Monday 9 January 2012

Information, Race, and Racism

One of the many fascinating talks at "The Difference That Makes a Difference" (DTMD2011) last September, was by my OU colleague Mustafa Ali, entitled: "Race: The Difference That Makes A Difference". As with all the talks at DTMD2011, you can get the slides and hear a 'podcast' of the talk via the Programme and Proceedings page of the website. Mustafa looks at race from an information-theoretical perspective and information from a race-theoretical perspective. His work is ongoing, and we hope to have a paper in which he develops his ideas further in the planned Special Issue of TripleC Journal.

As usual, whereas Mustafa's work is well-grounded, rigorous academic research, here in this blog post I want to wave my hands around and argue that understanding information provides some new insights into understanding race and racism. (So don't be put off if you are unimpressed by my comments, please go instead to Mustafa's presentation!)

The key word is 'difference'.  Information is the difference that makes a difference, and race is about defining differences.  I find it helpful to hang the ideas on those trapeziums again. Underneath are people in all their miscellaneous colours, shapes and sizes, while out the top comes some way of categorising people. Maybe, for example, as 'black' or 'white'. But why?  Why would the decoding the 'data' (people) give that particular 'information' (racial categorisations or by skin colour)?

An anecdote. Apparently (according to my mother - I've no memory of it) when was 5 or 6 years old, I came home from school one day and announced that I'd got a girlfriend. My mother quizzed me to try to identify her, and asked me whether she was black. I said no, but it turned out she was.

The point (and one that is often made about children) is that I hadn't yet learned to categorise people in that way - and therefore that the skin colour categorisation is not innate but is learned. The only reason it is a story worth relating is because of the baggage in the implications of defining someone as black. If the feature had been red hair, it would have been a reflection of my lack of observation and the incident would have been long forgotten, but because it was skin colour, and because I can now tell the story in a way that defines this girl 'as black' and readers will know what I mean, it becomes a story with a message.

Mustafa talks of race as a social construct, which is "genealogically-related to racism" (see his presentation). He says:
I think a really good case can be made that Race has a genealogical relationship to Racism, so it's not that race is some kind of neutral classification that just happens to have a historical development, but that it emerged in the context of a set of specific contingent social, political and economic circumstances
The way I'm describing it, it comes down to what determines the content of the trapezium. It's not that we can do without the trapezium. We can only deal with information[1], so we need to do the 'decoding' (the cognition, in the terminology of triple C[2]) - it is an example of a:
...binary opposition which we employ in our cultural practices help to generate order out of the dynamic complexity of experience
Chandler - see a previous post
I said it comes down to what determines the content of the trapezium, but maybe in this context more importantly it is a question of who determines the content. Who says 'this' is the information we get from the data - who has the power to construct the trapeziums that we all use?  Perhaps we might talk in terms of the dominant or hegemonic trapeziums which have come about because of "a set of specific contingent social, political and economic circumstances".

To finish, I want to flag a couple of stories which seem relevant, but I don't have time to discuss:

"The fallacy, then, is simple. Just because some black people are good at something does not imply that black people in general will be good at it."

  • MP Diane Abbott tweeted: "White people love playing "divide and rule" we should not play their game".
    BBC report of the story and Laurie Penny's commentary in the New Statesman.


1  It's like I've been saying about maps. We can't deal with the territory, only with maps of the territory. Similarly we can't talk about people, only about information about people.

2  I'm coming to the conclusion that the suggestion I put forward in an earlier post that cognition = triangles whereas communication = trapeziums just won't do. I want to use the trapeziums for cognition too.

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