“Are We Really Just One Human Race?”– #EtownEngage

On January 12-13, Elizabethtown College hosted a teach-in called #EtownEngage. Over 20 faculty from across the disciplines opened their classrooms to the community and hosted discussions on issues related to recent events in Ferguson, MO, Staten Island, NY and elsewhere–a conversation pointed to by the hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter.

In REL 370: Ethnicity, Gender, and Religion, I gave a talk called “Are We Really Just One Human Race?”

I began the talk by asking the class whether there’s a difference between saying #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter. For our purposes, the issue was why this is such a contested debate.

To highlight the rationale behind #AllLivesMatter, I presented two examples of this discourse at work. The first is a video from Dr. Donna Hicks is an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University. Drawing upon her vast experience in conflict resolution and reconciliation, Hicks advocates for a renewed understanding of dignity and its essential role in conflict.  

In her book, Dignity: Its Essential Role in Conflict (Yale: 2011), she suggests that all human beings have a “feeling of inherent value and worth,” that when violated, leads to considerable conflict. Thus, the next step in cultural development is an ability to acknowledge one’s dignity (the self and other) apart from disagreement.

Just as we have devised a viable set of social contracts, from legal systems to traffic regulations, we need to devise an agreed-upon set of rules of engagement based on our understanding of dignity–on our shared human vulnerabilities and the circumstances that make us likely to trigger our self-preservation instincts. By agreeing on and honoring the elements of dignity, we could ward off a lot of conflict as well as prevent a good deal of human suffering (16).

As I understand Hicks, there’s a level at which human conflict must be dealt with from a place of mutuality. Once we can recognize that we are part of the same–dare I say–human race, then we can work out our issues. If there were a theme song to this thinking, it would be Michael Jackson’s 1991 hit, Black or White.

#AllLivesMatter is a call to recognize the dignity of all persons inspire of their differences. It is an appeal to see the humanity in us all. Thus isn’t #BlackLivesMatter redundant?

Those who would answer “no” would suggest that the problem with #AllLivesMatter is the unexamined issue of belonging, and how it’s necessarily counterposed to exclusion. In other words, if there’s an “us,” then there’s a “them.” Difference needs to be taken more seriously.

Here we took an intersectional approach to the human body, reflecting on deconstructive notions of sexual dimorphism, gender binaries, and (dis)ability.

An Edugraphic created by Sam Killerman,
An Edugraphic created by Sam Killerman,

After registering some of the ways humans classify difference, we focused our discussion around the technology of race. We asked what it’s good for and had frank conversations about the good, bad, and ugly.

An ironic Newsweek cover about Post-Post Racial America & Africa’s Ebola Crisis

This helped us think about race as (1) a cultural framework with which one may dehumanize an other based upon socio-physical differences so as to reap the benefits of dignity violations (e.g. that’s not my kin(d)) & (2) a discourse with which one may normalize and even cheer these difference (e.g. race is essential(ism)).

We saw evidence of this in Michelle Norris’s The Race Card Project, a collection of six-word stories on individual’s experiences with race. After returning to our initial question, we ended the class by asking how race has mattered for each of us–the good, bad and ugly–and what we might talk about in a class called Ethnicity, Gender, and Religion.

Richard-Newton Picture

Richard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures.