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Reaction to “Race, The Power of Illusion” Essay

Viewing this documentary was an extremely valuable experience in my understanding of not only some of the material we’ve been discussing in our course, but also in developing a much more developed grasp on the full extent of our nation’s ugly history of racism. While, by and large, I was already keenly aware of many of the events and incidences discussed throughout the three-part documentary including the assimilation and forced removal of Native Americans, slavery, manifest destiny, the idea of the “white man’s burden”, and the study of eugenics, there were so many different aspects to these events that you simply do not learn in grade school.

Watching these events unfold visually compelled me in way I never quite had been before from an emotional standpoint- the social implications of these events are so much graver and severe than I had even thought previously. As the documentary noted in the third act, racism is so deeply rooted in American soil that one born here or moving here after the most blatant forms of racism have vanished (segregation) finds themselves unwittingly fitting into racialized society. Without viewing films like these and having the kinds of discussions we do in class about institutionalized racism, it is rather easy to accept it as normal having grown up from a place of privilege.

What struck me most overall from watching this documentary were the “big picture” ideas presented about what race actually means. Time and time again evidence is presented that refutes the “ferociously pervasive” misconception that people belonging to the same race show evidence of significant genetic markers, and that our perceptions of what race means is entirely created by historical, social, and policy markers that all stem from the faulty science that delegates certain attributes to different races. The idea that people of a certain race could inherently exhibit certain attributes over people of other races creates a social hierarchy that initially was designed to justify the enslavement of African men and women.

As the documentary observes, the problem is that by claiming that race is based in biology, as demonstrated in the studies on eugenics presented in “scientific” works such as “Types of Mankind”, the perceived inequality between people of different races became much more serious than a power imbalance. The note that, if race was treated as a way to keep people of color subordinate upfront, the inequality would have dissipated following abolition. However, when eugenics went as far as to claim that people of different races were of different species, it justified the idea that Thomas Jefferson’s claim that “all men are created equal” did not have to include African Americans.

I also had never heard any mention of Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, that, while pitching America’s brand to European countries, was horrifically racist, claiming that blacks were inferior to whites in body and in mind. I was personally horrified upon learning that the Nazi’s claimed inspiration from American eugenicists on the racial profiles that led to the extermination of millions of Jews. The culture and the race of Jewish people were often intertwined, as in the assumption that in the 1920’s many basketball teams consisted of Jewish men due to their “artful dodger” nature.

Another idea presented by the documentary that I had not considered previously was how race effected the experience of citizenship in the US, and how race is determined in the context of citizenship. Back when there was an influx of immigrants from European countries, there was much prejudice against immigrants despite that they were by and large racially homogenous. Over time, as these people from different cultures assimilates, they became accepted as American whites, while African Americans, Asians, and Native Americans were still prejudiced against.

It became clear, especially in light of the change of heart about the morality and civility of Native Americans when they initially refused to yield to American imperialism, that race was used more to justify displacement of peoples to maintain certain cultural ideas and “standards” than it was actually about one’s racial profile. To write off a group of people as immoral and incompetent was a huge reoccurring theme we saw among these groups of oppressed people. This is evident in America’s conquest of the Philippines- when the people of the Phillipines were depicted as racially similar to African Americans despite baring no visual commonality it became evident that they used race as an easy marker for the foreign, or the “other”.

More interesting still was learning about the laws that defined race in the nineteenth century, and the great lengths Asian and South Asian people went to in justifying that they should be considered Caucasian to gain citizenship in the US. In the case of the Japanese man who committed suicide after having his citizenship rejected, the courts used race as an indicator of values rather than actually observe the actions of the people seeking citizenship. How ironic was it that prior to India gaining independence from Britain in 1947, that families fled to the US where “all men are created equal” only to be denied citizenship based on their race? This is so sadly indicative of so much of the inequality still evident in this country today.

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