Henry Louis Gates Jr. states in the first paragraph of “Race” as the Trope of the World that race is “so very arbitrary in its application.” How various biological characteristics are culturally constructed to create this label of “race.” Often this was used with exclusionary purposes in mind by the ones doing the labeling. Perhaps one of the earliest examples of this comes from the Greeks, where you were either Greek or a barbarian. That term grew to mean those who were uncivilized or uncultured among the Romans, which describe those not of the Greco-Roman civilization even though those people had names for themselves that the Romans knew and used as well. It is this idea of civilization, of being civil and civilized, that has driven the need for such classifications beyond just “us and them.”
Gates discusses how Europeans view writing, “secondary to reason [but] is nevertheless the medium of reason’s expression.” Writing is one of the requirements for what is classified as a civilization in the social sciences. Writing is how history is recorded, large transactions are managed, and how information can spread long distances mostly unaltered from its source. “We know reason by its writing, by its representations” is the idea being inferred here. However, the spoken word is just as capable as writing in the transmission of culture and reason in a one to one interaction. The desire by Europeans to classify and understand everything during the Enlightenment lead to further classifications of different groups of human beings, with White Europeans at the top. Also who was included in “White” has changed over time. Many of the people making these claims in Britain and America were of Germanic decent, a group of people that were one of the barbarian tribes the Romans fought against. Now they used the Romans letters as their own and tried to systematize the idea of race. The African slave girl, Phillis Wheatley, that Gates uses an example of Africans who did learn to read and write as a method to combat the European view they were in “a lower place [on] the great chain of being.” This lower place is how Europeans had justified the enslavement of Africans, by thinking of them as not fully human.
That great chain of being was also used to place other groups within Europeans as well. Slavs, Irish, Romani, and ethnic minorities within nations were often classified lower before they obtained their “Whiteness” in the 20th century. Many members of these groups take pride in those separate designations now as they use them to define their ethnic origin yet U.S. society only reflects part of this. We see it in applications and government forms as we are asked about our race and ethnicity. Some cover basic geographic regions and skin colors while others breakdown ethnic associates even further. Some even include an “other” category so you can write in the designation of your choosing.
My father is one of those people who use the “other” category, he writes in “Celt.” For those of unfamiliar with who Celts are, by today’s standard it is those with ancestry from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall, Brittany, or Galatia. My father is someone who wants to display his Irish ancestry and separate himself from what I simplify as “the Legacy of Rome.” He looks at the history of European conquest and doesn’t see himself there. The great empires of Europe weren’t Hallstatt, Gaul, Eire, or Cymru. It was the Romans, the Franks, the Angles and Saxons, the Spanish, the Germans, the French, and so on. People want to be proud of their identity, whether it means changing the way people see the one your stuck with or by redefining yourself. As a man with white skin who doesn’t see pride in that history of conquest, accentuating his Irish ancestry is a way to distance himself from that. Not that I’m sure he’d see it that way.
It is interesting, from a historical perspective, to see how conquerors have justified their conquest. Some have done it simply because the believed they could, some because they believed they were better than others and that their victory proved it, and others believed they were better and conquest was their way of spreading their superior way. It was seen as a duty and a right. That right gave them permission to exploit those “lesser” than them. The lesser they were, the more you could exploit them. Africans were enslaved, the Chinese were given opioids, and the Irish were starved. This history of exploiting and exploitation has driven people to seek pride in the labels they have that removes their identity from that past.