MLK Day Special: Race. A Mistaken Belief?

2011/01/17
By Andrei

Look around you and you can see that there is a vast difference in human skin tones. Now, if we were to categorize these differences we end up with the concept of “race”, but are these differences really significant enough to divide human beings into separate categories?

Students of different "races" at my school

Today upon asking my parents, who were raised for the majority of their lives in a communist country, if they believed in the concept of race, they responded by saying “of course”. I then proceeded to ask my brother, who was born in the United States and is now 12 years of age, and he too shared the same idea as my parents. I asked him to define race which he described as a difference in skin color.  Then, I gave him a situation where if I, a Caucasian male, were to tan to the point where I appeared brown, was I still considered Caucasian although I resembled a Hispanic? He responded by saying that I still should be considered white.

Race, with multiple non-coherent definitions on the web, always seems to be a topic that people elude and define very vaguely, the majority saying that the definition of race varies across cultures (what we consider as “white” is not considered “white” in Africa for example) and overtime while others state it simply as the color of a person’s skin. This in return brings up the question, Does ‘race’ really exist?

Although race is a form of identity for people and it instills them with a form of pride, the negative effects of race seem to overlap the positive ones. Look at Social Darwinism. This concept was used to promote the thought that the white European race was superior to others, and therefore, destined to rule over them. Racism even in 2010 is not over. I mean it can’t end as long as we are allowed to believe and think what we do about race. Look at this site for example which states that “African-Americans are directly targeted and punished in a much more aggressive way than white people”. Is it surprising for you to learn that the police stop blacks and Latinos at rates that are much higher than whites?—about 80% of the NYPD stops were of blacks and Latinos—From these negative effects I get a feeling that race is just an excuse for people to disagree and fight.

Humans are said to be 99% identical to each other genetically. What this implies is that we are all born with a similar layout–arms, legs, ears, a brain, a heart–yet when it comes to filling out an application for a job or other occasion we are always posed a question to identify our race in order to define our demographics. Yes, it is true that we all come from different backgrounds–African-American, European, Japanese, Indian, Taiwanese, Chinese, Filipino, Mexican and Vietnamese to name a few—but in the end we are all linked to the same ancestor. So now ask yourself “What race am I?” Some of you might say Caucasian others Asian, but why do we have this misunderstanding of Race?

Look at it from a biological/scientific standpoint. The variation in skin color as a scientist might explain it is an adaptation by the human population mainly due to two major factors, physical barriers such as mountains and oceans and secondly climate. These foresaid barriers restrict interbreeding among people who have different genes, think about it, an Asian couple will mate and produce an Asian offspring, a Caucasian male mating with an African-American women however can produce either a Caucasian or African-American offspring. Climate on the other hand influences skin tone through exposure to sunlight. When the sun’s ultraviolet rays come in contact with your body, they begin to break down the DNA in your skin. In response, special cells called melanocytes release a pigment called melanin. The melanin turns your skin darker in an attempt to shield your skin from the sun’s rays and protect it from further harm.

As you can see “race” is just variations among humans (not genetically) and as a result we can’t justify the separation of “races”. Why believe in race when scientifically and biologically, which through facts and evidence such as the ones stated above, prove it doesn’t exist. I would understand if the concept of race improved our society but in my eyes it hasn’t, there is racism occurring in all parts of the world, people are dying as a result of this “difference” we see in people when in reality it’s just a belief rather than the truth.

Imagine a world without race, where people aren’t hypercritical of each other just because of the color of their skin, it almost sounds too good to be true. I believe that we must not be afraid to talk and teach about racism and one way to help change attitudes about race and defeat racism is to educate children about the historical problems that racism has caused, and let them know that the only way to stop racism is by changing their own attitude.

Although “race” is widely accepted all over the world I believe it’s only because scientists have failed to teach the public of the true concept and biology of “race”, but once the public becomes more informed I believe that a world without race can become a reality.

Why do people judge each other based on the color of their skin? Does your skin color determine your intellectual ability? Can you identify the skin color of a person from their genes? What do you think a world without race would be like?  Are you surprised by the following video?

