Guess what I do almost every time race and racism are discussed in popular culture. I groan and turn away in discomfort. The curse of an anthropology education makes me painfully aware of how clueless politicians, writers, broadcasters, and virtually everyone else are on this topic. Whenever some celebrity utters the dreaded N-word or a person of one race does something horrible to a person of another race, the voices of authority take center stage and call for understanding, love and cooperation between races.
Blah, blah, blah.
Such reactions to race problems may feel nice and do some good but they are too shallow to be effective long-term. The problem is that they completely miss the core problem, which is race belief itself. Races are not naturally occurring subspecies of human beings. They are the artificial creations of our cultures. Therefore, attempting to solve the problem of racism by asking for tolerance between races is like turning up the air conditioner in a burning house because you don’t like the temperature. Overt racism and all other destructive but less obvious race problems are unlikely to ever go away no matter how much love and tolerance we pour on the fire. What is needed is a game-changer, an awakening to the reality of who we are as revealed by science.
The critical problem with biological races is the claim that we are all inherently limited or empowered based on our birth into a unique genetic group that contains millions of other similar people. Many good people who champion racial equality and would not be considered racists carry this destructive belief in their heads. But it can’t be true because the groups themselves are unnatural, inconsistent and illogical. The biological race group called “black people”, for example, makes no sense because of the deep genetic diversity within it. Two randomly selected “black” people from Africa, the Caribbean or elsewhere are likely to be more distantly related to one another than any one of them is to a typical “white” European.
We are not seven billion clones. The rejection of biological races is not a denial of the biological diversity that exists in our species. Nor is it an attempt to bring people together through political correctness or the denial of real cultural differences. That would be dishonest and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t work. This is about growing up and facing the reality of who we are and the ways in which we are related to one another. Sure some have more gifts or limitations than others and, sure, some very small pockets of humanity have relatively higher or lower rates of some genes. But no real walls divide us, only imagined ones. It doesn’t matter how many of us believe in races; humankind does not naturally separate into four, five or several biological races.
Don’t pin this on nature or the gods. We have only ourselves to blame. Anthropologists have been pointing out that races are cultural creations for more than fifty years. Unfortunately the general public never got the memo. But forget the herd’s direction and make sure you see biological races for what they are. It is vital to have a sensible view of your relationship with the greater human family. Simply put, race belief has no place in the mind of an enlightened 21st century person.
The following are four quick and easy concepts I often deploy during lectures and interviews about race. These simple mental adjustments can help anyone think more clearly on this topic. Learn them, remember them, and please share them.
1. The police lineup in your head. By far, the most common objection I hear to the rejection of biological races comes from what I call the “mental police lineup”. It’s easy to imagine a dark-skinned African, a light-skinned European, and a typical Japanese or Chinese person all standing side-by-side. The visible contrast is so great, I’m often told, that races must be real. There is an easy answer to this popular defense of the race concept, however.
The world’s population cannot be reduced to a three-person lineup. The comparison is a staged deception. What if I presented to you a seven-foot-tall person and a five-foot-tall person? Would that prove to you that humankind is divided into two biological races, a tall race and short race? Of course not. You would know immediately that it’s silly because you have not been taught in childhood to believe in a short and tall race. You also would probably think of all the people of varying heights who fit between the extreme examples and betray the illusion of two races. It should be no different for race. Billions of other people are no less human or less representative of the species than those three, four or five hypothetical delegates that seem to always pop up in the minds of race believers. Squeeze all of us into that police lineup and the “obvious” breaks between races become impossible to find.
2. Strange boxes. Let’s imagine six huge “race boxes” into which a giant sorts and tosses all humans based on personal family histories and observable traits such as skin color and hair type. All seems to be going well for the giant at first, but soon it becomes apparent that there are a couple of problems. First, he’s wildly inconsistent with his assumptions about family histories. Turns out, it’s really hard to glance at people and determine their genetic pasts stretching back hundreds and thousands of years. But an even greater problem is that these race containers are not what we normally think of as boxes because they don’t seem to have any bottoms, tops, or sides. The giant’s race bins are either imaginary or so porous as to be meaninglessness.
