, but like Malaysia, it is apparently within the powers of the government to require people to be a member of a religion. This, fundamentalist Christians, is a violation of freedom of religion – not failing to bend over backwards to accommodate your stupid beliefs. And this is the result. This is why religion needs to be out of public life, and why atheists need to speak out.

I don’t have a lot more to write about this topic. It’s Friday, we’re supposed to be laughing at double rainbows.

Movie Friday: DOUBLE RAINBOW!

Apparently this video went viral, so I’m a bit tardy to the party.

WARNING: he starts openly weeping about 1 minute in.

People often accuse skeptics and atheists of failing to recognize the beauty and majesty of the world because we break things down into their constituent pieces. While I don’t think it’s necessarily true that knowing how something works makes it less beautiful – for example I still love listening to the symphony, even though I’ve played in one for nearly 10 years – even if it did, I’d much rather be impressed by nature than… whatever this guy is. “Double rainbows” are neat, but they’re common. Rainbows are formed simply as light refracts through water vapour. Depending on the incident angle of the observer, multiple refractory patterns may appear. Once, on a plane over the Guyanese rainforest, I was lucky enough to see a FULL rainbow, which is actually a circular refractory pattern. Knowing what it was didn’t make it any less beautiful, but it prevented me from being gobsmacked by a simply-explained event.

My favourite skeptic, Neil DeGrasse Tyson (director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York) said something that reminded me of this video. At around 1:30, the narrator of the video asks a question: what does this mean? He is then reduced to tears as his drug-addled brain struggles to comprehend the meaning of a rainbow. Dr. Tyson would have said to this guy:

“Just because you can string together words in the English language and put a question mark on the end of it, that doesn’t make it a real question.”

One of the greatest things about science is that it teaches you to distinguish between meaningful (or useful) questions and those that have no value. Asking “what is the meaning of life” is an example of a question that sounds meaningful (the word “meaning” is even in the question) but it’s in fact just a bunch of words strung together. A better question might be “what is a good way to live life?” or “what do I want to get out of my life?” Asking for “the meaning” is making a fundamental assumption – that there is a meaning. A “double rainbow” doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a really cool thing.

Now this guy was clearly on drugs, and drugs open your mind up to asking speculative questions like that so I’m not going to hold it against him. The Insane Clown Posse has no such excuse:

NONE of the things mentioned in this song are miracles (except ghosts, which somehow got worked in there) – the vast majority of these things are things that have been explained decades or generations ago. If you didn’t watch the video, good instinct. Watch this one instead (it’s seriously genius):

So any time someone tries to invoke the majesty of nature as proof that God exists, direct them to this video.

“CELLS! OH MY GOD! WHAT DO THEY MEAN?

They mean you should have paid more attention in science class.

Please sign this petition

You may remember last week when I talked about the government making changes to the long form of the census. Marianne Levitsky, a citizen who works in health and safety (she does not work with the census data, but recognized its importance) has started a petition to repeal the decision.

I urge you to sign it

If you are for the repeal, then you’ve already clicked the link. Thank you.

If you are against the repeal, I’d really like to know why. The government is citing the concerns of people about the intrusiveness, but mysteriously it’s only Conservative MPs who have ever heard these concerns. Considering the track record of this government, I consider it far more likely that they’re trying to undermine the census to justify reducing funding to social programs. If there’s a reason to oppose the census, please let me know in the comments section.

If you’re indifferent to the repeal (or the census in general), I’d like to remind you that as taxpayers (as many of you are) and beneficiaries of social programs (as all of you are), the census is used to target improvements in public-funded initiatives. I, for one, am against wasting my money on poorly-designed social programs. The census is key to health research, housing programs, business ventures, you name it. There is, unless someone has posted a dynamite one in the comments, no good reason to change the practice of the census. Please sign the petition, even if you don’t care about it as much as I do. It only takes a second, and the more people who sign, the less justification the government has to say that ‘average Canadians’ are on their side.

Please sign the petition.

New Westminster gets it EXACTLY right

Here’s a rarity: a bit of good news on the racial front right here at home:

John Stark, the city’s senior social planner, said the Chinese reconciliation process undertaken by the City of New Westminster is the first such process taken by a municipality in Canada. He said research done by staff confirmed that city council acted in a discriminatory matter, particularly by restricting employment opportunities and by asking senior governments to pass discriminatory laws.

