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Biological Essentialism, Stereotypes, and Racism

January 11, 2010
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I wanted to continue the class discussion that started from Prashad’s work. I’m particularly sensitive to this issue and have done quite a bit of reading on these topics, though not in specific connection to South Asians. Actually my opinion draws heavily on the work of Sandra Ipsitz Bem (The Lenses of Gender). While her arguments are directed toward sex and advance the ideal of a genderless society, I believe her arguments are equally applicable to issues of “race”.

My starting point for my argument is that an ideal society would be completely nonracist and have no history of racism. Ronald Fiscus brilliantly draws on the work of John Rawls to form this position. If one were to imagine a completely non-racist (no history of racism or slavery) society, then positions in society would likely be proportional to makeup of the population. For example, say if whites made up 40% of the population, then they would make up roughly 40% of the doctors, lawyers, professors, and so on. To argue that there would be such huge gaps in the ratio of society makeup to profession makeup is to argue that some race or another is inherently disinclined to certain professions. So, for example, that Asians are overrepresented in medical school is explained by the ‘fact’ that they ‘naturally’ or ‘culturally’ are so intelligent and hardworking, and that blacks, latinos and latinas, and American Indians are underrepresented because they are dumb or lazy, or maybe they are attracted to the arts. Of course, to make such an argument is to put forth racial stereotypes as a defense, and so is illegitimate and furthermore would have no place in a nonracist society. Thus, Fiscus concludes that society and its institutions should treat people as though they lived in a nonracist society. He concludes that in an ideal society, proportions in jobs based on race, ethnicity or sex would reflect the relative proportions in society. (Note, of course, that we are NOT in an ideal society and that Fiscus realized the need for correction of present racial discrimination before we can adopt the view he lays out.)

Now to tie in Bem and her arguments about sex. Bem argues that gender roles which are taught and reinforced by society oppress both women and men by forcing their personality to develop in certain ways. In otherwords, women feel pressured to live up to stereotypes of women (that they play with dolls, wear skirts or dresses, and even personality traits such as being meek or sensitive) and men similarly feel pressured to live up to stereotypes of men. These gender-identities interfere with personal autonomy—if a girl likes to melt plastic soldiers in the fireplace with her brother, she should be able to without a parent telling her to play with dolls. To restrict her choice is to coerce the development of her identity in a way that she may not want, and it is ultimately her personality. Gender-roles in this way infringe upon people’s autonomy and freedom of conscience.

Racial stereotypes similarly infringe upon people’s autonomy and freedom of conscience. We saw this in American Desi with Jagjit, who feels guilty for following his calling as an artist. Racial stereotypes serve to remind those who do not fit those stereotypes that they are in some way deficient or abnormal. ‘Positive’ stereotypes are just as destructive as negative ones, and perhaps moreso in their deceptive façade. Imagine exclaiming to an Asian friend about how Asians excel as hard-working students and then think of how that friend must feel if she is an average student. Not only is she reminded that she is abnormal and not a great student, but she is also left to feel like she is letting down a whole group of people. ‘Positive’ racial stereotypes are just as oppressive to those who appear to verify them. An Asian should not feel pressured to become a doctor because he is Asian and has a standard to live up to, but because he loves medicine and helping people, etc.

When stereotypes curb autonomy and freedom of conscience, they are OPPRESSIVE and UNJUST. The nature of the stereotype (‘positive’ v. ‘negative’) matters little. Racial stereotypes are but one part, though a substantial part, of the structural racism that prevents society from progressing to Fiscus’s ideal society.

Many philosophers in the field of social justice share a similar viewpoint and would agree that stereotypes of any sort are oppressive. However, there are of course other opinions and the argument among philosophers, sociologists, and others rages on, but I find that Bem and Fiscus provide overwhelming evidence and reasoning to reach a valid conclusion, and I think Prashad would agree with them at least on the issue of stereotyping.

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