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?

-cskene

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~ by cskene on April 14, 2008.

One Response to “Metaphor for What?”

  1. You’re right – we base racial categories on visible characteristics like skin color, hair texture, and facial features when the actual genetic differences are present within populations. But surprisingly, I’ve found that there is a very small amount of variation that does correspond with our general categories of race. There are certain polymorphisms that can predict a person’s heritage. Ancestry-information markers (AIMs) are stretches of DNA with several polymorphisms that show different frequencies between different populations. The difference is apparently enough that you can determine what continent a person originated from just by looking at his/her DNA. There are also short tandem repeats that are differentially distributed across the world. For example, one repeat – AAAG – is present in 2-7 copies in those with African heritage v. 5-8 copies in those with European or Middle Eastern heritage. Of course, there’s so much overlap that you can’t use that to accurately place someone in a group just based on how many repeats they have, but you might be able to predict that they have a certain probability of being of a specific heritage. So there is a tiny amount of genetic variation that happens to correspond to what we call “race” because of the migration patterns we talked about last week. But it’s definitely not very significant at all. The more important question is why we divide people up in this way in the first place. There actually does happen to be a scientific reason for that. I was going to blog on it earlier after we talked about race, but I didn’t get a chance to. We have an innate tendency to categorize, which was evolutionarily advantageous for our survival. In modern times, though, this can have negative consequences with respect to our tendency to categorize not just objects, but people. This, in turn, can affect how we perceive those who are different from us (or those who we at least consider different from us, whether they really are or not), eventually leading to the perpetuation of stereotypes. There are a lot of interesting studies on this, which I think I will blog on tomorrow as I initially intended to.

    ~ B2

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