Race Isn’t Real, Racism Is
Race isn’t real. There is no consensus among scientists, biologists and anthropologists that race exists. Or how many there are. Or how to differentiate between them. Racial categories that we use are arbitrary. Moulded by social and cultural constructs. Race, at best, is a spectrum: think analogue (continuous range of values) and not digital (discrete, defined values). Race is forced to map onto human variation. It’s two millimetres of dead skin. There is no gene or variant of any gene, that has been found to exist in every one of one “race” and not of the other. There is no evidence that race has a genetic component. Racial identity is an illusion perpetrated by genetic determinism.
And yet, racism, or to use the more PC-term “race-realism”, exists. Racism continues to thrust the “different races” narrative down our collective throats. Saini’s scathing, urgent, feisty magnum opus exposes the elaborate race illusion, giving the readers a heartfelt, gut-wrenching, evocative and unputdownable book for the ages.
Here are six reasons that bring the illusion of race to life. The next racist remark you come across will be propped up by one or more of these logical fallacies.
The European Default
The Great European Gaslighting Extravaganza.
White European colonisers took the first step in establishing a race hierarchy– white at the top, everything else below it. This was promulgated by White European men who only had indirect access to information about other people in the world through the lens of colonialism. Two stark examples:
Aborigines had different features, complexions and habits than their White invaders. Since Aborigines didn’t cultivate land or build houses or domesticate animals, they were looked at as markedly un-European and hence, inferior humans. Aborigines were also lumped together with West Africans, despite being separated by thousands of miles, for the sole reason that they were not White.
The 1907 Paris Exposition — a ghastly human zoo where a handful of curated, “exotic” humans replete in their traditional attire were caged — attracted over 2 million visitors in six months. European scientists, anthropologists and researchers escaped treacherous sea voyages and dropped-in to the Exposition instead to study these specimens. Measurements of their head size, eye colour, skin colour, facial features were common and set the “scientific” foundation for modern race science.
Whiteness equalled modernity. European equalled superiority.
The superiority of the White race was conflated with the evolutionary idea of the “survival of the fittest”. Implying that racial hierarchy was real and steeped in science. That it was natural that the inferior races lost out to the superior Whites. This was simply the order of things.
The superiority complex was also why many in America feared that the abolition of slavery would set the “inferior race” free to live and breed within society. Wealthy slavers pre-emptively purchased vast areas of land in West Africa to house these newly freed slaves — that land is now the Republic of Liberia.
Why did we fall prey to the nonsense of race hierarchy? Here’s why.
The Intuition-driven Brain
It’s easier for us to believe our bodies are different rather than our social circumstances. We can literally “see” the difference.
If what you see isn’t perceived by you as progress, you’ll tend to regard it as primitive. The Aborigines were thought of as static, stone-age, primitive, backward people by colonial Europeans because surely, only industrialisation equals civilisation? What we fail to see is that all societies are sophisticated, just in different ways.
When we encounter people who don’t look like us, the first question we ask ourselves is — are they the same as us?
In the mid-18th century, in the peak of the booming slave trade, a picture emerged of a Black slave being licked on the chin by a White Englishman. Centuries passed before a Harvard biologist came up with a “scientific” explanation: The Englishman was tasting how salty the slave’s chin was as saltier slaves fare better on the rough sea voyage to North America. Salt retention was thus a desirable characteristic in slaves. Hence, only the saltiest slaves were selected and made it to America. Cut to modern times, Black Americans are twice as likely to suffer from hypertension and BP due to high salt retention than White Americans. And guess what? This was attributed to the higher salt retention in their ancestors. Modern evidence shows that hypertension and BP are linked to poor standards of living, mental health, stress, bad diets and other socio-economic and cultural factors. Black Americans, on average, suffer from a poorer quality of standard of life relative to White Americans, and that could just as well be the cause of their hypertension. And yet, the race argument came first. It created an artificial “racial” boundary without evidence. It’s intuitive. We readily allow intuition to lead us and then use our rationality to come up with evidence to support our beliefs. Classic confirmation bias — read on.
We are terrible at collecting evidence that challenges our own beliefs.
Not only were Aborigines considered inferior humans, but there was also “scientific” research linking them to the Neanderthals. “Neanderthals” was pejoratively used to describe humans suffering from mental retardation. However, once the genetic link between Europeans and Neanderthals was confirmed in 2014, they were retroactively elevated in stature and welcomed as part of the extended family. History was “white”-washed.
“We haven’t given the Neanderthals enough credit” — Popular Science
“They were too smart for their own good” — Telegraph
“Humans didn’t outsmart Neanderthals” — Washington Post
Can you imagine what would happen had the genetic link between Neanderthals and Aborigines was proven?
If you thought the Paris Human zoo was exploitative, listen to this: there was a thriving trade of Black slave corpses in the 19th century for exhumation and “scientific” research to prove that blacks had a different biology to Whites. Ironically, what we know about the human body today is thanks to these experiments on bodies who at the time weren’t even thought of as human.
The scientific pursuit of race was not to understand the difference in our bodies. It was to justify why we led such different lives. It presupposed that we behaved differently because we were different biologically. It found answers in our bodies to questions that existed outside them.
