Kicking the 'Race' Habit

We should be able to celebrate what is good in the world that surrounds us, but also to reject, adopt and create new ways of being.
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Federal law says that every student in a public school has to be classified by race. If parents or students refuse to check one of the five racial categories provided, the school will choose the race for them. Some parents object to having to classify their children by race, others object that their preferred label is not on the menu. Whatever the merit of monitoring in order to counter possible discrimination, we risk perpetuating a racialized worldview through our children.

When will we finally explore the myth of race in our society as unfortunate social fact and 19th century scientific fiction? There is now broad scientific consensus that race does not exist biologically. Certainly genetic variations are found more commonly (though not exclusively) in one population than another. But these differences do not equate to our everyday notion of race.

For many the existence of race seems obvious; just look at the incredible array of color that is humanity. But Nina Jablonski the author of Skin: A Natural History explains clearly how pigmentation changed with human migration out of Africa in adaptation to new environments. Nevertheless, we continue to associate outward appearance with inner qualities that divide us into distinct human groups. And we just can't make up our minds what those groups are. The criteria we use changes over time and culture.

Nell Irvin Painter's The History of White People provides a fascinating look at the different perceptions of whiteness throughout history. What was white in the United States in 1900, is not what is white today. Irish and Italians were not part of the Anglo-Saxon protestant view of what constituted mainstream white American society. Some suggest that Hispanics of 'European' descent might go through a similar process.

Ethnicity is equally tricky. It is formed by a set of beliefs about a common ancestry (rather than on 'biology'). The ancestry is decided by going back only so far as it fits the ethnic narrative (otherwise ultimately we're all African) and only along the particular lineages that support the ethnic myth. The mathematics of any one person's ancestry makes uniform ethnic lineages difficult to support: two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, and within just 10 generations you have 2046 parental ancestors. To believe that with wars, migrations, the movement of populations, the tidal flow of empires, any one of us has a simple genealogy going back to one distinct primordial human grouping, is more personal preference than personal history.

Race is a social rather than biological fact. Ethnicity is the story we choose to believe about ourselves. Culture is often confused as being intrinsic to both of them. But the way we look does not determine our current culture or the culture that we will produce in the future. Neither culture nor religious persuasion is in our DNA, neither is synonymous with race or ethnicity. We are culture-bearing beings, but we are not perpetually bound by specific cultures through race or ethnicity. We should be able to celebrate what is good in the world that surrounds us, but also to reject, adopt and create new ways of being.

People oppressed by a conceptual framework of race or ethnicity, use the same framework to fight that oppression. Identity works both ways, to oppress and to resist. However, should there not be a time when our children are taught to distinguish the facts from the fiction? Just as I have a problem with the creation myth being taught as science, I feel the same about race and ethnicity being treated as self-evident. It is possible to be aware that our lives are affected by people's continuing belief in and attachment to race and ethnicity, while at the same time knowing that the evidence shows us to be of a common humanity. If we taught this to our children, they could be prepared for the narrow labels that will be thrust upon them, but they might refrain from imposing those labels on themselves or others. They might one day have the choice to check "human" on the census form.

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