Kwame Anthony Appiah gave a lecture on race and globalization, and all I’ve got is a second-hand review of the talk that makes me wish I could hear the whole thing.
Society still largely operates under the misapprehension that race (largely defined by skin colour) has some basis in biology. There is a perpetuating idea that black-skinned or white-skinned people across the world share a similar set of genes that set the two races apart, even across continents. In short, it’s what Appiah calls “total twaddle”.
“The way that we talk about race today is just incoherent,” he says. “The thing about race is that it is a form of identity that is meant to apply across the world, everybody is supposed to have one – you’re black or you’re white or you’re Asian – and it’s supposed to be significant for you, whoever and wherever you are. But biologically that’s nonsense.”
I can almost hear the alt-right whining in rebuttal…but there are genes for skin color, that’s biology, isn’t it? And aren’t there other genes that affect physiology and morphology? Yes, there are, and these can be significant markers of lineage. I can look at my brothers and sisters, and my aunts and uncles, and see an assemblage of traits that confer a familial resemblance. We don’t, however, assume that all members of the Myers clan are identical in behavior and attitude and ability because of the shape of their chin; we lack a social construct that affiliates that undeniably genetic trait with a whole vast host of assumptions about our place in society and every other biological property of the family.
What we do have is a complex social construct that takes one biological property, skin color, and imposes a mess of entirely non-biological assumptions on individuals with it. Worst of all, the people who do that then think that their racism, which is all about history and propagated myths and unjustified beliefs about relative superiority, is based on science because you can empirically measure the density of pigment cells in the skin. Or they do measurements of stuff like “intelligence” (where the tools are flawed and clumsy), correlate them with skin color, and pretend that the influence of cultural ideas and oppression and poverty, all freighted with the constructed social beliefs that they claim to be objectively assessing, are nonexistent.
But Appiah knows all this and is explaining it. I get irritated with the abuse of my discipline to justify nonsense.
Appiah is at pains to point out that, while society has made race and colour a significant part of how we identify ourselves, particularly in places such as the UK and US, it is an invented idea to which we cling irrationally.
Appiah’s lecture explores the notion that two black-skinned people may share similar genes for skin colour, but a white-skinned person and a black-skinned person may share a similar gene that makes them brilliant at playing the piano. So why, he asks, have we decided that one is the core of our identity and the other is a lesser trait?
“How race works is actually pretty local and specific; what it means to be black in New York is completely different from what it means to be black in Accra, or even in London,” he explains. “And yet people believe it means roughly the same thing everywhere. Race does nothing for us.
“I do think that in the long run if everybody grasped the facts about the relevant biology and the social facts, they’d have to treat race in a different way and stop using it to define each,” he says.
At a time when the world continues to divide itself along racial lines and where, in the US, “being put in that black box means you tend to get treated worse and are more likely to get shot by a police officer”, getting people to understand race as a social invention could, in Appiah’s view, save lives.
And expand human potential. Being put in the black box means much more than that you’re more likely to get shot — it carries a multitude of socially constructed biases that mean you’re more like to be imprisoned, less likely to get a job, more likely to face a thousand micro-aggressions every day, less likely to attend a good public school, etc., etc., etc. — and none of those are genetic.
None of this implies that we should be blind to color. I’m quite proud of my family, and I’m not going to deny our resemblance; I’m also not ashamed of my descent from a long line of stolid Scandinavian farmers. I think we should all recognize the struggles and successes and flaws of our forebears, and black people have diverse and complex histories, too, and rightly take some pride in their families. But let’s stop pretending that skin color is a simplistic proxy to excuse the baggage of our biases, OK?