Context matters if we wish to evaluate superiority between different people. If I compare a sprinter to an accountant, I would find the sprinter superior on the track and the accountant superior at tax time. But when whites established themselves as superior to blacks, or males to females, or heterosexuals to homosexuals, they didn’t go quality by quality making evaluations and find the dominant group better in each. They did it wholesale. Herein lies another fallacy of superiority. We can establish difference by simple observation and the gathering of data. But from individual to individual, there are such huge amounts of qualitative differences and comparative advantages that to try to establish a global (ie not contextual like the sprinter and accountant example was) superiority is absolutely meaningless. Trying to do so using context on a group-to-group scale is beyond meaningless—it’s absolutely absurd. There are far too many variables with which to contend.
But supremacists don’t worry much about making sense. The criteria supremacists use to assign superiority among disparate peoples are tied more to biases than to contextual considerations. Sloppy Logic is engaged along with his first cousin Circular Reasoning. Dominant groups decide they are superior because they are dominant. (They also justify their dominance by reference to their superiority, another set of relations that is actually unrelated, but I will return to this idea later.) They also reason from their values not taking into consideration whether those values are shared by those being evaluated. They say, “Those people do x when doing y is clearly superior.” But “those people” haven’t accepted that y is better. Given their context, x is superior. And this isn’t some foolish misunderstanding—in many cases, quality x has worked to a group’s advantage for generations, centuries, perhaps eons. So x clearly works for them or it could have never become widespread to begin with. The dominant group applies their own specific standard (y) to the subordinate group as though it were universal and not specific to their context. (And they usually malign practice “x” in the process.) But that doesn’t work because people are different. And, far from implying supremacy, difference complicates it—makes it more difficult to assign. Because if a quality you value is not valued in my world—if the quality that works in your world hasn’t been shown to work in mine— how can you use my lack of that quality to condemn me? So, it’s clear that difference doesn’t require superiority. It almost prohibits it. Like the long used phrase “comparing apples and oranges,” assigning superiority to things that are at root dissimilar seems at best misguided and at worst futile and perhaps even dishonest. We tie those together, usually for very poor reasons. We are all guilty of this kind of bad reasoning, but when people in a dominant cultural group do it, it has some pretty bad results for the people in the minority.
We incur collateral damage when we ignore difference, damage that the promoters of sameness-in-diversity did not anticipate. When we fail to make the connection that diversity is indicative of some pretty profound differences, we fail to take steps to make sure that those differences can be addressed such that we can all have access to the fruits of our society. When we fail to recognize that there are issues that are important to women, for instance, simply by virtue of their womanhood, in that womanhood is different fundamentally than manhood, we end up being one of the only first-world countries that fails to give its women paid maternity leave. That’s because we’ve been trained in the counterproductive belief that we’re all the same. A corollary to that misconception is that we all have the same needs. So our politicians apply an abstract liberalism and flawed conceptions of fairness that applies a standard to women that’s actually specific to men as though it were universal. But fairness isn’t about giving everyone the same thing. Fairness is about giving each person what is appropriate to them to achieve given ends and meet given needs. It’s not fair to tell a woman to take a financial hit because she has to recover from giving birth and a man doesn’t. Within areas where women and men differ, we should be asking of women not the exact same thing we ask from men but what makes sense for their context. When we ignore the difference, we lose the context. And women are hurt. I have yet to meet a working woman who can absorb an unpaid maternity leave. How is that expectation a fair one?
Take race as another example of where ignoring difference has real drawbacks. Of course race is partially a social construct; if you don’t believe that, look at how the racial designation “white” has changed in the last century. But it also carries with it some very meaningful and hard-hitting differences, not least of which in the arena of health. First off, in contrast to social-construct absolutism, the biological differences become stark when you’re looking at health statistics. Whites have a higher occurrence of skin cancer (but, contrary to popular belief, black people can develop skin cancer too so PLEASE use sun-block, black folks) due to the fact that they evolved lighter skin from living in regions that got less direct sunlight. That’s not a social construct; that’s a difference. Blacks have a higher occurrence of sickle-cell anemia (but, contrary to popular belief, white people inherit this genetic trait as well, especially those with roots around the Mediterranean Sea). This too is thought to have given those who passed it on a competitive advantage in their environment. Geneticists believe that the S hemoglobin type, the recessive gene that causes Sickle-Cell, evolved in people living in regions prone to Malaria as a defense against that disease. Again, this is not a social construct; this is a difference.
Now in ignoring these differences and focusing on admittedly diverse peoples as though they are the same, we incur costs. These costs aren’t absorbed by the dominant group because the system is designed for them. We get plenty of good information about what strength of sun-block to use. But this is based on a white person. The messaging doesn’t cut both ways. I have no idea if I, as a black man, need to use the strength suggested. My suspicion is that I don’t need something that strong by virtue of the melanin in my skin. But I know I need some and no one is telling me how much. Because to tell me how much less sun-block I need than my white compatriot would be a nod to my difference; in some interpretations, that would be racist. To give me a different SBF number is to treat race as something other than a social construct—as a real, biologically meaningful difference.
However indicative of our fear of difference, wearing a slightly-too-strong sunscreen probably won’t have a huge effect on anyone’s life chances. Sickle-Cell is a far more dire example. We know it affects blacks disproportionately to the tune of 1 in 13 blacks in America being carriers. If you’re a carrier and you conceive with someone else who is a carrier, there’s a 1 in 2 chance that your child will also be a carrier and a 1 in 4 chance that your child will have Sickle-Cell. But, if only one partner is a carrier, even though there’s still a 1 in 2 chance that the offspring will be a carrier, there is no chance that the child will have Sickle-Cell. This knowledge is pretty important. So are you a carrier? Is your partner? You may not know. And you should because this allows you to make choices and engage in family planning. It’s not unprecedented. I have a friend who is Jewish and she’s engaged to a Jewish man. Not long ago, she mentioned some genetic testing that she and her fiancée would undergo to see if they are carriers for a genetic disease that disproportionately affects people of Jewish decent. This is a community imperative in the Jewish community. Black people could do the same thing with Sickle-cell, but to make that shift from the silence we experience now around the subject takes some guidance. It’s up to doctors to give us that council. But doctors are afraid to talk to us as though we’re different from white people. And as a result, we are failing to beat this very beatable condition in our community.
Take another scourge of the black community; diabetes. America has a plan to deal with diabetes, but that undoubtedly means dealing with it from a majority, ie white, perspective. But that might be like sun-block; it may differ according to population. We have no idea what plays a bigger role in diabetes, life-style choices or genetics. We do know that BOTH factors differ between white and black populations in the US. So what works for whites in fighting diabetes may well not work, or at least have a distorted effect in blacks. A more effective way to combat diabetes might be to see if there’s a real difference in how the disease affects people of different racial backgrounds and then to determine what the implications are for treatment in those different populations. Until we do that, until we apply difference to the process, we’ll find that our outcomes are never quite as equitable as we claim we would like.