Talking About Race and Racism
We need better ways to talk about why we aren't all alike everywhere on earth.
Posted June 1, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
The online Oxford Dictionary offers these two definitions of racism:
Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism by an individual, community, or institution against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.
The belief that different races possess distinct characteristics, abilities, or qualities, especially so as to distinguish them as inferior or superior to one another.
The first definition may be more detailed than the second, but they both assume each of us naturally belongs to an identifiable "race" or "ethnic group" having distinctive characteristics, abilities, or qualities.
As I have discussed previously in The Human Animal, scientists today know biological races aren't real things and cannot be found anywhere on earth.1 These two definitions, therefore, are at odds with what is actually known about our diversity as a species. So why are dictionaries failing us when it comes to words like race and racism?
I think one reason is scientists today talk about both race and racism using technical terms such as "populations," "genetic structure," "admixture," and "heterozygosity" that may make perfect sense to them, but all too easily leave the rest of us in the dark.2 For example, if human races don't really exist, what are populations and how are they different from races?3 Is it a matter of scale perhaps? Instead of there being just a few "major races" on earth called, say, Caucasians, Africans, Asians, and Native Americans, is the world actually inhabited by many distinct but much smaller types, or kinds, of people called populations that might be thought of as "mini-races"? If not, what then are populations?
Suggesting that scientists need to be using less technical words when they are talking about race and racism, however, makes it sound like the concern is just semantic. I don't think so. What is also needed are better ways to explain why races aren't real so we can understand more clearly why racism — to rewrite the first definition above — may be defined as prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism based on how we believe some people are so unlike us that they must be some other kind of human being altogether.
My anthropological colleague Agustín Fuentes at Princeton University writes often about race and racism. He wrote several years ago at Psychology Today about how we are all a bit racist. This may be so, but I think most of us aren't if we think about what it means to be human in ways that come from our own personal experiences as human beings.
Here's my own way of thinking about our diversity as a species. If this sounds self-evident and hardly in need of saying, good. I am hoping this will be your reaction. We all may be, as Agustín has said, a little bit racist. But I don't think we necessarily are if we "stop, look, and listen."
A better explanation
When it comes to other people not looking or behaving the way we do, what's a good way of understanding why this is so?
- It is commonly said that under our skins we are all basically the same. This is not merely something nice to say. Biologists have discovered we are all 99.9% genetically the same.
- Look closely at everybody in your family. Being genetically alike obviously doesn't mean we all have to look alike. Why this is so is a complicated biological story. But you would have to be delusional to deny that your own "individuality" as a person is not an illusion. What biologists call human biological variation is real, not imaginary.
- It is estimated there are about 7.9 billion people on earth today. Each is an individual with his or her own personal characteristics — some that you personally may find likable and even lovely, some perhaps displeasing, even ugly.
- If family members do not necessarily all look like — despite whatever "family resemblances" they may seemingly have — why would we expect everybody everywhere on earth to all look or act the same?
- Even with social media now so much a part of life for many of us, it is a fact of life that (a) how near or far way you are from other people, and (b) how easily you can travel from here to there can have a decisive impact on (c) how well connected you are with other people on Earth.
- Similarly, even being in the same room with other people does not automatically mean you will end up being meaningfully engaged socially (or sexually!) with them.
- It's only natural, therefore, that we don't all look or act alike.
What's the take-home message?
Stop, drop, and roll is something children and others are taught to do if their clothing catches fire. Instead of my trying to convince you that races — like leprechauns, Santa Claus, and the tooth fairy — don't exist, consider doing something similar.
"Stop, look, listen" is good advice for anyone who is about to cross a railroad line that doesn't have a safety gate that automatically closes when a train is heading their way down the track. The same worthy advice can be a powerful way to stop racism in its tracks.
Any time you come across someone who doesn't look like you, or who doesn't seem to be acting like how you normally act, be careful. Don't dismiss them as being so different from you that they must be "of a different race." Instead, stop, look, and listen to them. You may be surprised at how similar they are to you.
1. Templeton, Alan R. (2013). Biological races in humans. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44: 262-271. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsc.2013.04.010
2. For an example of how race is commonly discussed in human genetics, see: López Herráez, D., M. Bauchet, K. Tang, C. Theunert, I. Pugach et al. (2009). Genetic variation and recent positive selection in worldwide human populations: Evidence from nearly 1 million SNPs. PLoS ONE 4(11): e7888. https://doi.org:10.1371/journal.pone.0007888
3. For further discussion, see: Müller-Wille, Staffan (2018). Making and unmaking populations. Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 48: 604–615. https://doi.org/10.1525/hsns.2018.48.5.604