When did talking about race become taboo?

"Eugenics is the self-direction of human evolution"

Whenever I’m back home in Malaysia, I’m frequently faced with the annoying question of what race I am. It’s annoying because it jumps right at me from nowhere, from people I hardly know, from strangers. Yes, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that some Malaysians are just rude but one thing is for sure, talking about one’s racial/ethnic background is actually no big matter, I’m just annoyed at having to explain why I look different all the time. Sometimes racial background is something to be proud of, something to remind oneself that our identities go far beyond “I”. But a strange thing happens when we talk about race in abstract terms, perhaps about other people – race, as a subject, suddenly becomes taboo.

A few weeks ago Channel 4 ran a series of documentaries under the title Race: Science’s Last Taboo. For starters, there is no substantial scientific basis for determining race – there is very little genetic variance between people of different colour. Socio-politically, the defining line of race becomes wobbly when mixed parentage individuals are involved. But we cannot dispose of the term race so easily as what we have at stake is the collective oppression of people who are not White.

In the film Race and Intelligence, journalist Rageh Omar picks apart the history of the “science” of race, and the racist assumptions that have been left unchallenged about Black people and low IQ. Words like “shocking”, “controversial”, “politically incorrect”, and last but not least “taboo” are built around the programme to sensationalise the fact that a few seemingly intelligent people in the scientific world were/are racists. The world was aghast when molecular biologist and discoverer of the structure of DNA James Watson made claims that Black people are less clever than other people, simply because he is a world famous scientist, and scientists who have made monumental discoveries are expected to be morally accountable for their pronouncements. Or are they really?

Long before Watson’s faux pas, scientists have been known to have an uneasy relationship with race. The repugnant history of the abuse of scientific authority led to colonial domination, slavery, human zoos, and the Jewish holocaust. Beginning with the development of social/cultural evolution as a scientific theory for human diversity in the 19th century, scientists and anthropologists clamoured for recognition by building upon a discourse that placed people on a kind of evolutionary ladder – Whites at the top, Blacks at the bottom. A hundred years later, eugenics became a valid science that pursued the ethnic “purity” of White people. In the United States where eugenics was rigorously studied, scientists operated largely from the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory in New York – of which interestingly, James D. Watson was director and president for 35 years. The world of scientistic racism is small indeed.

And so apparently, race became taboo in the scientific community after the Third Reich collapsed in 1945, I’m not sure says who but it’s been mentioned a few times throughout the series. By extension, the subject of race is also taboo outside scientific discussion. Before we go on discussing further, a definition of taboo:

A social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.

For White people, talking about race is indeed very difficult. The social custom of silence around race stems from the fear of sounding racist and reluctance to accuse others of racism, while at the same affirms a delusion that racism is not a big problem anymore. It’s disheartening to watch White people become defensive when they are asked about racism, especially when they perceive it as a test to see how racist they are.

The blogosphere is abuzz with people talking about race from many angles, some are people of colour, some White. Perhaps hidden behind names and avatars, the fear of sounding racist is mitigated, and perhaps those of us with access to the wealth of the internet are more attuned to the diversity of opinions on race (when we look for it). On the street or at a fancy dinner party where ‘polite’ conversation is expected, is race an appropriate subject? When we step away from the computer, are people out there going to respond favourably to a chit chat on race? As a person of colour, I am torn by how an integral component of my identity has become an issue on which people consciously tread carefully or avoid talking about altogether or dismissed as something not worthy of discussion in this so-called post-racial world. How can honesty, engagement, and resistance come from taboo?

3 thoughts on “When did talking about race become taboo?

  1. thank you for this post. though the internet does provide a space to talk about race, it also provides a space for people to openly express their racism. i’ve learnt so much about other cultures thanks to blogs and am always disheartened by the racist forums and blogs that seem to attract more visitors than the anti-racist ones.

    it is really a shame that people feel so uncomfortable talking about race and would rather use the internet as a shield. now that i think about it, i always get dismissed when i try to talk about racism with friends. i was always accussed of ‘thinking too much’ and told to ‘relax’.

    • You’re welcome🙂 And you’re right about the “thinking too much” bit. I think the general climate wouldn’t allow for outright racism to be tolerated; the big fuss over the BNP on Question Time and stories on the Daily Mail are good examples of blatant hate. But there is so much subtle racism in Britain – because people are supposedly more subtle here, they don’t complain, grumble etc. – that pointing out something that only we find offensive is just kicking too much of a fuss – not the “British” thing to do. I mean, I think the Meerkats advert on TV is seriously offensive and just plain irritating. Has it been taken off the air yet? No, because no one has pointed out that making fun of anthropomorphic meerkats with an Eastern European accent is racist. Sorry, I’m ranting away, but that is juuuuust annoying.

      Click at your peril:

      • talk about irritating. i watched the video despite your warning. and you know there are people who would argue that there is nothing offensive about this ad. i think the subtle racism is just as bad as overt racism. ignoring the problem doesn’t mean it will magically disappear.

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