Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Fallacy of Race

I did some writing -- or threatening - a while back to discuss the concept "race", as a political term.

Before I get into this blog, I want it clear that I DO intend to make you think and I hope that you will do some reading or writing or something that is not at all like buying into a long-term, unchallenged political construct that has caused and continues to cause unending misery and chaos planet-wide.

I come from a mixed family, meaning that from as always as I can remember, there have been people of every skin colour and ethnic background possible in our family or attached to our family or somehow in our lives.

So what? Well, see, when you grow up like that, you realise that skin, like any other body organ, does not define a person. You also see skin as nothing other than the stuff that holds your guts in.

It takes a long time -- and usually an unenlightened adult -- to even make you aware that there is anything particularly different about the people in your family. It took a long time to even really understand that these people were not my family members in the north American way of thinking. It's like kids who have really ugly parents: until someone points it out to them, those kids don't even think about how their parents look. They're just mom/dad. What they look like doesn't enter into the picture.

So, some years ago, whilst having a discussion with my then-mother-in-law about my mixed family and their 'race', as she put it, I mentioned the fact that the term 'race' serves a divisive political construct. She, not being particularly educated, nor interested in much beyond sending money to televangelists, told me I was spoiled and that I read too much. Wow. Touché!

I realised, however, from her defensive comment, that she (and lots and lots of people) didn't want to consider how they think about things because that might cause reconsideration and, for some reason - probably because it would turn their world on its head - that would be bad.... Hence the defensive comment.

She was right in saying that I read too much (is there such a thing as too much reading?). While in college, I had happily discovered Stephen J. Gould, who taught at Harvard and wrote wonderful, thoughtful essays about all things evolutionary. One of these essays, in "Dinosaur in a Haystack" deals specifically with this ridiculous idea of race being anything real. The essay is much more profound than I might make it seem here, so forgive my simplifying: a point I remember specifically from the essay had to do with mitochondrial DNA and how there are some 32 markers that occur in the population worldwide that are NOT specific to anyone's skin colour, religion or country of origin.

What this means is that, regardless of your skin colour, you probably share these DNA markers with millions of people who are completely unlike you in respect to their hair/skin/colour/ethnicity. Somewhere along the line, Mr. and Mrs. Racist, you originated from the same mother as everyone else did and that mother came from somewhere in Africa. You might call her Eve, but she's the same mom every modern human has in common. The likelihood that she was a blond, blue-eyed person is, well,... there's no likelihood.

So how did we get to the point of separating humans along the lines of what colour their exterior organs are?

It is true that what we don't understand scares the crap out of us and also true, for most people at least, that we'd rather kill what we don't understand (fight) or run away and hide under a rock (flight). In the case of people who look and act differently, back in the good old days, we started by killing them (we being people of every type in every corner of the world). Later, we realised that those different people might be better at lifting the heavy stuff and being sweaty and working hard, so we just turned them into slaves, destroyed their families, their family structure, their culture and language and did that via the use of a divisive term: race, otherwise known as "those people".

As it did then and continues to do, defining people on the basis of their skin colour and calling that 'race' serves the ruling class by separating people from each other and diverting their attention from other really important stuff -- like their previous Prime Minister spending billions paying "advertising companies" to promote Canada, or their President spending $40 million on a one-day party in a country where illiteracy is rampant.

Race has nothing to do with skin colour, really. Take Rwanda for instance. From where I sit, two groups of people in a country whose people are almost all dark skinned, decided to kill each other. Those people somehow managed to see each other as different 'races'. Really, it was a huge, terrible, devastating political power play that left a lot of people dead and millions more totally confused and incapable of trusting anyone. The conflict also slaughtered the country's economy.

In reality, there is no such thing as race. There is no difference under the skin between people whose skin colour differs. In fact, according to William Marples, a forensic anthropologist, it is largely impossible, in the absence of any external clues, to determine the 'race' of a skeleton.

Skin colour is an adaptive feature. It simply made evolutionary/biological sense for humans to adapt to the heat/cold/environment they lived in, way back when.

Why don't people morph now, you ask? What has happened to the evolutionary process? Well, as points out Dr. Gould in another of his essays (same book), when the animal cannot act on its environment, its biology will undergo change. Where the animal CAN act on its environment, and can control the variables, certain adaptive changes become unnecessary. So, if you're living in the Australian outback, in constant sun, your hair and skin don't have to evolve 'cause you can get a hat and a T-shirt.

I would argue, however, that as we live in such a polluted world, our bodies have adapted -- evolved, if you will -- to accommodate pollution. We've also evolved to handle diseases that would have killed entire populations in days gone by, but which make us only mildly ill. So yes, the evolutionary process is still at work.

As for race, though, back in the day, many terrified, uneducated people, who, confronted with people who were vastly different than they, dealt with their fear and ignorance by subjugating or killing those they feared.

A note about that lack of education: by no means can those people way back when be faulted for being terrified when coming across others who were different and probably scary looking. No TV/radio/internet meant that a person could go their whole lives believing that all people looked as they did and never seeing anything to counter that knowledge.

In modern times - our times-- it is inexcusable to separate humans based on what we know scientifically to be a non-starter. There is one 'race,' being human, which is comprised of a zillion different types of hair, eyes, noses, face shapes and skin colours.

One argument suggested to me to establish the reality of 'race' is that certain diseases are more common in certain 'racial' groups. On the face of it, yes, some are; but this argument breaks down because those diseases can be passed on outside of those groups. The only real argument about diseases being more common with one group or another has to do with genetics: some family groups have a greater incidence of certain diseases but if those family groups mix with other family groups who have completely dissimilar characteristics, and who do not have a propensity to a certain disease, that disease can still be passed along into the progeny of this new blend. No disease that is specific to any one 'race' because the genetic markers for the disease can be passed on.

Just because something is more common with some people doesn't make 'race' a reality: it just means that people have more closely shared a bunch of genes. If that were the case, then fat people who are prone to heart disease would be a 'race.'

If people recognized they've been had by the machine and chose to disregard the political construct 'race,' it would be so much more difficult for those in political power to divert people's attention from more significant issues. Imagine if we didn't say "That's a black issue" or "That's a White issue," or "That's an Oriental issue," but if we said, "This concerns all of us and we're pissed off about it."

This is the challenge: consider how the term 'race' has been used to manipulate you, how you act, and vote; how you view political issues, and issues specific to identifiable groups; what effect and cost the establishment of special interest groups (those formed on the basis of physical characteristics) has on your local, provincial/state, and national government.

Here's the other challenge: choose to be blind to 'race'.


  1. I prefer the term breed to race. We are all one race because we can all mate. A subgroup of race or species would be breed.
    That said I do disagree about kids not noticing skin colour. I too have a mixed race family and I notice my kids who are mixed, very early started to discuss the fact that they were either brown or white. They also had at different times a preference that they did not hesitate to share. It is only as they get older that they have come to understand that they are both or else something new and that it is not important but definatly at times when they were younger they on their own expressed a clear preference.

  2. I agree with your point about 'breed,' except that I think most humans don't acknowledge their relationship to other animals and so would be insulted by the term.

    Interesting about your kids. I wonder how much environment has to do with it. The city I live in, and the country, have a very different culture related to skin colour. We tell ourselves that 'racism' isn't as pronounced here, and we certainly don't have the elephant-in-the-room of slavery, but I very much feel the difference in attitudes when we travel to the US or the UK. Huge differences there.

    Thanks very much for your comments. I hope you enjoyed the column and I hope you will have a look through this blog. My first two blog entries are on child-rearing related issues.


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