Global Dialogues

The Fictoid of Race

After a couple of centuries of errors, today we know that there is greater genetic variation within races than across them. Racial groups differ in more or less 6 percent of their genes, which means that ninety four percent of variation occurs within conventional racial categories. Race is thus a construct without genetic basis. To be sure, it is not a biological fact, the American Anthropological Association says, but “a social mechanism invented during the 18th century” in part to justify the European colonial expansion. The notion that there are human subspecies stems primarily from colonial ideologies, particularly from the idea that nature, and thus God, ordained a hierarchy of races, a belief that justified slavery and underpinned the laws and the logic that governed colonial economies.

Consider the notion that there is a “white race,” which is generally defined in the U.S. as “descent from any of the original peoples of Europe,” as census folk say. The idea that a white race naturally stems from any European roots is very recent. Bear in mind that the Romans, the Greeks, the Gauls, the Franks, etc., never thought of themselves as “white,” as sharing the same racial boat by virtue of being “Europeans.” Julius Caesar could never think of himself as white. A direct descendant from Aphrodite, he was, instead, of the race of the gods. To find folks who believe that European ancestry, broadly conceived, endows them with a race, we have to go all the way to the 20th century. We have to picture a time when the children and grandchildren of European immigrants to the U.S. melted into a common culture and eventually into a common “white race.”

This happened by the middle of the 20th century. In 1922, Jim Rollings, a black man from Alabama, was dragged to a court accused of the crime of miscegenation, of having had very consensual sex with a white woman, one Edith Labue. Luckily for the defendant, the woman in question was Italian. As soon as the judge discovered that important piece of information, he swiftly dismissed the case, reasoning that the fact she was Sicilian “can in no sense be taken as conclusive that she was therefore a white woman.”  Italians, many people thought, were “Mediterraneans,” not really white. Only eventually, in various ways and degrees, did Italians acquire an Americanized racial identity.  The same has happened to Slavs, Irish, “Hebrews” and other so-called “darker European races,” whose whiteness was born in this American context.  To be sure, even at the beginning of the 20th century, the facts of whiteness were so confused and confusing that U.S. courts also ruled East-Indians, Arabs and Syrians white. At the end of the 19th century, the same courts established that Mexicans were likewise white; “white by law,” as race theorist Ian Lopez tells us.

About 40,000 years ago, there were various human subspecies, various races, properly speaking. They sometimes fought for scarce resources, sometimes cooperated, and even mated. Homosapiens, we, were one of them. We were genetically similar to other sapiens and different, say, from the Neantherthals, who shared genetic and biological traits, including their literally low brows, with others in the same subspecies. But these other races disappeared. Neanderthals apparently had an apocalyptic end, as they were killed off, it seems, by volcanic activity in Europe and attendant climatic changes. For better or for worse, we were the only ones who managed to survive and eventually conquered the world. We came from Africa, and as we moved north, the sun lessened in intensity, and we adapted. Depending on the latitude at which we settled, our skin became lighter, primarily to absorb vitamin D. Those who remained in areas with more sun and more ultraviolet radiation retained darker pigmentations to prevent skin cancer, damage to sweat glands, ultraviolet photolysis of folate, etc. But when these adaptive traits occurred, our genetic code was nearly complete, and these genetic alterations added only an infinitesimally small portion to it, not enough to separate us into latitude-based, color-coded subspecies.

These ideas are not new. Some people still disagree with them, but in general they have become well accepted at least since the late nineties, particularly among anthropologists. Yet, old as these ideas are, it is worth recalling because they highlight an important aspect of political life. They help us see that we are capable of creating alternative realities, hyper-realities that can be irrational, even odious, and which can nevertheless pass off as reality itself. The fact that race is a myth does not make it less real. On the contrary, race is one of the most palpable and stark realities of modernity; one that has become attached to individuals as well as to countries and continents. Such ideology has become real because it has managed to enter into the texture of life itself, often becoming vivified and enacted by people who hold racial identities. Racial ideologies tend to become tied not only to ideas and identities, but also to such things as corporeal rhythms, gestures, linguistic schemata, visions of the self –the constellation of dispositions that make us who we are. Race is a reminder that fictions and fictoids can sometimes determine key aspects of our lives and of our futures, individually and collectively.

  • Scott

    Race is certainly a myth which has much to do with how biological differences are interpreted. Genetically speaking, differences of skin color are infinitesimal, so much so as to be generally uninteresting to geneticists. Such a social construction as race is a poor marker of difference, but its salience persists nonetheless and is brought to the fore of public discussion not only by the likes of Rush Limbaugh but also the NAACP. The social construction of race is institutionalized in American society, and in the everyday lives of people, and although Steven Colbert often quips that he “doesn’t see race,” trying not to think about race is often like trying not to think of an elephant. As much as we try to say its unimportant, or not really real, it’s still with us. That’s one of the reasons why those who think that the Civil Rights Act is no longer necessary are, among others things, terrible naïve. The persistence of racism can only be remedied with institutions which help ameliorate the harm it can do. How effective these institutions may or may not be is another matter.