Edward James Olmos on the fiction of race

Posted March 19th, 2010 by
Category: Race and Ethnicity Tags: , ,

James DeWolf Perry is a regular guest contributor. He appears in the film Traces of the Trade and is the Tracing Center’s director of research. This entry is cross-posted from James’ own blog, The Living Consequences, and the opinions expressed are his own.

Today is the first anniversary of remarks by actor and activist Edward James Olmos at the United Nations about the idea of race as a social fiction.

I posted about these remarks at the time, but I want to use this occasion as an excuse to highlight once again what Olmos had to say that day, and I’m even going to take the unusual step for me of embedding the video of his remarks here.

The reason I’m doing this is that I’ve never heard this idea expressed with more power and conviction. Each time I see this, I’m reminded of just how powerful the myth of race is, and how important it is for those in the public eye to speak the plain truth that the emperor has no clothes:

There are dangers inherent in talking like this, of course.

I’m well aware that this type of rhetoric, about how race doesn’t really exist and mustn’t be used to classify people, is often used these days by resentful members of the white majority. It seems such people want to trumpet this truth merely for the purpose of shutting up those of other races and pretending that we have solved our racial problems. They blame our society’s lingering racial ills on “identity politics” or on those who choose to “play the blame game.” Or they call on non-whites not to define themselves as “African American” and the like, saying things like, “I’m not a hyphenated-American; I’m just an American. Why can’t they be, too?”

Yet Olmos is unquestionably right, at least in a historical and sociological sense.

It is true, as he suggests, that our society’s long history of using the social fiction of race has left a powerful legacy for us to contend with. Even if our society were color-blind today (which it most certainly isn’t), much of the legacy of race would still be with us, and if we were by chance entirely color-blind, we would be unable to see that legacy for what it is.

So my one caveat to what Olmos had to say would be that we must keep race in mind, at least in an intellectual sense, as long as there is a legacy left to address from that history of oppression. We must continue to be aware of how race, as our society has understood and continues to understand that concept, plays into social ills and would do so even if our society could magically stop thinking about race right now. We must also continue to work with the fact that, as Olmos says, most people simple aren’t going to stop using race to categorize their fellow human beings during their lifetimes—even if they insist they will, or already do.

Otherwise, we can and must avoid giving any credence to the outdated fiction, conceived and spread by those who would oppress others, that the human race is divided into groups called “races.” Certainly, we must never allow ourselves, or encourage others, to believe in this idea at a fundamental, gut level. If nothing else, we should never surrender to the temptation to use the idea of race as a means of assuming anything about the cultural background or other aspects of individual members of another race (a “cultural determinant”). To do otherwise is to deny important truths about our past and present, and to fail to grasp the trajectory of the future.

So say we all.

Here is a transcript of the video above:

I still find it incredible that we still use the term race as a cultural determinant. To this day—you should have never invited me here because I detest what we’ve done to ourselves out of a need to make ourselves different from one another—we’ve made the word race a way of expressing culture.

There’s no such thing and all you high school students bless your heart for being here. You are a hundred champions right now that are going to go out understanding this. The adults in the room will never understand it. Even though they’ll nod their heads and say you’re right they’ll never be able to stop using the word race as a cultural determinant.

I just heard one of the most prolific statements done by one of the great humanitarians. He’s really trying to organize and bring us all together and he used the word race as if there is a Latino race, an Asian race, Indigenous race, Caucasian race or a Latino race.

There is no such thing as a Latino race, there never has been, there never has been. There never will be. There is only one race and that is what the show brought out. That is the human race period.

Now the pressure comes, why did we start to use the word race as a cultural determinant? The truth is that over six hundred years ago the Caucasian race decided to use it as a cultural determinant so it would be easier for them to kill another culture. That was the total understanding, to kill one culture from another culture. You couldn’t kill your own race so you had to make them the “other” and you to this day—I’ve spent thirty-seven years of my adult life trying to get this word out and now I am done and well prepared as the admiral of the Battlestar Galactica to say it to all of you—there is but one race. That is it.

So say we all. So say we all. So say we all.

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