Saturday, January 7, 2012

Transhumanism and the Ethnic Identity

This is a tricky subject for me to write on, but I feel like I'm doing it a disservice if I don't. I've addressed the issue of race and privilege numerous times on this blog, and I've stated before that I'm a White, (outwardly) male. One of the benefits of this is the fact that I don't constantly have my identity shoved in my face, so I'm free to think of what it might be like as a different identity, and possibly even shed the notion of ethnicity and race all together.

Others don't have that freedom. So what happens, and what I've seen and read, is that they take the identity constantly shoved in their face and turn it into something they're proud of. This is why a "color-blind" society still does everyone a disservice: you're stripping them of their identity that they've worked hard to put so much pride into, while at the same time, continuing to shove it back in their face in a different way (a truly color-blind society still sees Blacks and Whites). The privileged, who are not constantly reminded of their identity because theirs is the "default" identity benefit from it, because they automatically become the "White."

I dislike the term "race," if only because it's such a political football. What is "race?" It depends on what country you're from. In the United States, we have "White" and "not-White", which is basically what it boils down to. When you look at selection under "race" on the census form not all of them are "races." Some - White and Black - are "races." Others, like "Asian", are geographic identifiers; Asia as a continent. I'm Asian even if I'm from the Caucasus Mountains - the root for the term "Caucasian". If I'm from the other side of the Ural Mountains in Russian, I'm Asian (this is especially painful when you see "Middle Eastern" on the same census form. The Middle East is in Asia, damn it); and even then, that's arbitrary. That's why you'll see "Eurasia" as a continent name, but never "Eurasian" as a race. Others, such as "Polynesian/Pacific Islander" are geoethnic designations. Some, such as "Latino", run the risk of being offensive. What is a "Latino?" Someone from Mexico? From Honduras? I'm sure an individual proud of their Mexican heritage loves being confused with a Nicaraguan - I have an uncle who's Columbian, and he does not like being called Mexican, and for Chrissakes don't say he's Cuban. Is it someone who's a mix Indigenous populations and Spanish? What degree of mix? Only Indigenous populations from Latin America? Someone who speaks a Latin language (Spanish or Portuguese)? And don't get me started on "Native American," lumping a diverse population of people together like they were one large identity.

Now, note: remember what I said above about people who take identities shoved in their face and try to turn them into something they're proud of? My dissection above is actually an example of privilege at work; there are people who are proud of those "racial" identifiers and will take strong offense to my dissecting them. This is one of the reason why, as a White man, I can never attempt to speak for an underprivileged population, and why trying to dissect any issue surrounding race can be a minefield if you're not sensitive in acknowledging that there are those who disagree with you, and their disagreements are every bit as valid as your points, if not more so because they have to live it every day when you don't have to. There are others - like my Columbian uncle - who will agree with me, and claim that you should never confuse a Cuban with a Columbian, because they're different. However, the above still serves my purpose, because it highlights the divisions between two totally different concepts - "race" and "ethnicity."

When discussing the impact that transhumanism will have on race and ethnicity, you need to define the two first. Race is, usually, based exclusively on how you appear. This is why you'll hear people lump "East Asians" together as a race. This is why "Middle Eastern" is a race, or why "Polynesian/Pacific Islander" is a race. Because these are groups of people who share similar physiological features; usually similar facial features - the structure of the nose, shape of the eyes and cheeks, color of the hair and eyes, etc. This is extremely egregious in cases of Africans, where the one distinguishing feature that lumps them all together as a race is dark skin. Never mind that East Africans look decidedly different from West Africans.

An ethnicity, on the other hand, is something totally different from that in the purely clinical sense. Someone could be "Middle Eastern" in race, but God help you if you confuse some of them for Arabic when they're really Assyrian. Could you tell the difference between a Irishman and a Englishman? If you're from Ireland or England I bet you could. If you're from America, the difference between "Irish" and "English" is that people descended from the former get to derail race discussions about how poorly their ancestors were treated when the people they're talking too are still treated that way today. People from the latter would know the difference either way. In this sense, it's not appearance so much as it is cultural identifiers - religion, language, mannerisms, and traditions are the big four, although my sociology is rusty so I know I'm likely forgetting other things, too.

