The Myth of Race and the Curse of Racism

A Song About Lynchings

There is no scientific basis for the concept of race. Some would say this is a statement of opinion. In my view, it is an indisputable fact. The prevalence of a belief in the biological reality of race is one more piece of evidence confirming that the human race is not particularly rational. But as events in recent decades have shown, the human race may not be entirely hopeless.

Every technique for racially classifying human beings is unavoidably arbitrary. Take physical appearance for instance. Skin tone is probably the most common method for classifying people. Some classification systems emphasize the shape of eyes, noses, or the texture of hair. But if you are going to use physical characteristics to classify people, it makes just as much sense to break people up on the basis of height, weight, hand size, quantity of body hair, length of ear lobes, or the shape of belly buttons. It is also important to remember that physical appearance can fluctuate. If a person of light skin tone hangs out too long at the beach or in a tanning salon, have they suddenly changed their racial identity? If people get nose jobs or have their hair straightened or curled, has their ethnicity changed?

Of course, racial distinctions are based on more than simply physical appearance. People committed to the biological reality of race emphasize ancestry as the determinant of racial identity. Following this logic, people are classified according to the geographic locations where their ancestors originated. There are two basic problems with this system. First, you have to make an arbitrary decision determining how many generations back you will trace an individual’s ancestry. To be considered a “pure blood” member of a so-called race, did all of your ancestors for three, five, ten, or twenty generations back have to come from a certain region? And to make things even more complicated, you have to trace the heritage of each of those ancestors in order to determine how “pure” their blood was. For practical purposes, people will typically go back only two or three generations in order to determine racial identity. Most of the time, we have limited information about more distant ancestors anyway. Tracing the ancestry of a grandparent or great-grandparent can really be a bitch. Plus, after more than a couple of generations, it would become clear that all of us are racial “mutts.” By any system of classification, it is hard to argue that anyone’s blood is remotely “pure.”

The other problem with tracing ancestry is geographic. It is impossible to draw clear boundaries between the areas inhabited by different (so-called) races. Where exactly, for instance, are the geographical boundaries of Europe? At what specific geographical location do the inhabitants cease to be “white”? Are people from Turkey, Kazakhstan, Bulgaria, Russia, and Morocco white, or are they members of some other racial group? A white supremacist, anthropologist, and geneticist might give different answers to this question. Then, if you take into account the fact that people have constantly been on the move throughout history, it is difficult to determine where any group actually comes from. If you go back far enough, all human beings are apparently immigrants from East Africa. Among certain groups devoted to notions of racial superiority, however, it would not go over very well if you told them that they were African.

But in spite of these obvious problems with the concept of race, we humans continue to place humans into arbitrary racial categories. So even though there are no significant biological distinctions between humans, race as a cultural concept is still important, and comparing the experiences of different culturally defined racial groups is still a worthwhile activity. Perception is more important than reality, and some philosophers would argue that perception is reality. Unfortunately, it is still naïve to believe that the United States, or anywhere else, is a colorblind society in which racial distinctions and discrimination are no longer significant. We still identify ourselves as members of different cultural and ethnic factions, and we all, even if on a subconscious level, are influenced by racial stereotypes.

It may be biological to latch onto a group and place others into categories. Given the harsh, competitive world in which our species evolved, it was important throughout history to know the difference between friends and enemies. We also live in cultures still impacted by the actions and racial attitudes of our ancestors. It is therefore easy to make excuses and to assume that some things will never change. We are all products of our upbringing, and racism, to a certain degree, may be ingrained into our DNA. A sense of defeatism, however, is not very helpful. Yes, we may be irrational creatures in many ways, guided more by primal fears and instinct than logic. This does not mean, however, that we should give up on doing our best to behave and think in ways that make sense. American history has proven that ancient racial attitudes can change, that progress is possible. Many people in my country and in the world have recognized the irrationality of racial prejudice and of the very concept of race itself. Hopefully, there will come a day when all of us are able to step back, recognize the existence and the foolishness of our prejudices, and work to stamp out the curse of racism once and for all.

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Comments 7 comments

HSchneider 5 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

Excellent Hub. Human beings are irrational and I think also prisoners of history. Slavery was the original sin of the United States and we are still suffering from it. Where would the U.S. be if we all lived in harmony together and put away all of this pettiness? There is so much that is remarkable about this country. If we and the world could put this racism concept to bed, there is no telling what accomplishments would be possible.


drbillfannin profile image

drbillfannin 5 years ago from Atlanta

Slavery has been around since the beginnings of humanity. Suer, the United States is still fighting over that, but interestingly, we hear very little about such "slavery" issues in other nations. Actually, the United States didn't exist when slavery started, it was a British Colony. That means the British are responsible for slavery. But even more so, the African leaders that got rich in the slave trade are responsible. Black leaders rounded up people to sell to the slave traders.

But all that is history and should be forgotten since no one living had anything to do with it. With all the racial intermixing, who can decide what race anyone is? I agree that the whole concept is stupid and troublesome. The only reason to keep race an issue is to give certain people a bargaining tool an a soap box to stand on, to hopefully take advantage of a situation they otherwise wouldn't stand a chance in. For example, government benefits or jobs. We all should behave by acceptable standards, get an education, work hard, and kiss the butts as needed to get where we want to be. Race should never be a factor.


dosters profile image

dosters 5 years ago from Chicago

Top notch.. I taught in an urban school district for years and told them that race was an arbitrary myth. The ideas behind race were brought about and perpetuated by a society in which white colonialism was the rule of the day, and placing various people of the world into groups was a way to subjugate them to their fairer-skinned brethren. The most famous (infamous?) set of racial distinctions were made based on the long-since debunked field of craniometry, the measuring of skulls. And yet some people cling to the arbitrary distinction as if their life depended on it.


christopheranton profile image

christopheranton 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

Rascism is just plain silly. If people realised how stupid they are to adapt rascist attitudes they would cringe..

However it would be a mistake to believe that it is only a white disease. Some of the worst racism, I have seen was between various non white races.

The whole thing is just ridiculous.


syzygyastro profile image

syzygyastro 5 years ago from Vancouver, Canada

Well written and insightful. About the genealogy part, in many areas, patriarchy rules and the lineage of the female half of the population is not even recorded. So the uncertainty about blood is a lot closer to home, especially since the days of colonialism and conquest. In N. and S. America there are many people of European and First Nations ancestry. Collectively they are called Metis, though there must be as many sub-variations of this as there are states and counties.

Irrationality is a fact of the human mind and the connection with the unconscious. I have a hub on "irrational logic" that describes the influence of this kind of subjective influence behind a lot of our actions and beliefs.


Freeway Flyer profile image

Freeway Flyer 5 years ago Author

I was not trying to imply in any way that whites are the only ones guilty of slave holding and racism. I just used white people as an example, probably because I am labeled as a white person. The safest target is your own "group."


Sangeeta 5 years ago

Liked your essay Paul. It's interesting that even within a particular "race," there are so many sub-divisions. I know in India where I was raised, there are Punjabis, Marathis, Gujratis, Bengalis (again based on geography) but within the Punjabis there are then other distinctions as well. We humans seem to enjoy creating an "other" to define the self. Is it too scary to be a part of a collective ? Of course, once again Star Trek was full of more wisdom than we realize--the scariest entity was the Borg, a collective where no one had a separate identity ! Is lack of distinction so frightening that it forms the fearful aspects of our own cultural myths.

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