Context is everything

I know that some people use “there’s only one race, the human race” to erase the existence of racism. However, race is a socially constructed category based on the idea that there is more difference between ethnic groups than within them. The fact that race is a socially constructed category doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have real effects. Racialized people are treated differently and it affects their health, employment, housing, access to education, justice, and life chances generally. Racism is real and does real harm.

Saying “there’s only one race, the human race” was originally intended to push back against the idea that Black people were hugely biologically distinct from white people, or that they’re biologically a separate race.

Obviously there are biological differences between populations (amount of melanin in skin, susceptibility to certain diseases, even different blood groups), but this doesn’t amount to them being different biological races. A different biological race would be like the difference between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons and modern humans. And all of those are still humans.

The origin of the idea of Black people and white people being separate races lies in scientific racism, which is an attempt to justify slavery and white supremacism through pseudoscience. This is a very well documented history. Various ethnic groups were gradually assimilated into whiteness and came to feel more solidarity with other white people than with other working-class people (a very convenient outcome for capitalism). Those that couldn’t be assimilated into whiteness were constructed as a “lesser” group, othered, and described as “bestial”.

So although “there’s only one race, the human race” is true, it’s no longer helpful to point it out because so many people have used it to deny the existence of racism.

Meanings can change

During the apartheid era in South Africa, when a farm was attacked, and both Black and white people were killed, the apartheid government of the day would only count and publish the numbers of white people who were killed. So anti-apartheid campaigners pushed back on this by saying “All lives matter” and commemorating the Black people killed too.

When the Black Lives Matter movement got started, white supremacists started retorting with “all lives matter”, because they didn’t want BLM activists asserting that Black Lives Matter, too. Saying “all lives matter” as a retort to “Black Lives Matter” is offensive, because it denies the lived experience of systemic racism, and attempts to silence the assertion that Black Lives Matter. Taken out of context, this was baffling to people in South Africa who were using “all lives matter” to affirm that Black lives matter just as much as white ones.

I’ve even seen someone who was not familiar with the Indigenous slogan, Every Child Matters, worrying that it might be something to do with the white supremacist usage of “all lives matter”. Understandable if you didn’t know the context.

Then there was the awful harassment inflicted on Priyamvada Gopal when she said that “white lives don’t matter as white lives” — she meant, of course, that they matter as human lives, but not just because they are white.

Context is everything.

White supremacy is evil and will twist anything to try to perpetuate itself. We need to keep fighting until we dismantle it.