Challenging the Concept of Race



"It does seem that one common feature amongst those defined in terms of mixed race is an ability to demonstrate the ineptitude of race as a means of dividing up the population." (Jill Olumide, 'Time To Tick The Right Box')

"Richard Wright once wrote that black and white Americans were engaged in a war over the nature of reality. Their descriptions were incompatible. So it is clear that redescribing a world is the necessary first step towards changing it." (Salman Rushdie, 'Imaginary Homelands')

Hello! My name is Darren Chetty. I was born in Wales. My father was born in South Africa as were his parents. His grandparents were born in India. My mother was born in Holland as were her parents and her grandparents.

I have noticed that few people mention their great-grandparents birthplace when introducing themselves. Personally, I have found it the quickest way to satisfy other people's curiosity. At different times in my life I have reacted to this curiosity with feelings of insecurity, embarrassment, indignation or amusement. I think this variety of feelings came from my inability to understand the actual cause of this curiosity.

One of the ways I used to respond to stranger's questions about my background was to ask why they wanted to know. This seemed to me an obvious question – after all, knowing the reason would better enable me to provide an answer that satisified their curiosity. However I noticed that this made a lot of people feel uncomfortable. Some people would become apologetic, some would lose themselves in unfinished sentences, others would become defensive. A few would become angry.

I soon abandoned trying to establish why my background was such an object of curioisity and simply answered the question as best I could. Nevertheless, this was not the end of awkward first meetings. Fond reminiscences of Swansea, when asked where I was from, would bring about perplexed expressions and an increasingly familiar gesture – the back of the hand brushing the cheek. Equally, a condensed version of a rich family history spanning three continents may be met by 'Oh… er it's just I thought I could detect a Welsh accent.'

Ok, so I've tried to highlight the absurdity of it all. Now for my conclusions which naturally are open to debate.

I think I am still dealing with the paradox of needing to accept that I am perceived as different whilst wanting to challenge the preconceptions that inform such a perception. I think 'Race' remains a taboo in Britain today. Everyday it is discussed in the media, yet people are often terrified to talk openly about it.

I believe this stems from the definition of racism as: 'A belief in the superiority of a particular race; prejudice based on this.' (OED)

This is commonly held to be a bad thing. It is the ideology of Hitler, who is commonly regarded as the personification of evil.

Little wonder then that many human beings are desperate to avoid being labelled 'racist' or even entering into a conversation which may result in other people accusing them of holding racist beliefs.

But recognising the reality of 'race' as a myth – an all-encompassing belief that informs our daily beliefs and actions – can help us towards a more accurate description of racism as: 'A belief that the human race can be divided into further races.'

Stated so direction, this definition challenges our present way of thinking. It leads us to conclude that:

  • We are all racist – to differing extents.
  • That the term 'race' is itself 'racist'.
  • That arguing over the quality of races is futile, as the belief in the existence of races was and remains a man-made system of division, and such division has led and continues to lead to inequality. (We may note that 'apartheid' literally translates to apart-hood. The term itself does not refer to superiority. However we have all seen the reality.)


I think we need to redescribe the struggle against racism as a struggle against the erroneous belief in race. This may reduce the stigma attached to 'race' that leads to many well-meaning people being scared of being labelled racist. With reference to my proposed definition, I believe that there is a difference between a racist and a racist bigot. If a human being believes that in accusing them of being racist you are likening them to Hitler, their response will be to defend themselves. Whilst they concentrate their energies on defending themselves, they will not be open to a change of opinion.

I, as a person commonly termed, 'mixed-race', am a living, fully human challenge to the concept of race. I personally feel the tensions that Britain as a country is facing at present. Just like Britain I have ancestors who have benefited from the divisive concept of race and ancestors who have suffered from it. Just like Britain these different histories now inhabit the same space. Just as I was born in Britain with a widespread family history, so Britain as a nation, has a history spanning the globe so to confine British History to events which occurred on these shores (as the National Curriculum would have us do) is to remain in denial about vital aspects of British History and in turn contemporary British Identity.

I would welcome response to all this even if it is disagreement. Healthy debate is open conversation and open conversation can break taboos.

Darren Chetty