Around a year ago, Professor Robert Sussman, author of The Myth of Race: The Troublesome Persistence of an Unscientific Idea, queried in Newsweek: “Unfortunately, along with the belief in the reality of biologically based human races, racism still abounds in the United States and Western Europe. How can this be when there is so much scientific evidence against it?” In his article “There is No Such Thing as Race”, Sussman presents a list, which includes a diversity of attributes, capacities, dispositions and the like, that many Americans continue to associate with racial differences.
For instance, many people still believe that race (independent of social and other forces) heavily factors into intelligence, work ethics/ abilities, sexual behavior, infant care, personal restraint, aggression, altruism, and family cohesion. Sussman claims that “we humans are more similar to each other as a group than we are to one another within any particular racial or genetic category.” Therefore, despite the wealth of data that reveals the overwhelming similarities between members of different races, thereby suggesting that racial differences don’t really amount to much more than just skin color (independent of social forces), people continue to hold certain attitudes and exhibit certain behaviors that would suggest otherwise. 
A similar phenomenon exists with our attitudes and beliefs towards most animals. Although historically humans and animals were thought to be discontinuous entities [humans have souls while animals are soulless (and thus, can’t be “saved”. .. though they can be possessed by the devil, apparently, not to mention tried in court), humans have minds while animals are mere machine-like automatons] it is nowadays more or less accepted that variations among species are best understood as differences in degree, not kind.
Moreover, despite differences in degree, many different species share in activities, behaviors and capacities initially thought to be exclusively in the province of homo sapiens. For instance philosopher Cary Wolfe notes
[PBS] and cable television- most recently in the big budget PBS series on “the animal mind” hosted by Nature executive producer George Page- have made standard fare out of one study after another convincingly demonstrating that the traditionally distinctive marks of the human (first it was possession of a soul, then “reason”, then tool use, then tool making, then altruism, then language, then the production of linguistic novelty, and so on) flourish quite reliably beyond the species barrier. 
Similarly, famous ecology and evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff, who co-founded Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals with Jane Goodall, remarked in his 2011 article for Psychology Today “Animal Minds and the Foible of Human Exceptionalism”: “The database grows daily and science is supporting many of our intuitions about the cognitive, emotional, and moral capacities for complex forms of consciousness.”
Bekoff goes on to say:
“We’re clearly neither the only conscious beings nor the sole occupants of the emotional and moral arenas in which there are also some surprising residents including honeybees, fish, and chickens. Surely we have no right to intrude wantonly into the lives of other animals or to judge them or blame them for our evil ways.”
So, a wealth of data exists which, in the case of racism, dispels the myth that people of color are somehow deeply or essentially distinct from white people. In the case of what is commonly referred to as speciesism, the data dispels the myth that animals are irredeemably foreign or dissimilar to us in their capacities, activities and interests. But despite this data, racism and speciesism remain fully entrenched in our society. 
There is an obvious activist component to many of these studies searching for and revealing meaningful similarities among presumably “different” beings.  That is, those of us who wish to ensure visibility, protection and justice for marginalized, oppressed and/or exploited groups assume that pointing to and proving robust similarities between the oppressed group in question and the dominant group will give the dominant group less reason to continue harming them or less comfort in being complicit with harms.
As a result, drawing connections between the behaviors, characteristics, interests and capacities of marginalized and dominant beings is supposed to offer reliable grounds for growing marginalized beings’ rights or calling for their justice.  As Wolfe puts it with respect to animals:
In the light of developments in cognitive science, ethology, and other fields over the past twenty years. . . it seems clear that there is no longer any good reason to take it for granted that the theoretical, ethical, and political question of the subject is automatically coterminous with the species distinction between Homo Sapiens and everything else. 
Now, there are many things to be said here. For instance, most studies require rigorous interpretive work which may lead to conclusions hard to accept, especially in studies concerning animals. I’m going to overlook the interpretive issue and grant, for the sake of simplicity, that they do in fact present compelling reasons for thinking there is substantial overlap between human and animal capacities, social behaviors, interests, etc. On a different note, that differences between groups of beings issue in judgments about inferiority and superiority is a research project of its own.
