Insight: Deconstructing Race/Reconstructing Difference

This is an insight written by Julia Thomas on the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace 2018 Annual Lecture: Deconstructing Race/Reconstructing Difference presented by Professor Jabari Mahiri, University of California Berkeley, on September 20, 2018.

Deconstructing Race/Reconstructing Difference

On Thursday, September 20, 2018 I had the pleasure of attending the annual lecture of the University of Maryland’s Baha’i Chair for World Peace. The speaker for this event was Professor Jabari Mahiri from the University of California, Berkeley.

Entitled “Deconstructing Race/Reconstructing Difference: Beyond the U.S. Paradigm,” Dr. Mahiri’s discussion of his work and experiences is one of several talks I have attended that were part of the Baha’i Chair central theme, Structural Racism and the Root Cause of Prejudice.

A Divided Society

All of the Baha’i Chair’s five central themes target key issues of today’s modern world, but none so much as the theme of Structural Racism and the Root Cause of Prejudice. Given the recent amounts of well-publicized, racially-charged conflicts in our political and societal systems, divisions between the American people are growing deeper and more prevalent.

Supremacist attitudes and actions are being fueled by a political figurehead that uses bluster and boasts to reaffirm false racial stereotypes. At the same time, constant media attention on any and all events of racial injustice, as well as the extensive aftermaths, assure that none of these events will escape the public eye.

Race in Context

Tensions are rising on all sides of this never-ending debate and will continue to do so in the years to come. Yet, all I can think about is why? Why do these divisions exist? Why did someone or some nation decide that skin color will be the judge of a person’s worth and why were they granted the power to do so? I wouldn’t find out the answers to my questions just yet.

Interestingly, Dr. Mahiri didn’t start like other presenters. Instead of jumping right into the bread and butter of his work, he spent the first few minutes highlighting other important global issues. It was a unique touch to his presentation that gave all of us who came to see his talk a sense of perspective. However, by doing so, he also highlighted how pervasive of an issue race is in American society, as it periodically overshadows other issues, even ones such as global poverty or the proliferation of nuclear materials.

Race as a Social Construct

Race is not a scientific concept. It is a social one. The scientific facts behind “race” have been explained and corroborated by many different studies. The social concept of race has not been explained nearly as thoroughly. In Dr. Mahiri’s work, he explained that the concept of race stems from a black/white binary. This concept of “whiteness” was used to gain allegiance to the idea that whiteness created blackness, a social trend now engrained in history books.

Honestly, the thought horrified me. The fact that people were once so arrogant as to try and convince the world that they created an entire race and then subjugated that race to prove so is demented and more than a little psychotic. Even when written by the so-called winners, history is rarely pretty.

Instead of a simple binary, Dr. Mahiri expands this outdated view of race to something just as daunting. He uses the analogy of a prism to describe our modern racial literacy. When white light hits a prism, it is broken up into a rainbow of colors all stemming from that white light, “created” from that white light. Despite the continuation of time, the different races have not become more equal. As races grow in societal visibility, they are subjected to the same archaic thoughts of “white purity” as has existed in the past. So many positive aspects of history have been redefined through the diversification of their industries, including music, technology, science, but despite all this, race continues to be subjected to the same flawed ideas.

Removing Identification and Judgement

Dr. Mahiri used the word “imprison” to describe the impact of social categories. And I definitely agree. A person’s identity goes much further than race or any other physical identifiers plastered on by society. Yet, society chooses to judge people by certain aspects of their appearance as if that is the full testament to who they are as a person.

A person’s culture should be celebrated. Our differences should delight us, not define us. Dr. Mahiri’s discussion definitely provided all who went to hear him with valuable information about race and how it came to be such a prevalent issue, but it will take a lot more work to decipher and unravel the hold that racism has on our global society.

Many of my questions about race remain unanswered and I suspect they will stay that way for a long time. But that is exactly why this work needs to continue.

You can watch the video of the Annual Lecture here.

To find out more about The Bahá’í Chair for World Peace visit our website and watch our video.

About the Author: 

Julia Thomas is an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. She is studying Psychology with a minor in Law and Society. She is interested in forensic psychology, psychopathology and neurobiology and hopes to continue her education, but doesn’t really know where just yet.

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