I was a bit dumbfounded, to be honest, when I read the rest of the article. Usually, apologies like this are simple declarations that the problem existed, and that the current office-holders are sorry that it happened. While those kinds of apologies do have some merit, at the end of the day there’s very little concrete difference in the lives of those affected. New Westminster has taken an extra (and, as far as I know, unprecedented) step of rolling out an ambitious agenda of a way to make recompense to the community, including the establishment of a cultural monument and earmarking funds to document and incorporate the contribution of the Chinese community into the history of the city. That’s a real apology (are you paying attention, Catholic Church?)

I spoke in a previous post about the merit of acknowledging the mistakes of the past, but I didn’t really get to put a very fine point on it. There is a common refrain that comes from people who are ignorant of or ambivalent toward race issues when things like this make it into the news: “Why dwell on the past? We have to move forward, and separating people by race only makes things worse.” While I’m sure their hearts are in the right place, this argument is largely nonsense. It’s essentially a re-hashing of the “colour blind” argument that I debunked two months ago. Briefly, the reason why colour blindness doesn’t work as a strategy to improve race relations is because it requires all people to be blind to race, particularly those for whom their race exposes them to discrimination. It is an attempt to paint over rust – it might make things look better but it fails to address the underlying problem and allows it to get worse.

The problem with the “why dwell on the past” argument is that we have buried or otherwise distorted what the past actually is. Immigrant groups (Chinese, African, South-Asian, Irish, eastern European, the list goes on) built this country in just as real a way as English and French immigrants did. First Nations Canadians made real contributions to the foundation of the country before it was even a country. All of these groups suffered systemic and ongoing discrimination for centuries in this country – many of them continue to experience it. Ignoring that legacy isn’t a step forward toward racial harmony, it’s another step along the line of having those types of discrimination become endemic in the social fabric. While it might make some people feel less guilty to have to acknowledge our country’s history of racism, the recognition that we are all a part of that history is a real opportunity to move forward.

Until we acknowledge and accept the real history of prejudice and racism in Canada, as New Westminster has done, we will continue to founder in our attempts to build a nation of equal Canadians. I applaud the city council of New Westminster for taking this step, and I hope it is so successful that other municipalities cannot help but take notice.

To kill a classic novel

I guess I have some re-reading to do:

I refuse to go along with this week’s warm, feel-good celebrations of Harper Lee’s novel (published fifty years ago today), To Kill a Mockingbird. Simply put, I think that novel is racist, and so is its undying popularity. It’s also racist in a particularly insidious way, because the story and its characters instead seem to so many white people like the very model of good, heartwarming, white anti-racism.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was in high school. It was during a glut of classic literature in which I devoured as many ‘must-read’ books as I could. No part of the book resonated with me whatsoever, and I put it down feeling a little mystified as to what the big deal was. Perhaps if I had read it and considered the context of what was happening at the time of its publication, it would have meant more to me.

Macon D. is clearly not a fan:

Actually, that right there is the first reason I think this novel is, in effect, racist — it allows, indeed encourages, today’s well-meaning white people to think that “America is a very different place” than it was when Lee wrote her novel, and thus to think that widespread and deeply entrenched racism died a long time ago.

I must admit, my initial reaction to reading this article was to disagree. “It speaks to its time – the anti-racism movement in its contemporary form wasn’t even on the horizon.” While this may be true, we’re still teaching it in schools today as an exemplar of anti-racist fiction. It is most certainly not anti-racist fiction for reasons that Macon outlines:

1. A common reading of its central symbol (mockingbird = black people) degrades black people.

2. The novel’s noble, white-knight hero has no basis in reality, and the common white focus on the heroism of Atticus Finch distracts attention from the pervasiveness of 1930s white-supremacist solidarity among ordinary white people.

3. The novel reduces black people to passive, humble victims, thereby ignoring the realities of black agency and resistance.

Highlighting To Kill a Mockingbird as anti-racist is like calling Tess of the D’Urbervilles* a triumph of feminism (yeah, I made a Thomas Hardy reference – deal with it!). By the time I got to the end of the article, I was firmly in agreement with the conclusion, albeit with one caveat, which I will present here.