And then there's the question of geopolitical ethnicity verses group ethnicity and ethnolinguistic groups. Is "German" an ethnicity? Or is Bavarian an ethnicity? What about Italian - is Italian an ethnicity (I can't say either way, but do not confuse certain Italians for Sicilians or Sicilians for Italians. Just don't)? What about Iran? Is Iranian an ethnicity, or is it Farsi? Is Roma a specific ethnic group or are they a race? (This depends upon where you're at. In Europe today, as in the Europes of yesteryears, they're every bit as popular as Jewish people were in the 19th and early 20th centuries - and by that, I mean not at all. They're considered a separate "race" in some parts of Europe, where as a White person from America couldn't tell the difference.) Does a White person in America have a right to claim that they're Irish or German or Swedish or French, even if they've never spoken the language, they've never identified with that group, or experienced that group's culture/lived through that group's hardships? I identify as White, even though I'm likely about a sixteenth Cherokee and Comanche. I have been raised White. I get all of the White privileges. I have never identified as those to groups because I don't feel like I have the right to (not to mention it's harder than snit to prove, and I have no intention of doing so). Do I have a right to identify simply because my great-grandmother was full Cherokee, and I have it coming from both sides of the family? Is that part of my ethnicity? I say no. If you've never experienced the hardships of the group, you have no right to claim membership. But that's just my opinion; I speak for nobody other than myself. This is why I don't call myself "Irish" either, when Scots-Irish and Irish run deep in my blood (my family traces history back to Appalachia; mixes like this are common in the Christ-haunted South).

And then there's situations where "race" - as appearance - and "ethnicity" - as group identity - overlap. For instance, the Black/African-American population in the United States. The designation "Black" is both an ethnicity and a race; Black Americans have their own culture that they developed despite slavery, which, while having tenuous connections to older African traditions, is very different from them. Because Black Americans don't have a clear ethnic background - again, courtesy of slavery - they have become their own ethnic group. Most Black Americans are from Western African; around the area of the Ivory Coast, but that means exactly nothing, because scant few of those traditions carried over, and what did was fused with other traditions to create the racial and ethnic identity of Black Americans today.

So, when I start talking about transhumanism, it can be difficult to clearly tell where one ends and the other begins. In the purest form, H+ is taking the human body and making it better. It's making us faster, healthier, smarter, prettier, stronger, and just generally better than what we were before. Now, "prettier" is subjective - one person's beauty is another person's turn-off (I'm a fan of very dark skin, with a very slender build. Not because "oh exotic", but because I genuinely believe that dark skin is prettier) - but the others are not subjective. "Healthier" means no longer having to worry about cancer or HIV. It means no longer avoiding fun activities because you have asthma or are a hemophiliac and will bleed to death because of a serious cut or injury. Smarter means being able to think faster and process information faster, in addition to being able to process more information in one setting. Stronger and faster are just that - your muscles and bones won't break as easily or tear as easily, you'll be able to carry more, and you'll be faster and quicker on your feet. On the surface, these modifications pose absolutely no threat to ethnicity or racial identity. No ethnicity or race is based off of being unhealthy, or being physically impaired or mentally slow compared to what nootropics and advances allow.

And for those ethnic groups that don't allow for the application of technology in this sense, I've addressed that their choices should be respected, and they should be allowed to live aside from society in a manner similar to the Amish.

If anything, transhumanism might birth new ethnic groups and new identities; this is especially true if transhumanism lets us settle the solar system; humanity will likely take our cultures with us, and these cultures and traditions will mix and become new cultures and traditions, while others steadfastly hold to the traditions they recognize. Transhumanism itself right now is a separate group identity - we're a relatively small group against a larger group of bioconservatives, and like biocons, we cut across all racial and ethnic lines, but it's primarily wrapped up with Whites. Transpeople are actually very common in the transhumanist movement - which I'm sure in retrospect isn't much of a surprise. They're likely here for the same thing I am; the ability to control what my body is like and to make it what I want it to be.

