The misnomer of “racial purity” and the problem of cultural reductionism

Much of racist nationalist – particularly racist white nationalist – discourse has historically centred on the supremacy of whites as a race compared to other races deemed “inferior.” These theories are usually determinist (i.e., races are separate and predetermined, a law of nature without any possibility of rectification) and are constructed under a specific racial hierarchy. While the exact ranking of the inferior races depend on the “theorist” who writes about them, the universal notion is that the white race lies on top. Their supposed “biological” approach, which seems absurd to us today, was in fact a product of pseudo-science predicated not on ignorance but also on cultural values that reflected the worst manifestations of imperialism and colonialism. Because of these hierarchies, race-mixing was seen as a big taboo, not just physical “degeneracy” but also cultural “degeneracy.” The horrific legacy of this line of thinking is, sadly, still reflected by the recent resurgence of white nationalism and the rhetoric of separatism that they advocate. As Swedish economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal wrote in 1944:

A handful of social and biological scientists over the last 50 years have gradually forced informed people to give up some of the more blatant of our biological errors. But there must be still other countless errors of the same sort that no living man can yet detect, because of the fog within which our type of Western culture envelops us. Cultural influences have set up the assumptions about the mind, the body, and the universe with which we begin; pose the questions we ask; influence the facts we seek; determine the interpretation we give these facts; and direct our reaction to these interpretations and conclusions.

– As quoted in Stephen J. Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, p. 55

Stephen J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man is a seminal work that traces the origins and works of these scientists of the eighteenth and nineteenth century who believed in such a thing as racial hierarchy and the interplay between biological determinism and societal culture.

Gould highlights the two fallacies that underpinned biological determinism, racial hierarchy, and racial purity. The first fallacy, “reification”, is the tendency to convert abstract concepts in concrete material realities. To the Western scientists, they saw the scientific and technological advancements of the post-Industrial Revolution era as evidence of white mental “superiority.” The preconception that cultural “superiority” reflected superior intelligence formed the foundation of their works. In this sense, their work was not scientific at all; they had fixed cultural preconceptions of superiority/inferiority, to which they strived to formulate science around. As Gould writes:

We recognize the importance of mentality in our lives and wish to characterize it, in part so that we can make the divisions and distinctions among people that our cultural and political systems dictate. We therefore give the word “intelligence” to this wondrously complex and multifaceted set of human capabilities. This shorthand symbol is then reified and intelligence achieves its dubious status as a unitary thing.

– p. 56

The conflation of culture with intelligence therefore drives the scientist to seek a biological explanation for human society. Intelligence, defined as mentality and mental faculties, was taken for granted as confined to the Enlightenment ideals of reason and rationality. As reason and rationality was, in all its oversimplification, responsible for Western advancement, the brain must therefore be the source of difference between the West and “the rest.”

The second fallacy as articulated by Gould is the human propensity to “rank” complex variation “as a gradual ascending scale.” “Progress” and “advancement” was fixed, and hinged upon a Western rubric; “the Great Chain of Being” for example is a perfect reflection of this kind of reasoning. As Western civilisation is the pinnacle of advancements, therefore humanity should be measured by this Western metric. Here also lies the ironic contradiction of “The West” representing an end goal for humanity, and the inferiority of the rest of humanity for not achieving it first.

The Western desire for ranking is equalled by the desire for quantification. As Gould writes:

And what better criterion than an objective number ? Thus , the common style embodying both fallacies of thought has been quantification, or the measurement of intelligence as a single number for each person

– p. 56

Human beings are therefore ranked of their “worthiness” in accordance with these values. This is not just limited to race. For the longest time, women were considered to be inferior to men due to their lower scores in “mental faculties” (their small brains was, according to many theorists, the reason why they achieved lower scores.) In an equally absurd way, such was the logic for the hierarchy of races. Misogyny and racism therefore, come from the same vein. Quantitative data are constrained by cultural norms; either consciously or unconsciously, much of the work done in the name of “science” has, as biological determinism has shown, been problematic. We need to be aware that many aspects of biological determinism and race theory should not have a place in modern discourse. Stephen Gould’s book provides a wealth of literature on eugenics, craniology, and other semi-scientific discourses of the time. I believe – or at least I hope – that I do not need to provide some examples of this in this blog post for us to realise that these kinds of thinking are a) outdated and b) immoral.

As we have seen, these notions of “racial purity” are not only scientifically un-rigorous but also informed by cultural preconceptions. The ignorance of society over this history is, precisely, why there is a resurgence of white nationalism and white supremacy. The failure of education has resulted in the ignorance of science and an ignorance of culture.

Much of Western culture is, in fact, defined not in terms of “purity” (as much white nationalist discourse would say it is) but in terms of its hybridity. In Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race, Robert Young highlights how English culture has, in the past few centuries, been defined and “constructed as a heterogeneous, conflictual composite of contrary elements, an identity which is not identical with itself” (p. 3). This cultural heterogeneity (i.e., what it means to “English” or “British) has been articulated by many novel English authors, such as Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (1869), which posits that English culture was multicultural. Although due to being a victim of his time his articulation of multiculture was the idea of “a living racial mixture” (that is, things can be mixed but also remain distinct) he nevertheless aptly illustrate how “purity” is itself nonsense as English identity was formulated as one of hybridity. The intermixing between peoples have existed for centuries – in the English context, this self-awareness is best encapsulated in The London Review’s remarks in 1861, which stated “We Englishmen may be proud of the results to which a mongrel breed and a hybrid race have led us” (Young, p. 17), alluding to the fact that British history has been one of cultural intermixing for centuries. Herbert Spencer also held British society as the clear example of how racial amalgamation (it is important to note that before colonial times the peoples of Europe were considered separate races. E.g. vikings versus Anglo-Saxons, etc.) bred a progressive society.

To tie all this in with the Eurasian experience, many of us have felt the need to “be” either one or the other; to be more “Asian” or to be more “Western.” In my opinion this is simply a false dichotomy. As we have seen with the complexities of race and culture, it is time that one’s identity should not be seen in the binary confines of race and ethnicity. The very existence of mixed-race individuals should be a clear indicator that racial categorisation is not only false but pernicious. To participate in this binary logic is in itself problematic. While one can argue that identity transcends logic (as it often does and should do) I argue that the line must be drawn when a group faces oppression in some way or another. Mixed-race individuals should not be required to fit into a racial binary that deprives them of a certain identity – that is, a unique cultural identity of being mixed race. As a Eurasian, it pains me greatly to have people deprive me of being “too white” for being Chinese, and “too Asian” to be white. It is time we reconsider identity to go beyond the confines of race, and turn to something else, especially with the ever-growing population of mixed-race people around the globe.

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