The erasure of race in genetics

“Race doesn’t exist.”

I remember the first time I heard this.  I was in my evolution class in undergrad.  My professor pulled up a picture of two subspecies of bird.  They looked exactly alike, and my professor mentioned that there is less genetic diversity between humans than between these two identical looking subspecies of bird.  Then he said it.  Race doesn’t exist.

My partner happened to be taking the class with me.  She might have been falling asleep that lecture, we were always running on just a couple hours of sleep and the dim lights didn’t help.  Or she might have been in a deep state of concentration.  Either way, we made eye contact, and I knew we’d be discussing it once class was over.

 

What does it mean?

When evolutionary types say this, they are talking about genetic diversity.  You’ve probably heard that we share over 99% of our genome with chimpanzees.  Well, we share even more with each other.  In fact, there are an estimated 10-12 million bases that differ (called single nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs) in our 3 billion base long genome.   Usually, the word “race” in genetics is reserved for subspecies.  And since every definition constitutes the “human race” as one species, “race” among humans doesn’t exist.

This is just a scientific fact.

 

So where’s the problem?

The problem is that while race as defined by genetics doesn’t exist, race as defined by society does.  We can try to tell people to use other words, like ethnicity, instead, but the problems are still there.

Racism is a huge problem in the world.  The color of one’s skin is often the primary mode of discrimination.  This is not what today’s blog is about.  If you think racism isn’t a problem, you are sadly mistaken.  I recommend doing some outside reading.

What this blog post is about is science’s view of race, specifically biologists, and even more specifically, those who study evolution.  I did 4 years of research in evolution during my undergrad, and these biologists have very big hearts.  These are the kinds of people who believe we are all equal and that racism shouldn’t exist.

But, what effect does saying race doesn’t exist have?  I’ve heard from one that I asked, that if people knew we were more alike than different, racism wouldn’t exist.

Ask that same question to someone from a racial minority, and you might get a different answer.  I asked a couple people, and received an interesting answer from both.  An answer that reeks of feeling like their struggles aren’t real, that no one cares about them, and that their experiences are being erased.  Both of these people happened to be fellow undergraduate students, both who happened to leave science after graduation.  For all the good intent that goes into saying “race isn’t real”, it does harm.  At the very least, it may make people feel like they don’t belong.  At worst, it could make someone feel disempowered and as if they will never make it.

 

What’s the answer?

Oh no, are you asking me for an answer to racism?  Wow…that’s…I think if someone like me could answer that, we’d have long had an answer from those far more brilliant.

What I can say is, trying to use science that people barely understand to combat something that is most often attributed to lack of education about others isn’t the best way to stop racism.  Telling someone who has been taught that dark skinned people are evil that science disagrees is unlikely to change their mind.  In fact, my personal belief is that we need to stop using “we’re all the same” as an excuse to be nice to one another.  It implicitly states that we can only get along if we are similar.

I actually believe in a state of being where we promote diversity under a common moral standard of respect.  Despite a rather small genetic diversity compared to many of nature’s species, we have a lot of cultural diversity.  We have a spectrum of moral diversity.  We should celebrate this.

Working an advocacy organization within my undergraduate institution, though a local project, gave me an insight into a profound way of reaching this common moral standard.  It’s as simple as meeting people who are different than you.  If you get people from wildly different backgrounds into the same room, not talking about issues, but instead just having fun, this creates a connection.  A realization that the others in the room are living, breathing, real people and not just concepts of evil.  In contrast to what I said earlier, this often comes with finding out there is some common ground.

 

 

So what should I say instead?

I wish we could use hard science to win every argument and make the world a better place, but we need better tactics to combat this.  Personal stories can be powerful, and you can use them to explain to discriminators the goodness of others.

DOs

  • Do speak from your own experiences.  Talk about your personal experiences with people of color.  Don’t have many?  Well, go out and get active.  Help out at a Black Lives Matter event.  Go to cultural food festivals and meet and eat.
  • Do speak out if you hear something racist, even if it’s “harmless”.  Even if it’s a positive stereotype.
  • Do get out and meet people not like you.  If you look around and everyone around you is the same color, same religion, comes from the same economic class as you….you’re missing out!
  • Do watch videos from people of color and allow that to help you start to understand things they go through on a daily basis.

DON’Ts

  • Don’t act like that one black person you know represents all black people.
  • Don’t use “all ___ people”, ever.
  • Don’t get into arguments that you know little about.  Trying to defend something you know nothing about won’t help anyone.
  • Don’t use “race doesn’t exist” as an excuse for why racism is bad.
  • Don’t argue with anyone who won’t listen.

 

I could say so much more, but this is mostly just how to discuss issues of race without resorting to that old favorite “race doesn’t exist”.  Have you ever had to have this conversation with someone?  Have you ever changed someone’s mind?  What important Dos and Don’ts did I miss?  Share your thoughts in the comments.

 

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