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Race: A Bunch of Bunk
Kelly Colón
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Once upon a time, there was no such thing as race.

Is that hard to believe? If you think so, you should read a 1998 statement by the American Anthropological Association (AAA). The AAA described race as “a social mechanism invented during the 18th century to refer to those populations brought together in colonial America: the English and other European settlers, the conquered Indian peoples, and those peoples of Africa brought in to provide slave labor.” Race became a convenient excuse for the European settlers to treat the other groups unequally.

European-Americans in power also “fabricated … fictitious beliefs [stereotypes] about the different peoples,” painting blacks and Indians in a negative light until these stereotypes were “deeply embedded in American thought.” In other words, race and racial stereotypes were used by colonial powers to divide, rank, and control people.

Because of this history, race remains a touchy subject for many people today. But it doesn’t exist on a biological level. Humans are the same except for the one-tenth of 1% of our genes that make up our distinguishing features, such as blond hair, dark skin, or our predisposition to certain health conditions, according to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences. Looking at DNA under a microscope, you won’t be able to figure out which race the sample came from. You may find that certain genetic mutations are more common among certain ethnic groups, but there’s no “Greek DNA or Italian gene,” Bryan Sykes, a geneticist, told The New York Times in 2003.

Amusing Ignorance

I don’t need geneticists to tell me that many people are ignorant about race. A couple of years ago, I got off the #2 train in my old neighborhood and walked past a group of Puerto Ricans hanging out by a car that had a large Puerto Rican flag on the hood. I’m also Puerto Rican, but unlike a lot of Hispanics I’m very light-skinned. As I walked by, one of them pointed at me and said to the others, “Look at that white girl.” They all started laughing.

I didn’t know at the time that race has no biological basis—I was just amused at their ignorance. Had they known I was Puerto Rican, they probably wouldn’t have said anything.

Now that I know that race is an invented concept, I see a whole new level to their ignorance. When they said “white,” little did they know they were keeping alive a category created by white colonialists just so they could seem superior.

An End to Race?

image by Steve Castillo

But as that episode showed, race is an idea with a lot of power. Steve Olson, a science writer and author of Mapping Human History, has predicted that “Genetics research is now about to end our long misadventure with the idea of race,” meaning that once people know race can’t be demonstrated scientifically, our history of race-based prejudice will end. I’d like to believe it’s that simple, but I don’t think this research alone is enough to solve racial problems. People are raised with stereotypes and ideas about races in their heads, and just like it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, they won’t change their opinions so easily.

But understanding that race, and a lot of racial stereotypes, got started in colonial times is an important step toward destroying those stereotypes: If people realize how changeable stereotypes are, they are more likely to question them.

For example, even if it’s true that a lot of African-American kids aspire to be rappers or a lot of Asians are good students, it’s important to know that these things aren’t based on any inherent genetic talent for rhythm or math. They have to do with people’s exposure to certain things in the places where they live. So people should understand that the stereotype is not set in stone, and everyone is an individual with individual circumstances.

Acknowledge, Appreciate

That’s why we need to spread the message that we’re all genetically the same. Organizations should develop educational programs for young Americans in particular, since younger people are the most likely to be open-minded.

Classifying people according to race makes us feel like things are a bit more organized, but it’s usually counterproductive because we tend to focus on which group of people is responsible for what’s right or wrong with the world.

That’s unfortunate, but since race is so embedded in our minds, we should acknowledge it. Avoiding the subject just prevents people from moving on from prejudiced ideas. Instead, we should try to appreciate the differences that make us unique. Getting to know someone’s culture is a good way to show that you don’t go by stereotypes, and that you are willing to understand, support, and respect people who are different from you.

And since stereotypes aren’t based on science, if you don’t like the stereotypes about your people, change the stereotypes! Do something positive that people wouldn’t expect of you based on your race or ethnicity. Show people that stereotypes are often wrong and no one should be judged by them.

Once people start to notice that the stereotypes can be defeated, the novel idea of race may eventually fade. Then finally we might be judged by our individual behavior and the impact we make on society.

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(NYC-2010-09-10)

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