Monday, November 12, 2012

Human Brotherhood, Race, Essentialism, and W. E. B. Du Bois

Work, culture, liberty---all these we need, not singly but together, not successively together, each growing and aiding each, and all striving toward that vaster ideal that swims before the Negro people, the ideal of human brotherhood, gained through the unifying ideal of race; the ideal of fostering and developing the traits and talents of the Negro, not in opposition to or contempt of other races, but rather in large conformity to the greater ideals of the American Republic, in order that some day on American soil two world-races may give each to each those characteristics both so sadly lack. -- W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
I have been reading Lisa Zunshine's strange concepts and the stories they make possible, in which she discusses at length the fact that we humans ave a default essentialist reading of human beings and other living things. We view humans as having essences, and this includes not just each individual (I am essentially "Troy Camplin" ten years ago and today as far as everyone is concerned -- and that is why people are surprised when I have changed my mind about something, as much as they are surprise when you have changed your mind about something, as that seems to violate one having an essence) but group membership as well.

Zunshine cites the following story told in Susan A. Gelman's The Essential Child about one of Gelman's colleagues, Francisco Gil-White, who was having a conversation with a group of Kazax men in Mongolia:
Gil-White asked the following: "If I stayed here, and learned Kazax, and Kazax customs, married a Kazax girl, and became a Muslim, would I not be a Kazax?" The respondent's reply was: "Even if you do everything like a Kazax, and everybody says you are a Kazax, you still aren't a real Kazax because your parents are not Kazax. You are different inside."


We thus essentialize our group membership as well -- especially any we are born into. And it runs deep. After reading the above, I proposed to my Hispanic wife that I was going to become Hispanic. The look she gave me was one of extreme confusion. Her first response was to ask me if I was just going to start marking "Hispanic" on forms -- and how was that going to work out? It is not at all surprising that her first thought went to perhaps the most superficial "meaning" of my statement. Essentialism is so deeply ingrained in our thinking that superficial readings of proclamations that one is going to violate that essentialism are the most likely response.

If we then consider Du Bois' statement above, perhaps we can make sense of it, as it seems to be contradictory. How is it that one can gain "the ideal of human brotherhood . . . through the unifying ideal of race"? After all, the ideal of human brotherhood is achievable only insofar as we accept each and every person on earth as equally and fully human. However, group membership -- including racial identity -- tends to create an us-them mindset. And when there is an us-them mindset, there is an Othering which all to easily leads to racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, etc. Thus, it seems that Du Bois is arguing that only if people feel unified by their racial identity will we achieve the ideal of human brotherhood.

One can make sense of this in a number of ways. Given Du Bois' education in sociology, it is perhaps not too much of a stretch to argue that he is perhaps making the argument that one state of collectivist thinking leads to another. Insofar as racial identity is essentially collectivist in nature -- one is, in part, one's race -- and the idea of human brotherhood is collectivist in nature (it doesn't have to be, but it is perhaps not much of a stretch to believe Du Bois considered it such), then racial identity is a stepping stone to human brotherhood. One form of collectivism leads to another.

In Du Bois' conception of racial identity, though, he sees each race as equal, and as being in a position to equally educate each other. In this sense, he would oppose the current conception of multiculturalism that treats all other cultures as equal, while degrading Western culture. Du Bois clearly loves Western culture, and believes it can teach the other races much, just as he believes the other races have much to teach the white race. This co-equal collectivism leads to treating others as being part of a human brotherhood -- as co-teachers of each other.

A  more individualistic (in the Scottish Enlighenment sense) interpretation of Du  Bois would see individuals as being in part informed by their group membership(s) -- cultural, ethic/racial, ideological, etc. -- with the understanding that all groups are equal and have something to teach each other. For Du Bois, this attitude that we are equal and much learn from and teach each other is what unifies us into a human brotherhood. We thus learn to be more human and more humane. Not by rejecting our group memberships, but by simultaneously embracing them and not just tolerating, but appreciating others in different groups, with different ideas, and different world views.

But is Du Bois right to recommend this? Given the fact that we are essentializing creatures, perhaps Du Bois' formula is the best we can accomplish. But note well that Du Bois rejects such notions as cultural imperialism or cultural appropriation. He wants us to appropriate. He wants us to learn from and teach each other. In this sense, perhaps Du Bois would embrace what Frederick Turner termed "natural classicism," in which artists learn from other cultures as much as they learn from their own, to create a new world art.

As every fiction writer is taught, you do not write universal stories by being vague and abstract -- you write universal stories by being detailed and specific. Some nondescript guy doing something somewhere is not universalizing -- but a red-headed Scotsman taking care of his family in the Scottish highlands is. When you see him taking care of his family, interacting with his family, one comes to understand, "Hey, he's a lot like me. My family does similar things." Thus does one come to empathize with the unknown other, to embody that character and thus come to know the subtile differences through the deep similarities. Thus do stories unify us into a human brotherhood -- by showing us that no matter what our differences, we are all brothers. That we are all, esssentially, human.
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