Metaphor for What?
The real misunderstanding about race comes from false attribution of certain personal or social characteristics to race. In this case, race is a bad metaphor–it essentially connects things which should not be connected. Race is seen as an important factor in social interaction, but does not play a significant role in biological construction. As we’ve learned, genetic variation between races is minute when compared to variations between individual humans.
Why, though, is race so powerfully capable of altering our ways of thinking about individuals and groups? I believe it is because of the very strong effect that visual images have on our ability to process ideas. Standard literature provides a good example of this power–a surprising number of ideas about plot, conflict and theme are conveyed, not through dialogue, but through visual images. Take, for example, the images of string in Middlesex. The visual of emigrants holding on to a multitude of strands of yarn and gradually letting go as they pull away (in addition to the other wonderful metaphors, such as the burning city) does more to evoke a sense of loss in the reader than does dialogue or any other element of the story.
Despite the obvious power that the visual has over our ability to process ideas, I’m still not entirely sold on the idea of race as a metaphor. To be effective, a metaphor needs a context. A metaphor does not become significant until it is attached or related to a conflict. I’m more convinced that race-based patterns of social thought merely suffer from a sort of observed variable bias; it is easier to attribute qualities to an easily observable factor, such as skin color, than it is to attribute them to more subtle underlying traits.
I suppose that my largest problem with race as a metaphor is that the concepts that are being related to race are not well defined, and differ between people. My conception of a metaphor is of a visual or concept that acts as a stand-in for another concept, which squares pretty well with the OED definitions. Because connections of certain attributes to race are tenuous and change over time, it’s difficult for me to completely accept the concept of race as a metaphor. Metaphor for what, I say?