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!

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Today is the first anniversary of remarks by actor and activist Edward James Olmos at the United Nations about the idea of race as a social fiction.

I posted about these remarks at the time, but I want to use this occasion  as an excuse to highlight once again what Olmos had to say that day, and I’m even going to take the unusual step for me of embedding the video of his remarks here.

The reason I’m doing this is that I’ve never heard this idea expressed with more power and conviction. Each time I see this, I’m reminded of just how powerful the myth of race is, and how important it is for those in the public eye to speak the plain truth that the emperor has no clothes:

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Edward James Olmos[Update: I’ve been reposting this inspirational 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 links.]

The United Nations hosted a panel on Tuesday about the television series Battlestar Galactica, covering such real-world themes as terrorism, human rights, religious conflict, and children in wartime.

The panel was moderated by Oscar-winning actress Whoopi Goldberg, and featured Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning Battlestar Galactica cast members Edward James Olmos (Admiral William Adama) and Mary McDonnell (President Laura Roslin), as well as executive producers Ronald D. Moore (of Star Trek fame) and David Eick.

What, exactly, did this panel have to do with race?

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The reason it’s been quiet here for the last couple of days is that I’ve been in Albuquerque, N.M. to speak at an interdisciplinary conference on cultural studies in the humanities and social sciences.

The conference featured two evening screenings of Traces of the Trade for attendees, and I spoke at two panel sessions about the use of film as a popular medium and as a pedagogical tool for exploring under-appreciated history and contemporary social issues.

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Columnist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times writes today about the overwhelming domination of Wall Street by male executives.

I’m not sure that I agree with Kristof’s conclusion that what the global banking industry needed in order to avoid its current woes was “women, women and women.” However, he devotes most of the column to highlighting important research showing that in areas such as race, gender, and class, diversity improves the quality of group decision-making.

This research offers a distinct rationale for diversity in education and in the workplace, beyond questions of fairness to the individuals involved or other arguments about diversity which may not garner universal agreement.

This particular justification for diversity is also more palatable to many of those who are skeptical of affirmative action or multiculturalism, being focused on generating measurably superior outcomes for the entire institution or for society as a whole. Moreover, this approach defines diversity in a subversive manner: it assumes that diversity today means having different experiences and perspectives, while giving no credence to beliefs that there are fundamental differences between people on account of race, ethnicity, gender, or other superficial traits.

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Philadelphia City Paper
Traces of the Trade is featured this evening in a thoughtful article, “Slavers in the Family,” which serves as a cover story for tomorrow’s edition of the Philadelphia City Paper.

The article, by Sam Adams, carries the subhead, “How Philly native Katrina Browne confronted her ties to America’s original sin, and why the nation should follow her lead,” and features interviews with Katrina Browne and Tom DeWolf. This coverage is motivated by screenings of the documentary at the National Constitution Center on April 24; as the article explains, the screenings were originally to be held as part of the Philadelphia Film Festival, until a conflict arose with the Democratic debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

As I indicated, this is a particularly thoughtful article. Adams does review the film itself, describing it as “gripping” and “a fascinating and largely unknown story,” but he focuses on the family’s introspection about the legacy of the slave trade and delves into Katrina’s and Tom’s backgrounds and motivations as coverage of the film and book rarely do.

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One issue which came up frequently while filming Traces of the Trade was the importance of gender in our society, and the parallels between gender and race.

While there are, of course, many ways in which gender and race are not parallel, it was often instructive, in a group consisting solely of white people, to point to ways in which the men in the group shared privileges in our society which the women did not.

I plan to write more on this subject another time, but for now I want to point out a strikingly different post on the film’s acceptance into competition at Sundance. Melissa Silverstein writes, over at Women & Hollywood, about the women represented among the films in the Sundance lineup, including in Traces of the Trade.

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Racialicious has an insightful post, originally written at What Tami Said, arguing that the superficiality of the debate about race in our society is encouraged by the way the media approaches race.

However, the root cause turns out to be not the media itself, but the public consuming the media. For the post explains that most Americans are passive consumers of information with remarkably short attention spans, and as a result, the media tends to present news and debate in limited and formulaic ways that appeal to most consumers.

I want to offer up this passage by Senator Obama, on his racial and ethnic background and experiences, and implicitly, how he tends to view race and ethnicity in our society:

As the child of a black man and white woman, born in the melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who is half-Indonesian, but who is usually mistaken for Mexican, and a brother-in-law and niece of Chinese descent, with some relatives who resemble Margaret Thatcher and others who could pass for Bernie Mac, I never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe.

— Senator Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope, p. 231

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As we continue to screen Traces of the Trade in more venues, and prepare to take the film nationwide in the coming year, we’re going to be holding a weekend retreat in December with staff from Crossroads.

Crossroads conducts training sessions to assist institutions in analyzing and addressing systemic racism in institutional contexts. They are going to be conducting a version of their 2-1/2 day training workshop for Traces participants and staff. The particular goal of the training, in our case, is to aid our ability to have conversations about race with those who may have different perspectives, including each other and those who view the film.

I’m particularly interested in Crossroad’s focus on historical racism and on institutional analysis and change.

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