  • http://ameliegourdon.wordpress.com/ Amélie Gourdon

    In French, my native language, we don’t talk about race. Only overtly racist people do, otherwise it is highly politically incorrect (which is slightly ironic given how we are not really politically correct people). We talk about people of different colours. I have therefore always been disturbed by the permanent use of the word “race” in English, including in scientific literature. However, even if we never talk about race in France, racism is still here. People are still prejudiced towards ethnic groups, and call them according to their geographic ascendance. More scientifically correct indeed, but this is nothing more than racism in a disguise, or at best categorization based on superficial and irrelevant features. Because the sad reality is as follows. As I was reading your post, I realized that even if there was absolutely no way to linguistically categorize people based on skin colour / ethnicity, we as human beings are such in a need to find order in the world that we would anyway categorize people based on the first thing we see, i.e. physical features. Colours included. It’s a bit like populations whom language does not define as many colours as our European languages: even if they can’t name the colours, they still can distinguish them. I don’t want to be over-cynical but it goes as far as having implicit tendencies to racism, even when you have friends of all colours and have nothing to prove on this matter. Have a look at psychology experiments using the Implicit Association Test if you want to know more (I will try to come back with references, but i am trying myself to finish a post and resist distraction). On a personal note, I date guys of different colours, I always have, but according to the last experiment I did on the cross-race effect, I am still crappier at distinguishing black faces from one another than at distinguishing white faces from one another. Here there is some room for hope though, as there is more and more evidence trending to say that this cross-race effect is about social context and exposure rather than perceptual constraints. So maybe if people mixed up more in their everyday life, we could observe a reduction of at least this bias.

    Apologies for being a killjoy on this one. To finish on a really positive note, your whole blog project just came to my “blog-oriented” attention and, even if I did not have time to push my exploration, I want to say it’s an amazing idea and your teacher rocks just for this!

  • http://twitter.com/phrasier Edward Kimble

    As my daughter would say, that 1% gene difference between humans lets me shoot water from under my tongue and have really long incisors, wheee!! On most days its purely anecdotal. As a teacher of 40 years the smartest students I’ve had were often part Cherokee Indian, from the Transylvania area of Czechoslovakia, or from the southern Congo but I’ve seen some pretty odd Cherokee and one fellow who was actually sot of green, part Mayan, part Chinese, and part black. Biochemical studies show the native people of Siberia and northern Africa who were involved in primarily animal herding for thousands of years have a much better ability to handle and clear trans fatty acids. The native farming peoples of Europe and southern Congo have some immune system advantages but are more prone to vitamin deficiency and artery disease caused by fats. Color though is not a factor in any of these things seeming only to indicate approximate latitude of some ancient ancestral group. People wonder endlessly, finding mates all over the globe. You might sometimes get a clue, a lot of Eskimo and Siberian folks don’t have big noses or ear lobes but some do and some of them can even shoot water from under their tongues! Some have double eyelids, some are double jointed, some can lift great weights, some can run, and some feel compelled to blog, saying pretty much nothing at all :-)

  • Natalie N

    In response to Andrei’s article, I would have to say that there is such a thing as race present in today’s society. In a search I did, I found a definition for race being physical characteristics, which can certainly be more than just skin color. Though genetically and scientifically there really isn’t such a thing as race, I feel as though there is no way to eliminate the notion of race completely. It is only natural to look at someone and notice that they are different from you, whether that difference is with skin color or hair color. It is this natural response that causes people to be classified as different races/ethnicities. In the sad reality of life, often people use these variations to justify superiority, causing strife between the different “races” or ethnic groups.
    One assumption the article makes is that people do not know why there are different skin tones. I feel as though with all of the recent news about sun exposure, the simple observation of where people with different skin tones originate from, and of course the obvious tanning that occurs with prolonged sun exposure, it is easy to postulate that different skin tones are caused by different amounts of sun exposure. I feel as though it would be safe to say that a large amount of the general population know that climate is one of the main reasons for differences in skin tone. With that being said, categorizing people by race still occurs. Though race is clearly a concept that was made up by humans, and has no scientific justification, I don’t see it ever being eliminated.

