Categorization, Racism, and Alternative Paths to Enlightenment


All racism is an outcome of the phenomenon of categorization.

I have been told over and over that human beings seek to categorize, to group everything in the world into ways that “make sense”. I have be taught in high school and told by educated people that this is a natural function of the human mind.

Not true. It is learned behavior.

The systematic categorization of everything in the universe is ingrained in us from a very early age, and only grows deeper and more complex the older we get. As children, we are given blocks to play with, of various shapes, sizes, and colours. We are encouraged to group these blocks: by colour, by shape, by size, by overlapping commonalities. If a child groups their blue blocks with other blue blocks, or triangular-shaped blocks with other triangular-shaped blocks, they are affirmed as “correct”. If a child groups their blue blocks with red blocks or their triangular-shaped blocks with round blocks, we shake our heads and say they got it wrong. (I think this “block test” was similar to a test a friend of mine took as a kid to determine their ADHD status.) The SAT, ACT, and IQ tests feature questions based on the same principle. We’re given questions that tell us to identify “the one that doesn’t belong”. Analogies are based on the same principle, only we’re told to identify pairs of things which have a like function or relationship. There is always a correct answer to these questions.

As a child, I asked why? As I grew older, I wondered about the necessity of categorization, inclusion and exclusion. And finally (and possibly most importantly), I want to know why is the ability to “correctly” group things seen as an indication of our level of intelligence? We see this obsession with grouping and categorizing in everything from taxonomy to architecture to genealogy to astronomy.

“Without grouping and categorizing, too many things simply wouldn’t function.” Yes, maybe so, and would that be a bad thing? In any case it is a mistake to think that this habit is “natural” or “inherent” to humanity. It is also a mistake to assume there is a “correct” way to group something. To assume as much means that we also assume other conceptions of a thing are incorrect, which in turn excludes possibilities for a “better” way to conceptualize (or to group, in this case).

Once we submit to the process of categorization, those categories become our reality. I think this is why so many people believe that human thinking or human society simply couldn’t function without categorization– they cannot conceptualize a reality sans categorization.

Just as it is seen as natural to group all living things into Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and species (an admittedly imperfect system, just ask any biologist), it is also seen as natural to group people: by “race”, by “ethnicity”, by “gender”, and so on. These groups are seen as distinct: the “African” race has black skin, the “White” race has white skin, the “Asian” race has dark hair, and these things prove their difference. Even cultural anthropology, which after two centuries has still not settled on a definition of “culture”, is reluctant to give up the idea of distinct races or ethnicities.

Perhaps the most fundamental categorization of a human being is into one of two genders or sexes. That there are only two sexes is an imperative lesson in every form of our education, and is stressed to us over and over from childhood.

Continuous and Discontinuous Variation: A feature that shows continuous variation may vary in only a small amount from one individual to the next, but when the variation of a number of individuals are compared they form a wide range. Examples include the range of values seen in heights or body masses. A feature that shows discontinuous variation shows a small number of distinct conditions, such as being male or female, and having ear lobes or no ear lobes. There is not a range of values between the two, as there is between a short person and a tall person, for example. However, there are very few examples of discontinuous variation in humans.” (Italics mine). This excerpt is taken from a biology textbook belonging to one of my 7th grade students.

This biology textbook, as mine did in high school, speaks with absolute authority. It does not suggest; it makes statements. A young student who reads this book and then is tested on its contents is expected (forced?) to believe that this material is true. There is no disclaimer that says, “The statements we are making in this book should be qualified, and in fact we don’t necessarily know what we are talking about, we are just guessing based on our limited knowledge and the small amount of evidence available to us.” That is really frightening to me. At some point, I had some teachers who said, “The things you’re about to learn from us/this book/this film are based on incomplete knowledge; by the time you are my age it is likely that some of this knowledge will have been modified, or even proven false.” I was lucky. But there are plenty of children who grow up without the benefit of critical thinking. This book becomes their reality.

The dogma espoused by the aforementioned textbook is no different from that espoused in, say, a Baptist church: “Before you we have laid the truth; you need only choose to believe.”

How will we ever break free from the confines of “natural categorization” (and everything that spawns from it) if throughout our education we are told to place faith, rather than question?

Perhaps a better question is, why do we choose to submit ourselves to a reality that is not only limited, but which harms other living things and ourselves?

I think oftentimes most people don’t see, or don’t want to see, the existence or possibility of choice.

Sometimes I see monks here in Cambodia doing things “they shouldn’t be doing”: using banks, talking on cell phones, riding (though not driving) motor vehicles, smoking, taking walks on the beach and staring at women (especially foreign women in bikinis).

When I ask my Khmer friends why they are doing these things, some say “because they don’t know any better.” Others tell me, “because they are bad.” And some say that there is nothing wrong, per say, with the monks’ behavior: The Buddha did not write the law; the Buddha said only, “These are my suggestions to you. Who knows if they are right or wrong. There are many paths to enlightenment.”

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2 thoughts on “Categorization, Racism, and Alternative Paths to Enlightenment

  1. well it is a learned behavior for sure just like most things in life. However i might have to say that with a sci text book i am not sure one is told that most things are laws but theories and the differences in my option between blind faith and a sci text book is that in a few years its okay to prove them wrong and people will re adjust to a new truth. where in most religions their is not to much room for change in there faith. though i guess this means we all have face the fact we don’t know what is true and to try to fit things into categories that could very well be extremely wrong is ironic thats why the aliens sit around laughing at us jk.

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    • Yeah, like most things in life– but many people (and many biology textbooks) still make the argument that behaviors like this are not learned, but inherent. This isn’t limited to what I’ve mentioned, of course, but lots of other things, like violence and sexuality for instance. And the thing is that while these are just theories, and science has a boon to be up front about that, no where in the textbook I quoted above did it say “p.s. this is theory, not law”. Technically the concept of atoms is still a theory (particle theory) and maybe it is even introduced as theory to a high school science class, but its premises and information is conveyed as the truth– as law. Actually, this kind of speaks to what we were talking about yesterday, about the way language is coopted to benefit certain ideologies. I think that absolutely happens with our education: things are not phrased to us in ways that encourage us to seek out alternative meanings, but rather they are positioned as the truth and we are expected to believe them, and even discouraged from questioning them. Like one of my older high school students, he was asking me about life on other planets, and said that it couldn’t possibly exist because “there is no oxygen on other planets”. At some point during his education, someone told him a) there is no oxygen on other planets, b) all life requires oxygen to survive (I guessed they skipped plant biology?) and c) “other planets” means our Solar System. When I suggested he should also think about planets in other star systems, he laughed and said, “That’s impossible.” Planets around other stars, impossible? $%#@#%^
      Anyway, I also have to disagree, I think religious views can and do evolve. Obviously it depends on the denomination and the faith, but in my experience many Christian churches encourage the dissection, analysis, and personalization of scripture and theology. I know you “were” Catholic, I can’t speak to that, haha. ;)
      Oh, this is getting long! Funny you mention aliens, I was JUST thinking that they were sitting around watching us, only if I were them I wouldn’t be laughing; I’d be annoyed, maybe frightened. :P

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