But what I am mostly concerned with here is the presupposition that if we- a dominant group- neglect certain beings, or fail to extend to them rights/ other sorts of protections or if we systematically harm those beings, then it must have something to do with the fact that they are “not like us” in relevant ways.
In other words, I believe that the popular move to stress marginalized and dominant groups’ similarities and to minimize their differences is motivated by the implicit assumption that these presumed differences are fueling the disparity in treatment. So, by proving a meaningful continuity between these groups or proving that they are significantly alike in ways that are important to the dominant group, we thereby lose reasons for differential allocation of resources or protections, etc and effect a change in treatment owed to the marginalized group in question.
For instance, one of the most common responses to careless, racist claims is to appeal to scientific studies (natural and/or social) in order to assert that, fundamentally, “we are all the same”. Another popular way to respond to racist claims might involve acknowledging the wide disparities between IQ levels, income, incarceration rates, and so on among different racial groups but to stress that all of these would be relatively equivalent had the economic, political and historical context for certain people of color been different.  Or consider the work of Cheikh Anta Diop, famed physicist, historian and anthropologist, which, among other things, set out to show that pre-colonial Africans had similar intellectual and artistic values and standards as Europeans and shared in the legacy of forming great civilizations and producing great works of art, science and the like. 
Cheikh Anta Diop
Now, I certainly think there is great value in some studies that show we’ve been exaggerating differences between groups or that we have been ignoring significant similarities. I also believe that, fundamentally, we are “all the same” and I agree that, had the economic, political, social and historical context been different, the various disparities we observe between racial groups would be less pronounced, if present at all. Also, I don’t dispute the results that follow from Diop’s research.
I also think it’s worth mentioning that of course there were and continue to be projects deeply invested in emphasizing or inventing distinctions among groups precisely for the purpose of perpetuating exploitation and oppression.
What I take issue with is the assumption that phenomena like racism or speciesism (not to mention other pernicious -isms) is caused by or can be explained by appealing to data (real or imagined) about differences in capacities, intelligence, behaviors, features, etc. Certainly, given the amount of effort placed into creating or stressing differences among groups, this type of information (again, real or fabricated) plays a role in helping to maintain and especially to make normal specific oppressions and exploitation. But it is not where the phenomena of racism, speciesism, and other -isms bottom out.
Philosopher Cora Diamond, who is deeply invested in the animal situation, distinguishes differences between humans and animals and the difference between humans and animals. While the sciences can speak to the former, the latter is established by “an idea that we form, a concept we create knowing full well the obvious similarities between us. . . It’s not a difference we discover because of ethology or evolutionary history.” Thus, while learning more about the bodies, minds and social environments of animals might minimize the differences between humans and animals, it doesn’t follow that the difference is also diffused.
In other words, the difference between humans and animals, the crucial factor which fuels the phenomena of speciesism, was not born from the observation that animals are irredeemably foreign or dissimilar to us. In fact, Diamond points to the contrary (“[the difference] is a concept we create knowing full well the obvious similarities between us…”).
These claims, which come from Diamond’s famous and absolutely-must-read 1978 paper “Eating Meat and Eating People”, center her view that typical intellectual animal rights arguments are neither effective (on the large scale) nor do they get to the heart of why animal exploitation, torture and slaughter happen. The “difference” is, in the case of humans and animals, created by us as a functional device. As a result, many terms which are animal specific carry within them the parameters for how to treat that being. Appealing to anything external, such as their capacity to suffer, misses the force of concepts and how they function.
For example, simply calling someone an “animal” or “non-human” is many times enough to justify extreme violence towards that person. The justification is in the choice of that term itself. There is no need to appeal to anything external. Or, as Diamond points out, simply calling someone a “person” denotes that it is not the kind of thing to be eaten. By simply choosing the term “person” as the right term for a certain being, you thereby grasp that you cannot eat them.
