What is rhetoric? What is race?

“Racism engulfs an ideology that does not require the presence of empirically determinable cultural differences. It substitutes … a fiction and a mystique about human behavior for the objective realization of true similarities and differences …” (Smedley 31)

The question “What is rhetoric?” is one that I consider every day; at the same time, it’s a question that I am resigned to never answering. The word “resigned” might give a false connotation here, though, because the ever-changing, undefinable nature of rhetoric is something that entertains and fascinates me. My favorite (attempted) definition of rhetoric so far is George Kennedy’s statement that rhetoric is “the energy inherent in communication” (Haas, course handout). Energy, I think, is an apt metaphor for rhetoric because it is invisible but all-important. At the same time, energy and rhetoric also have a very literal connection. Rhetoric employs energy to create energy, whether this is emotional energy, mental energy, or physical energy. Without energy – without rhetoric – we don’t exist.

Defining race seems like it should be a more straightforward adventure – but the rhetoric of race is, in actuality, very tricky. Audrey Smedley, in Race in North America, wastes no time presenting the reader with the idea that race does not really exist. Physical appearance is, in fact, a set of phenotypes that vary widely, but no one phenotype is a determiner of this characteristic called race. At this point in my reading, I sat down to write a definition of race and came up with the following:

“It seems to me that the idea of race springs from a natural human desire to belong to a group. A racial grouping, presumably, means that everyone has a group to belong to, that they are born into, that they cannot be kicked out of. But in truth, race has more to do with culture than skin color or eye shape.”

Several pages later, I discovered Smedley’s definition of an ethnic group: a group “perceived by others and themselves as having the same culture” (29). This is exactly what I was trying to define when I was seeking a definition for race, and so my new questions becomes: What is the difference between race and ethnicity?

At this point, I no longer believe that “race” can be defined. It has certainly meant a number of things to a number of different peoples. In modern U.S. history books, I think it generally refers to a particular culture. (As in, “the Mayan race” or “The Greeks, a race destined for … “) Thus, I find myself a believer in Smedley’s assertion that race is a social reality, at least in Western societies” (19).

Smedley goes on to give detailed histories of the subjugation of the Irish and American Indian “races.” It is true in examining these histories, and U.S. histories, that slavery and subjugation were usually made possible because one ethnic group or population displayed a particular phenotype that could be used for identification. Thus “the Black race,” “the Irish race,” “the Indian race” and others can, in the minds of some, exist. This is also evidenced in the different treatment of immigrants and minorities, with immigrants being pressured to assimilate and minorities being pressured not to (32).

Smedley blames capitalism for the social construction of race. She demonstrates that the rise of capitalism lead to a class system and a value on commodities. This new system provided both the need for commodities and the availability of low-class workers to produce them, thus setting up fertile metaphorical ground for slavery. Free market economies also led to a person being defined by what he (for only males counted at this time) owned, which further reinforced the class system.

Religion played a role as well. Smedley gives the example of one of the inquisitions, in which “secret Jews” were rooted out based on both practices and genealogy, thus establishing social status as hereditary. Meanwhile, the religious worldview in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries privileged hard work, so much so that the bourgeoisie stumbled upon the age-old “they’re better off as slaves” mentality – framing a “race” as savages and then “saving” them by forcing them to labor.

Forced labor, slavery, religious persecution … the theme running through these topics is decidedly negative. And in Chapter 2, Smedley points out that race was originally a term used to refer to animals, and was eventually adopted for application to human beings. Thus it seems that “race” has had insulting connotations from the very beginning. It certainly has negative connotations now, to the point that many people become very uncomfortable when discussing race – at least when they are in the company of someone they perceive to be of an “Other” race. (I count myself among these people and hope this class can help me overcome this discomfort.) Race in America is a buzz phrase right now, largely because of the election of our first … “racially Other” (?) … president. (Interestingly, Smedley says on page 25 that color is no longer crucial to the concept of race in our society, but it remains as a symbol of racial difference, which applies rather directly to the president’s background.)

In fact, in “his article “On the Rhetoric and Precedents of Racism,” Victor Villanueva frames racism as the greatest problem America faces. (Although I would argue that gender inequities are an equally big problem, that’s a discussion for another forum.) He cites many examples of America’s lack of multiculturalism and heartbreaking examples of racism’s effect on children. However, I’m troubled by Villanueva’s reference to “reverse discrimination,” as if discrimination only exists when perpetuated against particular people. (Presumably, reverse discrimination would victimize white people, who Villanueva lumps into one homogenous group.) After going over the article several times, I’m still unsure as to whether his use of this term is ironic or is a product of his own ignorance. Either way, I think using the term without a direct address of its implications is irresponsible.

Villanueva does make a number of interesting points, one of the most intriguing of which was to set up a case study of the difference in rhetorical situation across ethnic boundaries. When a graduate student appeared at a Halloween party in blackface (652), it was taken much differently than when two Latino children used flour to make themselves look white (650). Of course we take Villanueva’s point about the inherent/intentional racist complications of the graduate student’s actions. Although all agents in these situations were trying to pass as another “race,” only one was seen as offensive. (See a link to my discussion of a similar situation in pop culture here.)

So what is race?

I’d say it’s a construction of particular rhetorics, used for a particular end in a particular social realm. And I hope to use this class to complicate that notion in the near future.


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