Race or Ethnicity?

At the Together for the Gospel conference last week, Thabiti Anyabwile delivered a message on identity in relation to race and ethnicity.  In it he argued that we should adopt a new paradigm for thinking about personal identity, one rooted in theological teachings about humanity found in Scripture. 

The new paradigm is this: instead of delineating identity in terms of biologically determined race, we should instead think in the fluid categories of ethnicity.  “Race” is genetic, biological, and unchangeable, but “ethnicity” embraces one’s culture, values, and behavior.  “Race” is something that is determined simply by the circumstances of birth.  “Ethnicity” is certainly affected by those circumstances, but it is also something that involves our ongoing participation and/or rejection of the cultural patterns that we have come to know.  Anyabwile argued that we should dispense with the idea of race altogether, for there really is only one race, and that is the human race (we are all one in Adam, sinners before God).  It is simply arbitrary to categories people based on skin color.  An African American living in Mississippi has little in common (in terms of human categories) with a black man in Jamaica, in England, or in Africa.  So it is simply arbitrary to place the all-encompassing label “black” over them all and use that as a primary marker of identity.  That kind of categorization locates identity in biological differences that may have very little relation to the way our lives are ultimately shaped.  

Instead, he argued, we should think in terms of the categories of ethnicity.  Ethnicity is a fluid category that is not inextricably bound up with biology.  Certainly, biology often contributes to the majority make-up of a particular ethnic group, but there is no biological determinism.  The “hip-hop” culture, for example, is primarily a movement among African Americans, but a number of whites and Hispanics have joined in as well.  By the same token, no one should assume that simply having dark skin in America automatically makes a person part of the hip-hop culture.  The category is more fluid than that of “race.” 

One of the most helpful things Anyabwile said was that if we think in terms of race, then our statements will always be ad hominem.  Racial discussions are always loaded with a level of discomfort because of the potential that someone will say something that will slander and, therefore, offend an entire group of people simply because of their biological make-up.  So, for example, let’s say that a white man says the following: “I have little regard for the hip-hop culture.  I think it has serious moral problems and little to offer in the way of creative artistry.  I believe it is a corrupting influence in America.”  If we think in terms of race, then we will think that such a person has just slandered African Americans as a whole.  If hip-hop is linked to biology, then one cannot discuss hip-hop objectively; it will always be in relation to real people who are who they are simply because they were born that way.  However, if we change the paradigm and think in terms of the fluid concept of ethnicity, we can separate the hip-hop culture from the particular biological features that African Americans share.  We can lower the tension in such a discussion by divorcing biology from lifestyle and behavior, and we can subject hip-hop to a (well-deserved) critique without lambasting an entire group of people.

This seems to be what Paul did in Titus 1:12-13, where he affirmed the saying, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.”  That is a stereotype, pure and simple.  Paul affirms a blanket statement about an entire group of people, and he does so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  If all Scripture is God-breathed, as Christians have long affirmed (2 Timothy 3:16), then not only does Paul affirm a stereotype, God himself affirms a stereotype.  But it is not a stereotype based on biology.  Paul does not say that Cretans are biologically determined to be this way, as though they are worse by nature than anyone else.  Paul’s doctrine of sin would not cohere with such a judgment (see Romans 5:12-19).  Our unity in Adam precludes any such assessment.  But Paul does attack the Cretan ethnicity as a social-cultural reality.  For whatever reason, the island of Crete had developed a culture that was less than promising, morally speaking.  There is nothing wrong in making that observation.  If we are so afraid of stereotypes that we cannot acknowledge widespread patterns of immoral behavior among people who share similar cultural features, then we are lost in a fog of politically correct confusion. 

But here’s what we must keep in mind through it all: even though some stereotypes are legitimate, they must never be affirmed from a standing of prideful superiority.  That is not what Paul is doing in Titus 1:12-13.  He is not poking fun at people who are different from him, laughing with his buddies at their ignorance and moral confusion.  Nor is he thanking God that he is not like them (see Luke 18:11).  He is instructing Titus on how to care for the young churches that have recently sprung up on that island.  His concern is redemptive, and he believes it is better that Titus be clear on the truth about the situation he is facing than to leave a legitimate stereotype unsaid for fear of being politically incorrect.  There is nothing wrong with a frank acknowledgement that particular ethnicities (not as biologically determined groups, but as fluid concepts of culture and behavior) are sinful in particular ways, especially when your aim is to address their sin with the redemptive message of Christ.  If we can disentangle this discussion from pure biology, we can make a great deal of progress, I believe. 

We are united in Adam, sharers in the same guilt and depravity.  Believers are likewise united in Christ, sharers in his righteousness, no matter what stereotypes may have been true of them before.  So let us, as believers, be united in the church, with inter-ethnic congregations who build unity on the gospel in anticipation of the great eschatological unity that will come when we join our diverse voices around the throne of the Lamb (Revelation 5:9).      


3 Responses to “Race or Ethnicity?”

  1. Ali Says:

    Hi Aaron

    How much of that was Thabiti Anyabwile and how much was your reflection?

    I recall Jeremy Pierce over at Parableman disagreed with Thabiti over this idea of abandoning the race category some time ago. As you probably know, the whole issue of race is one that Jeremy specialises in. I didn’t read the posts at the time, but I thought you might appreciate the pointer. I might pop over there and have a read myself.

  2. fenderpooh Says:

    That was mostly my interpretation of what Anyabwile said. He was, of course, much more clear and thorough in his presentation.

    I have no idea who Jeremy Pierce is.

  3. Ali Says:

    Well, he has a blog called Parableman. He’s a philosopher who has looked closely at the whole idea of race. He disagrees with the idea of abandoning the category “race” and Thabiti’s definition of race, but agrees with the desired outcomes.

    The two posts are here:



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