Novels like To Kill a Mockingbird or Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Huckleberry Finn, each of them a stunning example of “aw shucks” racism, should be taught. They should be taught as what they are – signposts on the road to establishing equality. Each of them is a missive from the past that tells us where we once were. They should be taught in their modern context. The racism that Macon (rightly) attributes to the book is not necessarily a fault of the book it’s self. Rather, it is the product of the day in which it was written, and its failings need to be discussed. To Kill a Mockingbird is not the example of racial empowerment I want exemplified – all the power is still held by Atticus Finch and the white judge. Highlight the failings of the book, and where we have to go still now that lynchings aren’t commonplace.

Anyway, I thought this was interesting and deserved re-posting. Read it!

*For those of you who aren’t up on the latest classics of the romantic period, I’ll give you a brief summary. Tess is a peasant. She meets a rich guy. He buys her. She resists his ‘charms’, so he rapes her(?). She gets pregnant, and delivers. The baby dies. She becomes a milkmaid, meets a seemingly nice guy who says he’s in love with her. She tells him what happened. He disowns her. She goes back to the rapist, eventually stabs him, then slinks off and dies. Nobody learns anything. I’m not a big fan of this book either, clearly :P

Why do I care about free speech?

I think it’s a fair question to ask: why do I care about free speech? I live a live of great privilege – I don’t have many unpopular political beliefs, I am not discriminated against in any major way, there are no great social causes that I have to fight for on a daily basis – what does it matter to me? My day-to-day life doesn’t really put me up against the forces of the police or the government (to the contrary, I actually get my paycheques from a government agency). This is, I suspect, the state of affairs for most of you reading this blog. Our lives are very rarely touched by infringements of our rights (save for those who were in Toronto during the G20 protests).

So why talk about it? Why do I care?

As I’ve said several times previously, free speech is one of the core principles of a free society. Freedom is important because it allows us to make decisions that benefit people, not simply ones that correspond to whatever the prevailing prejudice of the day is. Free speech allows unpopular ideas to flourish, and as we’ve seen throughout history, some unpopular ideas are the ones that are the most needed. Allowing all ideas to come to the table and receive equal scrutiny ensures that bad ideas can be abandoned and good ones adopted.

Cracking down on free speech only hurts the progress of society, as the people of Tibet are learning first-hand:

International observers have called for action following accusations that China has been arresting leading Tibetan writers, poets and musicians in a crackdown on cultural figures, as The World Tonight’s Paul Moss reports.

I am a musician, so I must declare my bias towards art and artists. As someone with a sprinkling of knowledge about the history of music, drama, art and world history, I know that you cannot separate the progress and change of a society without looking at its artistic expression. Art is not only used to capture the essence of what is happening in the current cultural landscape, but to express the things that the culture wants and strives for. It is also often used to express dissent against forces that are oppressing the artist, and by extension the society at large. All of these things are true for the artists of Tibet. Silencing artists accomplishes only one thing – takes away any access you might have to solve the problem.

This is why I want racists and bigots and Holocaust deniers to have a platform – not because I agree with their ideas, but because shutting them down doesn’t solve the underlying problems they represent, and only makes it harder to keep track of where unpopular ideas are coming from.

What’s interesting about this story is that apparently it is not the Chinese government (who, as you will recall, is no great fan of free speech) that is responsible for these jailings:

But despite clear challenges to Beijing’s authority, Robbie Barnett, director of Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies programme, said the Chinese government itself may not be behind the arrests and prison sentences. He believes that over-zealous local officials were the more likely instigators: “Local officials make their own minds up about who they’re going to crack down on.”

It is for this reason that I care. Free speech is a fundamental right that is opposed not only to governmental tyranny, but the tyranny that average people inflict on each other. There are any number of people I disagree with, but even if I had the power to I would not silence them. However, because we live in a (comparatively) free society, we take our freedom for granted. It is this complacency that worries me, as I see people telling others that their ideas are better off not expressed. If an idea lacks validity, by all means demonstrate that. If someone has shown your idea to be incorrect, then maybe you should stop talking about it. But don’t ever let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t speak simply because your idea is unpopular. Free speech is something we should all care about, and it’s something I’m going to keep writing about.

