With the recent increase in folks’ throwing shade and swastikas on other people’s ethnicities, I thought I’d take a moment to remind us all that racial purity is as fictional as Draco Malfoy. Here are four reasons why race categories don’t mean what you think they do.
There are No Clear Racial Divides: Like water, human genetics flow around the world, sometimes pooling up in isolated places but never really disconnected from everyone else. American genetics are no different. If there are pools of particularly briny water, or mosquito-laden water, or salt-free water, it’s because that water has been temporarily isolated from the free flow of water around the world. It is never completely disconnected, and it is never completely pure. Even the clearest flowing natural spring water has animal feces in it.
Racial Categories Change over Time: Those of us who think race is obvious are often surprised to find that what we think of as clear racial groups today look nothing like racial groups in the past. There was no racial/ethnic/identity group called “African American” 500 years ago or “American Indian” 30,000 years ago. Why? Because those groups didn’t occupy those lands then. There were no “Europeans” or “Asians” 900 years ago because people on those continents did not see themselves as part of a broader group – they saw themselves as part of specific cultural groups that were distinct from other surrounding groups: Anglo-Saxon, Ainu, Zoroastrian, etc.
Ask a Different Girl, Get a Different Set of Racial Categories: “Americans are so racist,” said a dark skinned man from the Dominican Republic in a 1990s series on The Americas. “When I went to America everyone treated me like I was black.” Depending on where you are from, you will divide up the population into different categories that match your worldview and your particular concerns. In the Dominican Republic, the documentary continued, there are numerous labels that people of African descent use to place themselves racially. The word “black” is reserved for neighboring Haitians, whom the Dominicans see as very different from themselves culturally, religiously, and racially. In the United States under Jim Crow laws, states defined blackness differently; you were black if your heritage was 1/8th or 1/16th or one drop of African descent. How obvious can race be if your race changes when you cross state lines?
The Proof is in the (Blood) Pudding: The science has been conclusive for a long time now, but the message clearly hasn’t reached all of us. So let me restate it here. (ahem) There is no biological basis for race. Perhaps you didn’t hear me. I’ll repeat. THERE IS NO BIOLOGICAL BASIS FOR RACE. We think we can spot a person from a particular race so easily, like there is a checklist for “black” or “Caucasian” or “Arabic”. If it was so easy to distinguish Jews from Aryans, then why did Hitler force Jews to wear yellow Stars of David? Wouldn’t it be obvious which people were Jewish and which weren’t? Why were those Jim Crow laws necessary at all? Can’t you spot a black person or white person from across the room? NO YOU CAN’T. At least not always. As stated above, human genetic flow is a bit like water flow. There are no clear lines where one body of water ends and another starts.
Also like water, you can’t tell what people are made of just by looking at them. Dark or light skin, blue or brown eyes, curly or silky hair, tall or short, stocky or slender, these are traits that cross all racial categories. Pick any one of these traits, like skin color, and it will cross over numerous genetic populations. Further, you cannot correlate intelligence, athleticism, criminal tendencies, organizational skills, or flower arranging ability to a “race”. There may be some families that pass down skills and inherited traits, but these don’t map over skin tone or broad geographical regions.
The short version? You cannot tell someone’s biological make-up by looking at them. The problem? We think we can, so we make snap decisions based on how we perceive race.
And this is what makes talking about race so difficult. As Anthropologist Charles Keyes said, “Race doesn’t exist. Racism does.” Racism exists because we group people together then think that those categories help us understand people without getting to know them.
So let’s abandon our need for purity and perhaps reframe race as one of connection and identity. How connected or isolated are you to others through your heritage? How do (or don’t) your genetics or your appearance match up with how you see yourself? Do you feel connected to others in other ways?