I think something similar occurs with racial terms. Philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon argued in his groundbreaking book Black Skin, White Masks that racializing beings actually constructs bodies and psyches. It’s not the case that the presumed inferiority of the African was observed or located in the actual body. Rather, the inferiority is locked into and is, part and parcel of the racial label of “negro” or “black” and the system which gave rise to the label. The “black” or “negro” is the location and source of the African’s inferiority, where the “blackness” is fictive– a creation by Western Europeans.
Since the site of the difference between “whites” and “blacks” does not reside in actual differences between the groups, all of the data in the world will do nothing to dissolve racism. Natural and social scientific data draw on actual, real bodies, behaviors, capacities, interests, etc.  Racism, however, draws on the created raced body. So, while it might help the racist cause to stress differences between groups, emphasizing similarities won’t do much to alleviate racism.
I think a more effective way to address these type of phenomena, which stem from a fictional difference (Diamond’s the difference) is to first, reveal the source of the fiction and then, second, uproot the source by changing the terms of the conversation.  If white supremacy, which authored the racial classification system during its colonial infancy, is the source, how do we uproot it?
I propose we change the terms of the conversation by refusing to center whiteness in our lives and work. I explored this topic here already but, in short, this basically means we need to take seriously non-white theoretical constructs and frameworks and use these to change our understanding of the world, others and ourselves. These theoretical models take white supremacy and white superiority as a starting point, as a reality, and as the fundamental threat to justice everywhere. I also think de-centering whiteness requires taking seriously non-white art, literature, music, systems of belief, and other rituals as a way of re-imagining the world outside of the constraints developed by white supremacy.
As I’ve argued in a previous post, I think refusing to center whiteness also encourages us to move away from the human-animal divide.  Since I’ve already explored this topic at length, I invite you to read through the linked post at your convenience.
Of course, the title to this piece (“Emphasizing Similarities Does Nothing For the Oppressed”) might be too forceful. Ultimately, it’s an empirical matter whether or not this or that strategy works. And also I don’t necessarily think there’s one strategy that is the strategy for effectively addressing matters like racism or speciesism. Having said that, I hope drawing attention to the conceptual and invented roots of these phenomena will spark more commitment to actively de-link ourselves from the Eurocentric, white-supremacist imagination.
 I am using “race”, “racial differences”, etc in the most diluted way possible, obviously.
 From the introduction to Wolfe’s Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (2003). For those interested in the animal issue, Wolfe is a great resource. His philosophical work seeks to undermine the constant threat of humanism that appears even in animal rights discourse. For example, the first chapter for his Animal Rites argues that “[o]ne of the central ironies of animal rights philosophy is that its philosophical framework remains essentially humanist in its most important philosophers (utilitarianism in Peter Singer, neo-Kantianism in Tom Regan), thus effacing the very difference of the animal other that it sought to respect.” (8) (See: “Old Orders for New: Ecology, Animal Rights, and the Poverty of Humanism”.) Unfortunately, however, Wolfe heavily relies on French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who is notoriously difficult to follow.
 Of course, this is observable with lots of other phenomena as well, such as sexism.
 This is one among many motivations, but the one I’m interested in here.
 Other traditional status-markers can be added to the list. For the sake of brevity, I just listed the ones that are usually mentioned.
 I included the IQ consideration because this is such a hot button for many people. Personally, though, I think we should keep in mind that IQ stuff is mostly bullshit
 Contrast with surrealist Aime Cesaire.
 That’s not to say that natural and the social sciences don’t have their own problems when it comes to “studying” or “researching” beings but I won’t go into that here.
 I borrow this suggestion and phrasing from decolonial thinker Walter Mignolo.
 I was very pleased to recently learn that Caribbean decolonial scholar, Sylvia Wynter, argues that the notion of “the objective human” which she describes as “the overrepresentation of man”, must be uprooted if we are to ever unsettle coloniality (the long-lasting effects of white colonial rule). As a result, she describes being human as a praxis as opposed to a noun. See her article “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation — An Argument.” CR: The New Centennial Review, Volume 3, Number 3, Fall 2003, pp. 257-337.