  • Ammar

    Andrei brought up some great points regarding race and its prevalence in today’s society. At one point, Andrei asks the reader to ponder a world without any “race”. However, I believe it is only in a Utopian society that race may be completely ignored. For whatever reason, people will always have a preference for one race over another. More often than not, this preference is for that person’s own race as opposed to another race. In other words, everyone is “racist” to a certain extent. Although we should not make any generalizations, it may be deduced that these prejudices are a result of the person’s upbringing as a child and are directly influenced by the child’s environment.

    This article does a fine job of clarifying to the reader that race is simply a variation in human beings. That is, one human is producing more melanin in their melanocytes than another given human. This is an extremely important distinction to make since the everyman in our society seemingly does not realize that there is no genetic difference between people with different skin colors. Rather, these people come from different geographical regions where the amount of sunlight differs and have adapted accordingly. Through natural selection, those people in environments with an abundance of sunlight who have darker skin are able to survive and reproduce since they are better suited for their environment. Similarly, those individuals who live in an area with relatively lower amounts of sunlight have lighter skin and are able to survive and reproduce under these circumstances.

    Racism has grown in our society and numerous stereotypes have formed as a result, as wonderfully evidenced by the video the article presents. Genetically speaking, a short black man shares more DNA with a short white man than he does with a tall black man. However, due to the stereotypes that have been imprinted in the minds of many people these days, including mine, almost everyone would be inclined to believe that the tall black man shares far more DNA with the short black man than he does with the white man. It must be the job of educators to clear up the misconceptions regarding race and its genetic roots. Although I strongly believe it is a bit unrealistic for racism to be completely eliminated from our society, preventative actions, such as providing stronger education, may be taken to alleviate the burden that racism is placing on the progression of our society.

  • Bridget O’Hara

    Andrei,
    I really enjoyed reading your article about race in relation to human genetics. I agree with your theory that if people were more educated on the subject matter, they wouldn’t judge others based on their skin color so quickly. In support of your argument, it is noteworthy add that skin color is polygenic, meaning that how light or how dark a person is depends on many genes in combination. Height, however, is even more polygenic than skin color. This is to say that two people that are close in height, no matter what their ‘race’ is are more likely to have more genes in common than just two people of the same ‘race.’ Another important point to make in support of the fact that ‘race’ does not really exist is the fact that skin color highly depends on the environment in which you live. Environmentally speaking, humans need both Vitamin D and folic acid to survive. In places where the sun is strong, human’s have darker skin to protect the bodies folic acid. Conversely, dark skin is a disadvantage in places where the sun is not as strong because it prevents the body from making Vitamin D.
    The above facts add scientific justification that race does not exist, and shows that there is variation amongst humans just as there is variation amongst every other species. In a perfect world, this evidence would eliminate racism. However, if racism were suppressed, human nature would lead to the discrimination of another trait instead. As sad as it is, this would defeat the purpose of using science to disprove a common misconception.

