This contemplation is inspired by an almost forgotten great book: “Black No More” by George S. Schulyer. Mr. Schulyer originally came out of the Harlem Renaissance and continued to be a notable writer, satirist, journalist, and critic until his death in 1977. Unfortunately by then because of his opposition to almost all mainstream black leaders from W.E.B. Du Bois to Martin Luther King, he became an outcaste and estranged from mainstream black writers and now must be rediscovered to be appreciated. His novel “Black No More” was partially science fiction but mainly and substantively a study of human thought and character. His premise was that medical technology had developed the ability to make black skin white so black people could become white people. I will not give away the events nor end of the story. The science fiction portion of the story should no longer be considered fiction. If science can change the physical attributes of gender, generate clones, grow biological organs, and much more, I suspect that somewhere there is a lab experimenting with changing skin color and it is only a matter of time before the results are not only successful but successful in both ways: changing black skin to white and also white skin to black. Science will soon be able to make ‘people of color’ of whatever color they want: white, black, or anything in between so that a white person need be “white no more”.
Then what? Will technology finally end racism? Or, will this technology only make it worse by further isolating natural ‘black’ bodies from ‘white’ society? The certainty of this technology raises conceptual questions about our society’s use of the words ‘racism’ and ‘race’ that are interesting to contemplate and to answer.
These issues partially came up last year with the events of Rachel Dolezal, the former leader of the Spokane, Washington, NAACP chapter. She is the former head because the NAACP discovered she was white: both parents were listed as Caucasian on her Montana birth certificate and all her known ancestors had a complete Caucasian descent of mixed Czech, German, and Swedish origin. She did attend and graduate from Howard University, described by Ta-Nehisi Coates as the “black Mecca” though he was not able to graduate from there in five years of trying as Dolezal did in the time usually required. She eventually admitted she was born “white” but considered herself “black”. She “identified as black” and felt constrained by the “biological identity thrust upon her”. Clearly, she did not consider being “black” only a sense experience issue of skin color but a rational construct of social and cultural relationships, and she wanted in on it. As could be predicted, she was universally condemned by the politically correct as a wigger and forced to resign. The liberal and feminist philosophers who provide the philosophical intellectual foundation for individual identity gender and sexual orientation constructs such as transgender, third gender, genderqueer, or whatever terms they create to make self-gratification sound intellectual were unwilling to honestly take their logic to its necessary conclusion in Dolezal’s case. (I do not mean to ridicule self-gratification. In reality, self-gratification may be the substantive motivating factor of all human life. I am just ridiculing the rationalizations done to avoid using the word ‘self-gratification’.)
Why were they unwilling to do so? To what extent if at all does being “black” define more than just skin color but also a social and cultural group of exclusive membership to those born with black skin? Why is ‘wigger’ considered to be a derogatory term while words such as ‘Italian-American’ are not? A wigger is a white person who tries to emulate or acquire cultural behavior and tastes attributed to black people. Seems fairly harmless, yet it is not. Why Not? This problem gets exponentially worse when we throw in persons of mixed heritage. If one out of two parents is black, is the child black? One out of four grandparents? One out of eight great grandparents? So forth? Only if the child looks black? Why do we have such a word as ‘Italian-American’ that has usually good but some bad connotations yet no word for mixed white-black Americans other than mixed or people of color? How much color makes you a person of color? Being a black person is supposedly a basis for illegal discrimination and oppression by white persons in the United States. Why was Dolezal not commended for her attempts to join an oppressed group and to help them? If she called herself Tibetan and joined a bunch of Buddhist monks in a hunger strike against China, she would be commended; how is calling herself black and joining them in their battle against oppression any different? Dolezal never claimed she had black skin, she was claiming to be “black”. Other people than assumed she had some shade of black skin or had black ancestors — why did they make that assumption? What if she claimed to be African-American? There are plenty of white African-Americans — whites born or descended from whites born in Africa. For her, such a claim would most definitely have been fraud and not the same as “black” because she was not born nor had any known relatives born in Africa, yet the same would be true of many black Americans that prefer to be called ‘African-American’ and are so-called. How is the meaning of the word ‘black’ in ‘black person’ distinct from the meaning of the work ‘black’ in the words ‘black skin’?
Can the philosophy of language help make sense of this mess? I want to try. If anyone wants to share in this contemplation, in order for it to make sense, we should share an understanding of some basis concepts in the philosophy of language. The first is humorously known as the “duck-rabbit” problem that I will contemplate next. In contemplating the nature of language, one must always apply Ockham’s Razor to avoid losing sight of the forest that is language by concentrating too much on the planting and growing of words as its trees.