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Posted By Subaltern Queer


I write this as a member of the species 'homo sapiens'. Do you know what sapiens means? We define ourselves as the 'wise' being--or 'discerning' or 'sensible'. I confess that 'sensible' sounds to me like an apt descriptor for a shoe.

But 'sapiens' distinguishes us from those nasty and brutish Neanderthals. You wouldn't want to be a Neanderthal, would you?

Isn't such a judgment racist? Carl Linnaeus chose the term sapiens in 1758--to describe himself. Over the years, there has been continuing discussion whether Neanderthals are a part of our species or another species altogether.

Such a discussion may strike you as quaint and archaic. Indeed, the people who specialize in this (sapiologists?) speak of 'archaic humans'. Yet the discussion is as relevant for our current time as it could ever be. Who is included in us?

If you look at the very complicated genealogical trees of human descent, at least as we conceive of them now, it becomes clear that any kind of line one draws is simply a construct. We can decide that those 'creatures' were not part of us.

But the ways in which we make such distinctions are precarious. Consider the image above. Does that look like a 'something' that is another species from 'human'? I can say that it doesn't look like me. But I find it very hard to say definitively: this is not a human face. It looks human to me.

We may have a 'basis' for saying that such a being does not look like us, but the 'basis' for such a statement is one wholly created by us. We may make distinctions on the basis of posture or cranial size. Yet we must not forget that the distinction between 'highbrow' and 'lowbrow' culture is literally based on the distinction between Shakespeare (who literally had a high brow) and the Maori (who literally did not). 

If you think "this is crazy," you are right. But consider this example:

Phrenology Mother2

The fine print tells us that the woman on the right is a 'deficient' mother and the one on the left is a 'devoted' one. That judgment is made solely on the basis of their cranial structure. The 'science' that gave us such information is called phrenology and is, fortunately, completely discredited today.

Scientists speak of an 'anatomically modern homo sapiens' as dating back at least until 196,000 years ago. Yet isn't such a phrase simply a fancy way of saying 'people who look like us'? And isn't the problem that looking 'like' us has always been in flux?

Human beings have a very long and complicated history of the very concept 'looking like us'. The tribe that lives 'over the hills' might look different to the people who are part of the tribe on this side of the hills. Probably most of us would look at both and think "I can't see any difference."

Although it is now politically incorrect, people often used to say (now they just think) things like "all of you white people look the same." White people, in contrast, think "not at all." But this is a very common problem. It's the problem of not being able to see the subtle differences among the people we perceive to be categorically different from us.

I have a friend who taught at an elite boarding school that had many Asian students. She is able to tell, just by looking, who is Japanese, or Chinese, or Korean. I'm sure that I could learn to make such distinctions. But I'm not quite sure I want to make those distinctions.

As people reading this blog know, I live in Scotland. At the moment, I am in Spain enjoying the sunshine, not a strong feature of Scotland. Visitors might come here expecting that "all Spanish people look alike," but of course the reality hardly that. There is no clear 'hispanic' look--a strange concept imposed by non-hispanics.

One 'proof' of this is that many 'hispanic' people in the United States 'pass' for 'white'. But that should tell us that this distinction about who 'looks hispanic' is based on almost nothing.

The problem of people who look 'different' is not simply an American problem, nor even a problem of skin colour. Scottish people have tended to look different from English people. There is enough intermarriage at this point that such distinctions are not so pronounced. But they are often still there.

A very fine Scottish doctor told me that his counterparts in England probably suppose that he carries a knife and may be dangerous. While he said that with a smile, the point was clear enough. Scots don't quite look like English people. And English people often consider themselves superior to Scots.

Despite the talk of a United Kingdom, it is not quite so united. Simply think of the way in which the Irish are seen (by the way, only Northern Ireland is part of the UK; Ireland is its own country). The Irish have long been seen by the English as inferior.

Perhaps the best way to make this point is that the Irish were not welcomed in the United States when they emigrated there in the 19th century. When I would try to explain this to my students, they did not know what to make of this. After all, Irish people are white. What's the difference?

But then you have to explain that the Irish were not the only 'white' people treated as 'inferior'. So were the Italians and the Germans (who, when they arrived in the US, were hardly seen as 'the master race'). So were the Swedes and the Poles.

We assume that the reason there are problems accepting black and hispanic people in the US are simply due to the colour of their skin. But it has never been simply that. Racism comes in many forms and skin tone is only one variant on that.

To be sure, skin tone may be--particularly now--the most significant variant. Most 'white' people think the Irish and the Germans and the Swedes also count as white people. But a moment's reflection on this should make it clear that this assumtion is really odd. For Russians are also considered 'white'. But aren't they Asians

The term 'white' as we know it today has been cobbled together in a way that makes virtually no sense, except as a way to exclude others. Going back to Spain, 'hispanic' people are taken to be 'non-white' but Greeks and Italians are considered 'white'. What?

How different that is from thinking that Neanderthals aren't part of us?

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