I was in a discussion in which we were examining our ideas about what came first, slavery or notions of race. The question was posed,
“Was the Notion of ‘Race’ a way to Justify the Morality of Slavery?”
Answer: I am not sure. Perhaps for some, maybe even in many circumstances, this statement could be true. Yet, because slavery has been with us humans since times of antiquity (and it is still with us today), I am certain that some humans always have and always will find ways to justify the oppressions of others whether by race, sex, age, etc.
I think that race (I’ll define ‘race’ for this discussion as an assignment of a superiority/inferiority status to certain groups of people based on perceived, yet untrue, biological differences) is not the exclusive manner in which folks justify oppressing others, yet it is clear that ‘race’ was (is) used for that purpose and I believe that ‘race’ is but one of many ‘moral justifications’ for doing so.
The reason that I say this is because we can look at sexism as one example, and the reality of child laborers both abroad and here in the U.S. as another example. Women have been oppressed for millennia. They are the first group of people to find themselves owned by others and even sold and traded as chattel. (Think about how the traditions of dowries and ‘bride price’ originated.) Also consider the fact that if I choose to drink coffee or tea or choose to eat chocolate that is not fairly traded (there are many, many more examples), I probably had slaves working for me producing that stuff. The same thing happens in our (U.S.) agricultural system – child laborers – who have no choice but to work – harvest our food. These examples are just a different form of slavery – and we find ways to condone this reality in our own minds – not unlike the manner in which ‘white privilege’ is perpetuated.
I think of a movie line in Dreamworks Prince of Egypt, when Moses finally acknowledges the enslavement of ‘his people’. He said, “I didn’t see because I did not wish to see.” What was his moral reasoning? Simply that he did not want to know. This line has stayed with me and keeps returning time and time again.
The moment when Moses discovered that he was family to those he thought of as inferior slaves, he was filled with fright and ran. I believe that the fear he displayed was based on the realization of the cold hard reality of his own personal part that he played in the oppression of people (equals – not creatures of lesser worth). It is a difficult thing to acknowledge because it is against how most folks wish to think of themselves – as oppressors – and therefore because it causes them an identity crisis, they choose not to see.
This helps me to understand why we are ‘stuck’ in our own curent system of hierarchy of privilege and oppression today.
So, is race a way to justify the morality of oppression? Yes, it is, but it is not the only way to do so. There are many, and we all do it even as we do it unaware.
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