Tuesday, March 13, 2018

On the Non-Existence of Race

A guest post by Fr. Cassian Sibley:

One of the elements of our statement concerning the sin of racism that has caused the most irritation and created the most resistance is our comment that "race" doesn't exist.  This is a counterintuitive claim for those who simply regard the word "race" as a "fill in" for “whatever quality it is” that enables most of us to tell, with some degree of accuracy, what continent people originated from.  That people can, in fact, do this, we are not at all intending to deny. But that is not what “race" means. When we speak of a Caucasoid, Negroid, or Mongoloid race, as an actual classification for human beings that purports to tell us something factual about the world - then we are in very different territory intellectually indeed. The word “race” has no meaning except as a cultural construct.

To begin at the level of empirical observation, it is a simple matter of fact that a person may carry 25% or more of his or her genetic material from African sources and “pass” as white.  Another person may have the same percentage of genetic material from African sources and be “identified” as an African-American based on color.  There is a phenotypical difference between them, and if the individuals in question are being raised in America, it is highly likely that they will probably belong to different cultural and ethnic subgroups than one another; nonetheless, apart from the mere appearance of difference itself, the relevant biological difference between them is phenotypical—not racial.

One common objection to this argument is that “anything can be a cultural construct.” A table, for instance, is a cultural construct, as a surface for serving meals. But the object that is a table is not "only" a cultural construct. It also exists as an actual thing in the world, one that one may use in ignorance of or violation of the construct - as a doorstop, for instance, or as a shield.  The object is there, but its meaningful character is underdetermined apart from the cultural construct that situates it in a social context.

"Race"—unlike the table—does not exist as an independent physical object. It is purely a matter of appearance.  Some genetic markers are nominally associated with skin color but are rarely found in any kind of lock-step with any other genetic markers; there is no such thing as genetic “Causcasianism,” “Jewish blood,” or “Mongoloid inheritance.” Race terms such as these, when used as definitional descriptions, are not associating various human beings with another based on blood or genetics at all but are merely based on appearance.

Some attempt to save appearances by associating “race” with one simple and obvious trait such as skin tone, but that will not work.  Bantu tribesmen, Dravidians from the Indian subcontinent, and Australian Aborigines share a similar skin tone. Hottentots and many Mexicans do, too. And Japanese and Europeans share a very similar tonal array, even though Europeans share far more genetic markers with Africans than they do with the historic populations of Japan and China.  The genetic differences between Africans are far greater than the average genetic difference between Europeans and Africans.  Thus, those committed to defending “race” as an empirical fact would have to look to other phenotypical descriptors to recreate their prescribed "race groupings," for instance: light skin but no almond-shaped eyes; dark skin with prominent lips and curly hair; brown skin, but taller than five feet on average; and so forth.  Unconsciously, humans have done this for centuries, but to do it consciously is to arbitrarily construct an image of the “race” once believed to be an objectively existing thing out of a subjective selection of phenotypical characteristics. Phenotypical characteristics are not race; they are a collection of appearance markers used to create a cultural association based on appearance alone, in isolation from cultural and ethnic factors, and nothing more.  Therefore, we affirm that race does not exist.  Genes exist. Genetic markers for specific physical traits exist. Light skin exists. Blue eyes exist. Red hair exists.  But a “Caucasian” or “white” race does not exist. A “black” race does not exist. These enculturated groupings are mere congeries of visible physical features that are not necessarily associated with one another, and that sit very lightly upon actual genetic facts.

Indeed, biologically speaking, every time the distribution of a trait possessing a survival value greater under some circumstances than under others is plotted, it has a distinct pattern of geographical variation, such that none of these patterns ever truly coincide. Nose form, tooth size, relative arm and leg length, eye color, skin tone - and every other such trait - is distributed in accordance with its own particular controlling selective force. The distribution gradient of each of these is called a cline and these clines are completely independent of one another. This is why the little mantra, "There are no races, there are only clines" is so familiar to those engaged in biological and genetic studies of human populations. There are recognizable general similarities in the appearances of people originating from a given area of the world, especially if they were a relatively isolated population group, but all that is really being seen is a pattern of features derived from common ancestry in that area, in a manner very similar to the recognizable likeness within a given family that derives from a common ancestry. The association of these recognizable characteristics with one another in a population are largely unrelated to survival value. The distribution of clines does not follow geographical or geopolitical boundaries.

So, while it is perfectly reasonable to use geographic labels to designate people for descriptive purposes, specific race terms such as "Negroid," "Caucasoid," and "Mongoloid" cause far more confusion than clarity. Race terms reflect a mix of narrow regional, specifically ethnic, and descriptive physical components with an assumption that such separate dimensions have some sort of underlying causal basis that they - in a biologically demonstrable way - do not.

