“Race is Not Biology, Race is Sociology”

I’m currently reading the book “Americanah” by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and loving it.

"African Negro" - Popular Science Monthly - 'The Races of Mankind', July 1881

“African Negro” – Popular Science Monthly – ‘The Races of Mankind’, July 1881
(Image shows a portrait sketch of a young black man in a suit and tie. The journal identifies him as “Jacob Wainwright, Livingstone’s faithful boy”. Image in Public Domain; links to source.)

There’s a segment in the book where a fictional blog post by the main character talks about what “race” means in America, which I just had to transcribe so you can read it:

Is Obama Anything But Black?

So lots of folk – mostly non-black – say Obama’s not black, he’s biracial, multi-racial, black-and-white, anything but just black. Because his mother was white. But race is not biology, race is sociology. Race is not genotype, race is phenotype. Race matters because of racism. And racism is absurd because it’s about how you look. Not about the blood you have. It’s about the shade of your skin and the shape of your nose and the kink of your hair. Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass had white fathers. Imagine them saying they were not black.

Imagine Obama, skin the color of a toasted almond, hair kinky, saying to a census worker – I’m kind of white. Sure you are, she’ll say. Many American Blacks have a white person in their ancestry, because white slave owners liked to go a-raping in the slave quarters at night. But if you come out looking dark, that’s it. (So if you are that blond, blue-eyed woman who says “My grandfather was Native American and I get discrimination too” when black folk are talking about shit, please stop it already.) In America, you don’t get to decide what race you are. It is decided for you. Barack Obama, looking as he does, would have had to sit in the back of the bus fifty years ago. If a random black guy commits a crime today, Barack Obama could be stopped and questioned for fitting the profile. And what would that profile be? “Black Man.”

By coincidence I was with my little niece and nephew when I was reading this, and looking at them and at my sister and my brother-in-law I was reminded of how true this is. My brother-in-law once jokingly referred to himself as “two-hundred pound black man”. He’s right, because that’s what Americans see when they look at him. It doesn’t matter that his father is black Caribbean and his mother is white European. And my niece and nephew have a mix of both of those, along with south Asian. My niece has light skin and light brown-blond hair, while my nephew has dark brown skin and brown-black hair. I’m guessing she will be the beneficiary of some white privilege when she’s older (or at least be considered “exotic”), while he won’t. What “race” will they give as an answer when someone asks them?