Update of Courtenay, BC attack: he was asking for it!

If anyone knows a decent orthopaedic surgeon, I did some serious damage to my wrist. Reading this article caused me to facepalm so hard, I may have fractured something:

In his closing submissions, defence lawyer Doug Marion said Mr. Phillips “consented” to a three-on-one fight with the men and “could have walked away from this fight if he wanted to. You can see him in the video, he’s backing away but his arms are open and he’s screaming ‘come on!’ and then pointing to his chest,” Mr. Marion said. “The reality is, that is consent.”

I feel a bit bad for Mr. Marion, having to defend clients who are the cowardly scum of the Earth. This desperate grabbing at straws defense is about as feeble as the fighting skills of his clients. I wonder what would happen to Mr. Marion if he was accosted by three people on racial grounds, and forced to defend himself. Would he have walked away from the fight? Better question – would he have dared to turn his back on three drunk rednecks who were trying to hit him and screaming racial obscenities at him? The fact is that when you look at the video, it’s pretty obvious what’s happening. Far from egging his attackers on, Mr. Phillips is doing pretty much the same thing a cat does when threatened – making himself appear larger.

Mr. Phillips says that he refused to allow the verbal assault to go on without reaction, since lack of dissent was, in his mind assent. He saw himself as standing up for other members of the black community who face similar discrimination but don’t speak up. I’m inclined to believe Phillips’ account, given that racism of the type evinced by his attackers rarely happens in a vacuum – there’s always something going on in the community that feeds that. Of course, there is always more to the story. Jay Phillips is no saint, having had run-ins with the law in his past; however, that doesn’t matter one bit. There is no excusing the actions of three cowards who shouted racial epithets at a person on the street, then stopped their truck and engaged in a three-on-one beating.

My sympathies for Mr. Marion are somewhat blunted by the fact that he’s going to the same default excuse that accused rapists like to use: “look at what she was doing – she was asking for it!” There is a fantastic article about this issue on a feminist blog called The Curvature. The subject matter is different, but the take-home message is the same: nobody ever asks to be assaulted, regardless of what twisted interpretation of their actions you might be able to produce.

My concern in all this is that as stupid as this defense obviously is, it might work. Racism of the type that seems to be endemic in Courtenay means that the members of the jury may be swayed by the argument. Either subconsciously or consciously, they may want to find a reason to excuse the actions of these pea-brained thugs and may seize upon this flimsy argument as sufficient grounds for acquittal. I hope I’m wrong about this.

What is “black”? – part 1: skin colour

I’ve been picking on religion too much with my Monday ‘think-piece’ notes, and neglecting the other part of this blog: discussions of race and race issues. In February, 2010 I participated in my yearly tradition of observing Black History Month by doing something scholarly. I decided to share some of my thoughts and findings, which was part of the impetus for starting this blog. For the next six weeks, my Monday posts will be specifically about race and race issues. I’ll then get back to writing about whatever I feel like.

This post originally appeared on Facebook on Monday, Feb 1st, 2010.

This will be perhaps the most difficult, most contentious, and least comprehensible of my posts on race so far, but it underpins all of the subsequent ones, so I am going to do my level best to present it first.

I want to be clear from the outset that this is, by no means, an authoritative or “official” answer to the question of blackness. Like all of my notes it represents my opinion only. I try to base my opinions on careful thought and consideration and, when I can, reading the opinions of scholars. Black means many things to many people, and each person’s experience of black-ness is individual to them. It’s like trying to define what art is: each person’s experience is different, but it is important to attempt to find some common features among the several definitions.

I will first discuss what black isn’t along some common misconceptions: black as skin colour, and black as social code.

Anyone who asks knows that I consider myself to be “black”; not “mixed” or “half-black”; while those are technically true and I have used them to describe myself in specific circumstances, they are not how I self-identify. It seems rather elementary that if I have one black parent and one white parent, that makes me half-black – fractions don’t lie. I had this said to me, in so many words, by a black guy I worked with at a summer co-op program at UofT medicine back in summer, 2001, who told me that to qualify as “black” one needed to have two black parents. I asked him if he was “pure black” (his words, not mine), a question to which he responded, somewhat irritatedly, that he indeed was. I asked him then why a) we had the same skin colour; and b) why he had freckles. “Black people don’t have freckles,” I told him “that’s a white people thing.” Indeed, it turned out, that some of his relatives were white on his mother’s side.

