This week marks the second anniversary of remarks by actor and activist Edward James Olmos on the subject of race as a social fiction on a panel at the United Nations.

For the third year in a row, and as I prepare to speak tonight on a similar panel at the United Nations, I’m reposting these remarks, because I have still never heard this idea expressed with more power and conviction: the emperor has no clothes. The notion that we as a people are divided into several different races is, and always has been, a dreadful lie.

Despite the danger inherent in advocating what we might call color-blindness, what Admiral Adama of the Battlestar Galactica says here is undeniably correct, both historically and sociologically, and remains true to this day:

There is only one race … that is the human race.

So say we all!

This message says more than merely that we are all equal, regardless of race, or that we ought not to treat one another any differently. It says that race does not exist, except as a shared fiction accepted by society, and that we should not for a moment indulge this fantasy by seeing one another in terms of race at all. Race arose historically as a means of justifying and reinforcing discrimination and oppression, and today we buy into the propaganda of long-dead slave masters and conquerors every time we use race as a way of thinking about ourselves and others.

The fact that race is a myth does not mean that we should strive to be color-blind in the sense of ignoring race entirely, as I’ve written before. Race has been used extensively in the past few centuries as an organizing principle for oppression and discrimination. As a result, racial prejudice still exists throughout our society today, and worse, the tangible and intangible consequences of this history remain with us in the varying degrees to which we inherit wealth, social connections, and other privileges. The experience of race as a social reality over many generations has also ensured that race is deeply embedded in the self-identity of countless members of society. To become truly color-blind at this point in time would mean blinding ourselves to the lingering impact of the history of race, and fooling ourselves into thinking that each generation has had a fresh start independent of the past.

This cautionary note, however, does not diminish by one iota the truth or importance of what Olmos says here. It is entirely possible to recognize the consequences of race for one another without believing, for an instant, in our hearts or minds that we are different, one from another, on account of race.

2 Responses to “Edward James Olmos on race as a social fiction”

  1. Edward James Olmos, Battlestar Galactica, the U.N., and race | The Living Consequences says:

    […] video once a year, and I talk about the implications of what Olmos says here and especially here. If you want to read about his views or comment on them (and please do!), just follow one or both […]

  2. Robert A. Keenan says:

    Amidst all the turmoil from the struggle for Civil Rights back in the '60's, Fr. Symes, my French Renaissance History professor at St John's U (Queens, NY,) opened his students' collective eyes to the absolute absurdity of racial theory.

    The good Father singled out Johann Friedrich Blumenbach as one of the culprits, the most influential of several in the 18th Century, behind the modern, so-called racial theory. BTW, Johan was particularly admired for his expertise in that "bastion" of True Science, Phrenology.

    And why are the collection of European ethnic groups called Caucasians? Blumenbach labeled them so, arbitrarily deciding they had somehow spontaneously generated in the geographic area surrounding the Caucasus Mountain range. Naturally, since he was counted among them, the Caucasians exclusively exhibited all the superior and wonderful attributes found among the "races." Uh, huh.

    In essence, the concept of race, with its corollary of the "natural" superiority of Europeans, provided the handy-dandy and much needed philosophical and "scientific" underpinning for Colonialism. We all know where that led!

    Are there differences among groups of people? You bet, but they are primarily ethnic and class differences. The essential nature of humans has not changed a wit since before the rise of civilizations.

    That said, there is, indeed, A Race. As Mr. Olmos stated, the Human Race.

    P.S. Toward the end of his life, good old Johan fell in love with an African women. I believe she was from the area then referred to as Nubia and opened his eyes to the absurdity of his racial categories with their "intrinsic" characteristics. But Blumenbach's renunciation of his earlier theory, alas, fell on deaf ears. The truth be damned, too many riches remained to be plundered from other cultures. Alas, nothing ever changes, money still makes the world go round. Global Warming, anyone?

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