Science and politics worked hand-in-glove to push the idea of racial hierarchy and genetic determinism into the mainstream. Evidence to the contrary, such as differences in history and socio-economic conditions contributing to inequality was left on the backburner.
Race, despite not being real, is observable. And anything observable is attributable.
The Destiny Instinct
They’ve always been like this, it’s in their culture, they’ll never change.
The genocide of Aborigines began when the British sailed into today’s Sydney in 1794. Hundreds of massacres followed, resulting in the shrinking of almost 80% of the indigenous population. The cultural genocide was already underway — Aboriginal practices were banned as primitive and the Australian Government passed legislation forcing mixed-race children to be taken from parents to be housed in missionaries. People hid identities to comply with the European default.
Enslavement was often projected as the fault of the slaves — it was their natural place in the universe. People are more readily perceived as inferior when they are already seen as oppressed.
“Mankind Quarterly”, a pseudoscientific journal that’s still active in peddling race science, published a derisive article in 1966 saying that Aboriginal Australians and Native Americans had been wiped out by European Colonials not out of greed or cruelty but because of the natural outcome of biology. The “survival of the fittest” trope again.
For racists, racism isn’t about injustice & inequality. It’s simply the assertion of a racial hierarchy whereby the human species exists in discrete races, each with their unique traits. It can’t be racist if it’s a fact. Race science validates this worldview.
Origin stories are more powerful than scientific fact.
I thought racists were thugs and skinheads. Turns out, they are also erudite academicians operating covertly, smitten by their own perceived superiority and doing their utmost to keep racism in science alive. I thought it was driven by ignorance. Turns out, it’s deliberate, pernicious, biased and incendiary.
We adore origin stories because it gives us a sense of belonging, purpose and pride. Our ancestors, our blood, our purity, our legacy. Evocative, captivating myths that transcend time to embed themselves in our conscience and politics. Our badge of honour. The origin story of American exceptionalism is one such example. The greatest country on earth built on the pillars of democracy and the sweat of the White man. Evidence shows us that half of native Americans were killed by invading Europeans, a significant percentage of them died from the diseases that the colonials brought with them.
In the UK, there was uproar when archaeologists found the skeletal remains of “Cheddar Man”, dated to some 20,000 years ago and anthropologist later confirmed he was Black. How could our British ancestors be black? Scandalous.
In India, inter-caste marriage was legalised in 1954 but a survey in 2016 showed that almost 40% of adults in Delhi think there should be laws preventing it. Inferior castes bring impurity to the bloodline. A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch found that teachers in some schools still force lower-caste students to clean toilets and sit apart from everyone else. Biological purity is a living practice in India, propped up by mythology, enforced by caste and practised by everyone.
But our differences don’t run from our habits to our bodies to our bones to our blood to our genes. Our differences are not genetic. We are social beings, each one of us moulded by our society and culture — we are not only biological creatures. When something — for example, poor standards of education causing lower-castes to take-up menial jobs in India — happens for a long time, we assume it's natural, probably biological, certainly genetic. Because it’s hard for us to fathom the impacts of deep time on existing variations within humans.
If a calamity wipes out the whole planet and only Peruvians, for example survived, 85% of human genetic diversity would still be intact.
A landmark 1972 UNESCO paper divided the planet into seven human groups, based on the prevailing social constructs of race and showed that almost 90% of genetic diversity sits within each local group rather than between groups. These findings have been reinforced and replicated over time. More genetic variation occurs intra-population than inter-population.
What this means is that I (Indian) may look like nothing like my Irish neighbour but it’s possible to have more in common with her genetically than another Indian born person. A 40% variation in DNA separates us from a banana. A 2% variation separates us from a chimpanzee. To understand the incrementally compounding effects of time due to evolution (Einstein allegedly called compounding the 8th wonder of the world), look how a tiny difference over time can result in totally different outputs.
Being of the same “race” doesn’t mean we are genetically more similar. So, what the hell is race anyway?
Minor variations in skin pigmentation, eye colour, hair type, nose shape, etc. make us feel that differences between groups are profound.
The Classic “Out of Africa” origin theory is that a black tribe of early humans originated in Africa, migrated all over the world and settled. Akin to different branches of a tree. Saini cites new evidence that changes this narrative slightly but has profound impacts. A tribe of early humans — some black and some white — originated in Africa, migrated all over the world and inter-mixed between geographical regions. We are all a bit inbred. The world was already a melting pot, long before today’s advent of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism. Go back to where you came from? We already have.
Race isn’t real. The illusion of the European default powered by our intuition-driven brains, supplemented by confirmation bias, the destiny instinct, our obsession with “racial” purity and our innate inability to see the effects of compounding, make us feel that race is real.
As an Indian living in Ireland, typing on an Irish keyboard, plugged to an American laptop made in China while sitting on a chair designed by Poles, manufactured in Finland, writing an article meant for everyone on the tribalistic internet — this book felt extremely personal. I am glad it exists and kudos to Saini for outing those bringing back race science into the political mainstream. Those wanting to maintain the status quo, stay away. For everyone else, this is the only origin story of our species you need. For now. Buy, read, share, shout. This time it’s personal.
Update: This excellent piece by Michael Burg, MD is personal, heartfelt and infuriating. Read it.