So he and I were left with a fundamental conundrum: his parents were both “black”, and yet he had white ancestry. Mulling this over, we came to the conclusion that blackness was not simply a question of heritage, although that certainly played a role in it. The idea of being “pure” black was summarily dismissed as frankly ridiculous (and indeed, a little insulting) since black people don’t all come from the same place (except insofar as all people come from the same place). We needed to establish a new standard for blackness that went beyond simple arithmetic.

A second illustrative example came from that same co-op program. I met a girl named Aza at this same conference. She is of Somali decent, and is about as dark-skinned as a person gets. She also has long, wavy hair (naturally, not due to relaxer), a small nose and delicate features – in other words she doesn’t “look black”. These were the words she used to characterize the reactions of other black people to her, saying that because she didn’t have an afro, big lips and a big nose, she clearly was some alien species, heretofore unknown on the Earth. Until she came to Canada, in fact, Aza didn’t know she wasn’t black. It took the combined, learned wisdom of a bunch of Caribbean kids to tell her that even though she was from Africa, she wasn’t “black-black” (again, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried).

Another example: a close friend of mine self-identifies as black. Like me, she is technically “mixed” and I am not sure if she sees her race in the same rigid fashion that I do, but I digress. Her father is a white man from Scotland, and her mother is a black woman. What makes this a particularly fascinating story is that my friend’s mother, for the longest time, did not self-identify as black. The reason for this, as was related to me, is that the mother was adopted and raised by white parents. Doing the best they could in the times in which they lived, my friend’s mother was raised to regard herself as white, despite all physical evidence to the contrary. This was certainly no mean feat, as it creates a strong cognitive dissonance. At the time the phenomenon was known as “passing”, which is a phrase that has dropped from the common lexicon in the past 20 or so years. She (the mother) had children with a(nother) white person, who were, according to the progeny theory, one quarter black (or some fraction thereof).

First of all, being one quarter black means that you are 75% white, which means that unless you are rounding in an extremely conservative manner, you’re ostensibly a white person. However, a cursory glance at either one of the children (both smokin’ hotties, incidentally) shows that clearly these girls aren’t “pure white”, even though mathematically they are. In fact, nobody would mistake them for a “white person”, instead asking every mixed kid’s favourite question “what are you?” My friend struggled with the issue that while she was clearly at least part black, she had two “white” parents. It took many years for her to work out in her own mind what her racial identity was and meant.

The idea of blackness as the colour of one’s skin or one’s parental makeup is insufficient as a definitive criterion for identity. There are many shades of blackness – everyone has probably heard of “light-skinned black” versus “dark-skinned black”. In antiquity, people of mixed heritage were all described as “black” – indeed, all people who were non-white: East-Asian, South-Asian, Native, Polynesian, etc. were all termed “black”. Blackness was, in that time, a departure from the natural state of being for humans, which was (of course) white skin. The discovery that humankind descends from black people was still a couple of centuries away. In the United States, a convoluted taxonomical system was invented to classify people of mixed heritage – Google the word “octoroon” for an example of the thinking at the time. In South Africa in the 1980s under apartheid, the “non-white” definition was especially prevalent, with people being socially ranked according to the lightness of their skin.

So as I explore the idea of what it is to be “black”, the first step has to be to throw out what is the most intuitive definition – that black is measured by the colour of a person’s skin, or by their genetic heritage. According to a definition set down by Mendelian genetics, there’s no such thing as “pure” black, and any attempts to classify “parts” of blackness are therefore absurd. Similarly, we are all happy calling both Will Smith and Eddie Murphy “black”, although they have remarkably different skin colouration. A more comprehensive definition is clearly needed. In next Monday’s post, I will discuss the idea of “blackness” as a purely self-identified phenomenon – that if someone calls him/herself “black”, then he/she is, regardless of the colour of his/her skin.