  • Bryan J

    After I had finished reading this article, my first instinct and reaction was to search the word “race” on a specific online dictionary website to see what I would find. And to my surprise, out of at least five definitions, none of them actually referred to anything about humans- rather just actions of racing or A race as a competition. And although there was no direct root of definition for race as in human, “racism” terms, I couldn’t help but immediately make a connection of the word race and every single way it is defined. I realized how the world’s stereotypical, self- definition of the word “race” correlates to the dictionary definition. The dictionary definition being some sort of competition of a “Race” or competing as a verb, is similar to the way the world defines race as a type of “hierarchy” of people- essentially competing for the “smartest, fastest, strongest” race.
    Unfortunately, in todays world and even in the past, such a thing as race and racism does exist to us. Regardless of not logically or technically existing based on clear evidence of science and genetics, the concept of races amongst humans is still prevalent- and as Andrei stated, it exists for no benefit at all. To be quite frank, at the rate of which the world is and works, it doesn’t seem as if an end to racism or the concept of judgement with harsh treatment based off of something that doesn’t even legitimately exist, will ever come to an end/full end. Of course, a part of me still and will always believe there is a chance and a part of me certainly will always hope for such a thing; However, honestly, the world seems to have just built such a solid way of being with racism that unfortunately, it has become a way of life in a sense- in . Again, as Andrei mentioned numerous times, accurately, “race” (as it is defined stereotypically) is prominent in countless aspects of life, from application sections to just a simple perception of a person on the street. And the way people are, unfortunately it seems as if things will never change and that the concept of races will always be around one way or another, with someone or group of people.
    To respond to the part of Andrei’s article that Natalie also responded on: To be honest, I have a sort of mixed feeling towards a reason why people form a concept or races, because they might not be educated on the scientific and true way of a person’s skin tone. I feel for one, they are actually educated to a certain extent about the whole process of skin color involving melanin and sunlight and how more amounts of melanin affects darker skin color. But at the same time, the public must not be extremely educated to fully realize such a truth to cease any extreme judgements of race.
    In summation, quite frankly, I don’t think racism can ever be fully destroyed, but I do think it can be combatted against and make a change. And one specific way that I feel would be very effective is informing the public with more detail and in more depth but to a conceptual level that everyone can understand. For example, a simple proof that would interest people may include the studies of the Eskimo people and how they are dark skinned but yet live in a place of scarce full sunlight. Explaining this example that since sunlight provides Vitamin D that a person needs for an optimum amount of melanin, the question would be raised as to how Eskimos are so dark skinned then. The answer to this would then most likely astonish most people and straighten their thinking of races. The answer of course being, the Eskimo people’s main source of food is fish, which interestingly is filled with Vitamin D- which of course you must remember, is from a main source of sunlight- which is how mainly, those dark skinned people in the world become so dark skinned.
    Racism and the judgement based on a race is simply unjust and wrong and people need to realize that the real basis of this argument is just completely erroneous and ignorant to judge people so harshly. They need to realize that there is specific evidence on how life works that proves any concept of races, wrong.

  • http://extremebiology.net/blog Ms Baker

    Ammar, this is a very well-written comment! Great job describing natural selection in the second paragraph. I want to ask about your first paragraph. You make it sound as if you believe racism is natural, “everyone is a ‘racist’ to a certain extent” which would imply an innately controlled behavior. But you go on to say it can be “deduced that these prejudices are a result of the person’s upbringing.” This seems contradictory to me and I don’t quite get how you would deduce from an innate behavior the variation in upbringing.

  • Ammar

    Well, I would it goes back to the nature vs nurture debate. Perhaps I would say people in their childhood, instead of being racist, simply have a preference for their own race, naturally. this of course is the “nature” half of this argument. In this sense, it may considered that this innate preference acts as the building block for racism in adulthood. However, the “nurture” aspect comes in when the person’s upbringing is considered. By this I mean that if the environment and circumstances are ideal, the person may alleviate this racism early on in their life and not carry on this prejudice into adulthood. On the contrary, the more prevalent scenario is that the person is exposed to such an environment that this innate prejudice begins to grow and evolves into full-out racism. That is, rather than having a preference for their own race, the person truly begins to believe they are superior to the other race and subordinates the other race. In summation, neither nature nor nurture act solely on the individual. Rather, it is how they work together in the person’s childhood that determines their perception of race as an adult.

  • Phil A

    I believe that the article is very well written in the fact that it shows how all humans differ by less than .1% and that phenotypically and genotypically we are very similar. Andrei, however, should have mentioned the history of varied skin colors to enhance his argument. That being said the “Out of Africa” theory states that all humans are native to the African region. Due to the given climate these humans had darker skin in order to maintain there folic acid levels so that their offspring could develop healthily. However, due to mutations a of the DNA controlling melanin input, there were births of lighter pigmented humans. These humans were unable to adapt to the high temperature and were unable to maintain ideal folic acid levels. As humans migrated north, surrounding climates temperature was lower than that of Africa’s. Thus the lighter pigmented humans were able to survive better whereas the darker pigmented ones had a lack of Vitamin D which lead to bone development causing there offspring to die, and as a result end the lineage of darker pigmented beings in that particular area. Finally we now have varying “races” throughout the world due to the climate they inhabit.