"Races" will not go away simply because transhuman technologies are implemented. I'm personally worried about how these technologies will be shared based - in America, at least, the predominately White culture doesn't have a very pleasant history of sharing new technology developments with underprivileged, but society has been getting better at this, and will hopefully continue to improve.  If they're only made available to the wealthy, then nobody is being helped. I'm torn on the issue - the optimist in me says that they won't be, but the realist in my says, "oh yea? look at the way Health Insurance is handled now." In America, at least, trying to get the technologies spread will result in ugly feuds. The rich don't play well with the poor and the big insurance companies will charge an arm and a leg for them. And because so many of these ethnic groups tend to be poor, they won't have access to the new technologies. In the civilized world, insurance is generally covered by the government, and I imagine that access to health care is a little bit more evenly distributed - or, at least, better than it is here in the States.

What do these divisions mean for humanity in the future? It can be hard to say. They may eventually be bred out humanity in favor of newer divisions and ethnic groups. "Race" is a relatively new invention, on the time scale of human inventions. If we find that mind uploading is possible, and it is possible to upload yourself into a computer and then download yourself into a new body, then there's a lot of questions that will need to be answered as far as ethnicity and race are concerned. When a White man such as myself downloads into the body of, say, a Black woman, which one would I be? Would it matter? Can you consider yourself Jewish even if the body you're downloaded into at the time isn't even biological? Or the one you were born in? Are you Chinese even though you gave up a physical body and uploaded yourself into a computer 10 years ago and haven't looked back?

I can't say, because for me to attempt to would be to speak out on behalf of these people and, because I occupy a position of privilege in society now, doing that would be speaking for them, rather than letting them speak for themselves.

And speaking of privilege - what would mind-uploading do to that? Yeah, I'm White. Look, I know I don't look it because I'm sleeved in a giant crab, but I'm White. I'm a male in a female body, or a female in a male body, or a male in a body that's both. Are you still going to pretend that I got in this position by sleeping my way here? If you discriminate against these people because their skin is dark brown, what about me, when my skin is purple and my hair naturally blue? "Walk a mile in my shoes" becomes a literal expression.

I'm not a naive fool. Transhumanism won't make discrimination go away. If anything, it'll create another dimension of discrimination - we don't need no gene-freaks around these parts. You're playing God, and we have to stop you. What you're doing is unnatural, and you're unnatural. Transhumanism is a philosophy and an approach to technology and it's intersection with humanity. The issue of discrimination is not one for transhumanism or technology; it's one for humanity. These differences will always be with us and it's not a bad thing - the bad thing is when we use these differences to justify preferential treatment for one group over another. That's when we have an issue. And humanity doesn't always have to be like that.

I don't think it'll erase ethic groups, and I don't think that, as I understand it, it poses a very large threat for racial groups and groups who use race as an ethnic marker. I also don't think it'll do much for leveling the playing field, either. Preferential treatment for one group over another is not something that transhumanism can do away with. It can blur the lines, but the more those lines blur, the more clear the extremes become. We have to work together outside of the technology to bring equality to others, and there's not a lot that I think the technology can help with here. Still, I don't see it posing a threat to a way of life - unless your way of life removes you from medical advances, or your religion prohibits you from improving yourself.

Transhumanism doesn't have to be a Western thing, nor does it have to be a White thing. Like the Enlightenment that inspires it, it's something open to all cultures, people, races, ethnic groups and creeds. And it's a damn shame if it stays a Western/White thing.


  1. Interesting, "race" is absolutely a cultural identity, no more no less. Well why ? I live in France, and I am myself argentinian-french, and I'am categorized as french as blacks from Antilles are french too, in the other hand an african will have another identity even if he is black, I grew up with both cultures, so my spanish has an argentinian accent, when going in spain (really racist country) I speak spanish and they say oh no another argentinian immigrant BUT wait i have mon passeport fran├žais, and they change and are a quite confused... even if I am "white" and have italian roots...

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