Meanwhile, the people in the boxes don’t hesitate to take advantage of the situation. Every time the giant looks the other away, significant numbers of people run as fast as they can to an adjacent box where many of them promptly make babies with whomever they find in there that appeals to them. After generations of these shenanigans, those physical traits, and genetic histories that mattered so much to the giant are muddled beyond hope of repair. He continues believing that his boxes do the job but the reality is that they may as well not even be there—just like our biological race categories.
3. Cultural doesn’t necessarily mean natural. How many oceans are there? Depending on how well you did in geography class, you likely answered four or five. There correct answer is five: Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Southern, and Arctic, right? No, wait, that’s not correct! That is the cultural answer. Five is the number of oceans we made up. Nature’s answer, the real number of oceans, is one. Look at a globe and you will find one large continuous body of saltwater. Nature did not separate it into five unique and isolated bodies of water. We did, in our minds. Today we know the names of “different” ocean and think of them as naturally separate. The adults teach the children to believe in them rather than the one that exists in nature so that five-ocean world comes to be “obvious” and “common sense”. Does any of this sound familiar?
4. Time and place reveal the lie. Careful observations across societies expose the rules of race for the absurdities they are. How people get assigned to one racial group or another is nothing more than a cultural game having little to do with nature, logic or reality. The same is true across time.
Let’s pretend you are a “white” Irishman living in New York City. I just stuffed you into my time machine and sent you back about 170 years. Surprise! You aren’t quite “white” anymore. Yes, there was a time in US history when light-skinned Irish people were not members of the “white” race. Good luck finding a decent job and apartment.
If time travel is too much of a stretch, try this: Imagine you are a light-skinned “black” American on a yacht bound for Brazil. When you dock something odd happens. Surprise! You aren’t “black” anymore. How did this happen? What form of magic changes a person’s race at sea? I saw this bizarre phenomenon first-hand when I lived in the Caribbean. Some of my friends there were not “black”, according to local race rules. Whenever they flew to Florida to do some shopping, however, they somehow turned into “black” people. So how does biological race—supposedly having everything to do with blood, genes, physical appearance, and thousands of years of ancestry—change so easily? It happens because races are based on made-up cultural rules rather than on nature’s realities.
Do you believe in Christmas miracles? A light-skinned Hatian I dated for a while during my college days made me a believer. She was stunningly beautiful but that wasn’t the most interesting thing about her. She had the bizarre ability to change her race every year at Christmas time. How did she do it? She went home to visit her family. That’s all. No blood transfusions or rewriting of the family tree needed. She just went home. She could pull off this improbable feat because she is light-skinned with at least some recognizable “black” facial features. This makes her “black”, according to the one-drop rule in the US. But in Haiti the one-drop rule is reversed. She becomes “white” in Haiti because she is light-skinned with some recognizable “white” features. We can’t say that one culture is doing it right and the other wrong because all of it is based on nonsense.
There is good news associated with the world’s race problems. Lasting solutions are likely to be much easier to come by than we have been led to believe. We do not have to impose integration and force cooperation between groups of biological aliens. “We” do not have to tolerate “them” because there is really only an “us” that has been deceptively separated by the whims of our sometimes crazed and stupid cultures. All we need to do is accept the reality of who we are and biological race problems will wither and die. Of course we’ll still have plenty of cultural divisions to contend with. The reality based perspective of a raceless humankind won’t usher in an age of peace and happiness for all, but it certainly should help things along.
It is sad that unscientific thinking about our world and universe is common. It is particularly tragic, however, when we fail even to accept what science reveals about ourselves. Given the harm and burdens of race belief, we should have crossed this bridge long ago. Fortunately it’s never too late to wake up and become fully human. Every new day is a good day to join the human species.
–Guy P. Harrison is the author of five books that promote science and reason, including Race and Reality: What everyone should know about our biological diversity. His latest book is Think: Why you should question everything.
Recommended sources on race
“Statement on Race” (American Anthropological Association)
Race: Are we so different? (Web project of the American Anthropological Association)
Journey of Man (dvd)
The Human Family Tree (dvd)