Here is a specific example: A friend of mine has a black grandmother. This friend looks absolutely "Caucasian." No one would have turned away a man looking like him at the door of a "Whites Only" club.  But another man with a "black" grandmother – perhaps the same black grandmother - would have been forbidden to use a public restroom during segregation, purely based on his appearance. The fact that this could happen was why those enforcing American race-segregation laws had to maintain race records to avoid accidental miscegenation.  Factually, though, even these records adverted to no genetic facts, but simply tracked a person's ancestry back to someone who had dark skin.  Ultimately there is nothing other than appearance upon which race terms can be established.

There is nothing “Marxist” (whether cultural or otherwise) about acknowledging any of this.  It is just the way it is.  The cultural construct of race in the form that it has come down to us in America is a late Anglo-American creation, initially grounded in a North American context in which peoples originating from three very different and distant parts of the world were thrown together, and in a situation in which clear assumptions about the relative value and intelligence of each of these groups already existed culturally and were readily imposed upon certain clear physical distinctions, the most obvious of which was skin color. Once exported to Europe and to the colonial world, this construct was used as justification to make a great many dubious decisions, some of them genuinely horrific, on the mistaken notion that the categories in question were objective and biological in nature. We now know better.

One last objection has been raised: What about the places in the Orthodox Fathers, or in Orthodox hymnody where the term “race” is used? Are we not ignoring their witness?  No, we are not. It is important to not become confused by the (largely 19th century) translations of ancient texts into believing that the ancients themselves, especially the Christian fathers, believed in "race" as a biological category. Most ancient languages lack a separate term to distinguish what is called “race” apart from ethnicity, language, culture, and locale, that is not either a simple color term or a description of a specific physical feature.  For instance, the word most often translated as "race" in the 19th century from Greek is teleological and has to do with people involved in a common quest or seeking a common goal. Other terms clearly indicate nationality or a common language. In other words, when one sees the word "race" in an English language translation of a passage from St. Athanasius or St. Basil, one has a bit more linguistic work to do in unpacking what is being said, and once one does unpack it, it will become evident that it was unnecessary for the word to be translated as "race" at all.

To conclude, when I say "race" does not exist and is a merely a social construct, I am not being "politically correct." I am trying to describe the world accurately in an Aristotelian sense, using words that divide it at the points at which the actual joints of the world exist, rather than using words that have “meanings” grounded in nothing apart from appearance.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Colors of the Russian Church

St. John of Shanghai with Fr. Elia Wen

The schismatic priest Matthew Raphael Johnson has posted a podcast (on Radio Aryan, an overtly Neo-Nazi website), which has taken issue with the recent "Statement Concerning the Sin of Racism." I will address his criticism in more detail (along with those of others) in another post, but one thing he asserted is so grossly out of context that I want to deal with it separately. MRJ quoted from "About the Spiritual and Moral Significance of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia," by St. John John (Maximovitch), and suggested that somehow St. John was affirming the need for races and ethnic groups to remain separate. The translation he quoted from differs somewhat from the translation available online, most significantly, he quoted St. John as speaking of the Russian Church bringing its "color" to decorate the Church, whereas the text online says (quoting the first half of the text in order to provide the context, with the pertinent text highlighted):
"All the parts of the universal Church have one common goal -- the preaching of the word of God, the preparation of people that they might become capable of being members of the Body of Christ and having become such, more and more, more sincerely and strongly would become one with the divine salvific life of the Body of Christ, for in that is the salvation of people.
In the achievement of this common goal every local Church has its significance.
To every people, through God's providence, unique gifts are given.
Every Church fulfills its mission, in keeping with these gifts. For this reason every people, or combination of related peoples, has its own Church, and such a division of ecclesiastical authority furthers the activity of preaching.
For this reason the Orthodox Church allows the establishment of new local Churches and so, new centers of preaching. In this manner arose both the Russian and Slavic Churches.
Thus, every people has its own unique characteristics of the spirit, and this is the basis for the formation of local national Churches.
All of them together comprise One Universal Church and they all bring into it these unique characteristics and gifts, just as good servants bring the fruits of those talents that God has given them. In this manner is formed the pleasing to God amalgamation of spiritual sounds and colors with which the Church that unites all peoples to the glory of God, is decorated.
This beauty the earth brings to heaven as a sweet-smelling censer.
Into this beauty the Russian Church, as well, brings its colors and it sounds: let us compare the severe at times strictness of the righteous ones of the East with the compunctionate spirit of Russian saints.
Being scattered around the whole world, we preserve the expressions of our spirit, which are given to us by God. This calls us to preserve unity with the Church, to which God appointed activity among us, our spiritual nourishment and development, the support of our spiritual zeal, the development of our talents. For this reason, scattered across the entire world, we established our Russian churches and all together we comprise one Russian Church Outside of Russia.
The spiritual manifestations of the Church are the same in all people, but their appearances -- colors and sounds -- are different. The differentiation of ways to serve and spiritual gifts was pleasing to the Creator of all -- God the Savior. We know and sense spiritual benefits and feel joy when we see how different people of different characters and gifts give glory to the one God. For this reason, for example, being led by true ecclesiastical understanding and feeling, the Serbian Church with joy took in the Russian Church, thus giving witness to the spiritual benefits of its existence in its midst."
First off, no one denies that the Orthodox Church consists of local regional Churches, that often correspond to national boundaries -- though this is not always the case. What we do deny is that the Church is divided along strictly ethnic lines. In Russia, you have many ethnicities, but only one Russian Church. Even though there is a Serbian Orthodox Church, when St. John (Maximovitch)'s Serbian ancestors moved to Russia to flee Turkish domination, they did not establish a separate Serbian parallel Jurisdiction in Russia.  Likewise Russians who live in Greece attend the Greek Church there. They have not established a parallel Russian Orthodox Church in Greece.