    It is my opinion that there is an innate prejudice or favoring of a particular racial group. However, I believe that this is due to the fact that most organism tend to reproduce with like beings. Additionally “ethnicity” plays a large role in racism that exist today. In today’s society there are hundreds of ethinicities world wide. The modern man has an innate sense of favoritism towards there particular culture this mentallity causes humans to believe that they are superior to ta particular race. however the fact that race can be differentiated by but not ethnicity is the reason behind the creation of stereotypes. Traits and practices perforemed by a specific ethnicity causes the misconception that the entire race undergo these practices.

    That being said the only way in which racism can be eradicated is to eduacte the youths of the mechanism of skin color and how it is a polygenic trait and that those of similar height or other polygenic traits are more closely related than those of the same skin tone.

  • Blair

    People fail to realize that we are barely different, genetically, from the person standing next to us. Now that could be because of the fact we are not taught about race in science classes at young ages. If you start to teach race at a young age it could help eliminate discrimination. Since people only really differ by 0.1% genetically, there really isn’t that much of a difference between you and me. In fact, there are more genes that code for height then skin color. Skin color is determined by how much melanin is produced by a persons melanocytes. The great or small amount of melanin in a persons body does not make anyone superior or inferior. So why should it matter what race you are? Scientifically race does not exist and was constructed by society, to identify different types of people. This identification crisis has led to various prejudices and stereotypes, as seen in the video.
    The video and article about African Americans being did not surprise me, I have seen instances like this for many years and it just shows how society’s need to identify people has caused such destruction. Although the video was staged, those scenarios do happen in reality very frequently. I have witnessed and even been through similar situations and it just goes to show that people do not understand the scientific reasoning of race. This scientific concept about race is something that needs to be taught in elementary schools just as early as children learning about precipitation and the types of clouds in the sky. I do not think there is a way to eliminate race from society, just because it is obvious that we all have physical differences that can also be stereotyped and lead to discrimination. Therefore there can never really be a world without race, I think there is an innate judgment in humans that cannot be eliminated. Racism occurred in our ancestors lives, we still witness it now, and it will continue for future generations to observe.

  • Bubbles(prokopi)

    First I would like to congratulate Andrei on a job well done. Whether we like it or not and however unfortunate it is there is such a thing as “race”. This concept of “race” is probably the second most illogical and ridiculous idea we as humans have adopted. The things I have seen in certain movies like bungi jumping with the chord attached to your underwear or attempting to outrun bulls would qualify as number one. We as humans are 99% genetically similar, meaning there is barely a 1% difference. How is one person better than another simply based on physical appearance? Is Peter better than Phil because his hair is cooler? From a biological standpoint it would be smarter to discriminate based on height because it is more polygenic (basically an additive effect of two or more genes resulting in one phenotypic character) than skin color. A tall man regardless of color is more genetically similar to another tall man than two people of the same color. Skin color is nothing more than a biological and evolutionary advantageous trait, survival of the fittest. Basically people need a good balance between Folic acid and Vitamin D. We naturally make enough Folic acid but we do not make enough Vitamin D. The number one supplier of Vitamin D is the sun. Sunlight however destroys folic acid. With this in mind people living in hotter climates with more direct sunlight (around the equator for example) will have more than enough Vitamin D but will jeopardize there folic acid levels. In turn the body will produce more melanin (the pigment responsible for darker skin tones) to protect itself from the excessive sunlight and keep its folic levels intact. The opposite would be true as you move up or down the equator. There is less sunlight so your body will need more Vitamin D so your skin should be lighter.
    I think if people were more educated on the subject they would have different and hopefully better opinions on the subject. “Race” however I feel would not completely go away due to someone’s upbringing and other factors.

  • http://extremebiology.net/blog Ms Baker

    This is my new comment.

  • http://extremebiology.net/blog Ms Baker

    jninmjinmji

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