But more to the point, this is a great example of why Orthodoxy cannot be learned only by reading books. If all that we had of St. John was his writings, one might debate what exactly he meant here, but we can still talk with those who knew St. John, were members of his flock, and know what he thought about these things. I never met St. John myself, but I have had the pleasure of knowing quite a few people who did know him extremely well, and none of these people got the impression that St. John promoted ethnic separation. Let me tell you about some of these people.

Anastasia Titov, in 2004

The first such person I met, back in 1992, was Anastasia Titov, who was a Russian from China and had served on St. John's clerical staff in Shanghai. I was a new convert when I met her, as was my wife. We had left an English speaking parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in Oklahoma City, and found ourselves in a mostly Russian speaking parish here in Houston. It was a difficult adjustment. For the first few months, my wife was in the parish alone while I was staying in upstate New York. She was a stranger in a strange place… not only was she a new convert, but she was from China too (like Anastasia), but was ethnically Chinese (unlike Anastasia), and so felt out of place at first. Anastasia took her under her wing, made her feel at home, and often spoke of the two of them as being Chinese compatriots. Her husband Paul, though also Russian, spoke Chinese very fluently.

Tamara Zaharek with St. John and her children

The next person I met was Tamara Zaharek, who was one of St. John's orphans that he brought to the United States. I believe her father was Chinese and her mother was Russian. For whatever reason (I don't remember the details) she and her sister ended up as orphans, and St. John was not only her spiritual father, but was very much of a father figure. She wrote a very touching children's book about what it was like to grow up with St. John, entitled Saint John and Goolya. The orphanage had Russian children, Chinese Children, and Children who were both, like Tamara. All of these children were raised together. St. John did not merely tolerate the presence of Chinese children in his orphanage, he brought them into the orphanage himself, if he saw that they had no home. I later went with my wife, and my older daughter (who was 5 months at the time) to attend the glorification of St. John in San Francisco, and got to see the Cathedral and visit with Tamara's extended family. In that cathedral, you see many people who are Chinese or of mixed ancestry. At that time the most senior priest there was Fr. Elia Wen, who was ordained by St. John, and was a revered member of the community there.

Tamara giving a talk about St. John, unfortunately, the sound quality is not very good.

My bishop also knew St. John very well. Among other things, he tells a story about what happened when an American kid in a gym class picked a fight with a Russian boy that was also a member of Cathedral in San Francisco. To the great confusion of the Americans (especially the coaches), suddenly a bunch of Chinese boys (who were from St. John's orphanage) began shouting in Russian "Ours are being attacked!" and rushed to his defense, and a general melee broke out (See Ancient Faith Radio, Remembrances of St. John of Shanghai, January 2012, beginning at about the 56:30 minute mark). But note what these boys said... "Ours are being attacked!" They were not treated as foreigners, and they thought of their fellow Russian Orthodox friend as being their people.

I asked Vladika Peter if he ever had any sense that St. John did not approve of Russians marrying Chinese people, and he said emphatically, "No" and that it was not an uncommon occurance. And then told me a story about St. John's successor as Archbishop of San Francisco, Archbishop Anthony (Medvedev). There was a Russian girl who wanted to marry a black man, and her family wanted Archbishop Anthony to forbid it. His only response was, "If he embraces the Orthodox Faith, there is nothing I can do."

I would also note that in Russia, not only do you have many ethnic groups that are all Orthodox and all part of the same Church, but you see such people in Churches all over Russia, and in Russian Churches around the world as well. They are quite at home, and I have never seen any Russian who had a problem with that. Because of geography, you are more likely to see Asian faces in Russian Churches than you are Africans, but you do see them too. In fact, the greatest Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin, had an African great-grandfather, and it showed:

So the colors of the Russian Church are varied, and it is the Faith as expressed in the Russian Orthodox Tradition that unites them into one local Church... not similarity in skin tone.

See Also:

A Statement Concerning the Sin of Racism

Interracial Marriage

Converts and Culture