Racial incoherence

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?


  1. says

    “members of the Myers clan are identical in behavior and attitude and ability because of the shape of their chin”
    So that explains the beard!!

  2. says

    Isn’t it because we have a tendency (at least many of us, or much of the time) to be superficial?
    …And skin colour is about as superficial as you can get.

  3. cartomancer says

    One obvious sign that traditional racist ideas about skin colour are wrong is that other cultures do exactly the same kinds of lazy thinking but with completely different variables. In Japan it’s face shape and blood group.

  4. robro says

    It’s not just skin color, of course, and racist-like bigotry doesn’t even require skin color differences. I was riding with a lorry driver through Northumbria many years ago when he started complaining about those “damn, lazy Irish” who come over to England to have babies and live on the dole. Particularly ironic for me because my dad, somewhat proud of his Irish ancestry, would say pretty much the same thing about black people.

    Here’s a interesting bit of racist myth that I doubt many people have ever heard: my dad had a story that some doctor told him that the texture of muscle fiber in blacks is different from whites. This made no sense to me even when I was a kid but he believed it. More importantly he believed it was a significant indicator of white superiority over blacks.

  5. monad says

    Despite the names the conception of race doesn’t seem to be about skin color at all. “Black” covers people who are very nearly black all the way to ones who have about as much melanin as “white” people. As near as I can tell, if there’s any physiological basis left for separating the two, it’s…probably nose shape. As far as that goes.

    It reminds me some of the ancient idea that slaves were plainly inferior by nature, but then for some reason everyone was supposed to overlook how many of them were citizens until an unlucky break just a few years prior.

  6. Knabb says

    @3 Cartomancer

    There’s also the small matter of how if race was a social construct we’d expect it to be constructed differently in different places, whereas if it was actually some sort of inherent biological thing then the same ideas of what races there were and who was in them would arise in multiple places. Even a cursory look at different places reveals that the social construct varies dramatically from place to place. The U.S. default is often treated as universal, where the races defined are often along the lines of “White, Black, Asian, Arab, White Hispanic, Black Hispanic, …”. That “Asian” group covers just about the entirety of east Asia, with a whole bunch of largely shared stereotypes. If these were actually rooted in biology, the same sort of thing would be expected in east Asia. Meanwhile, here in reality there’s all sorts of situations where there are different definitions of race with different stereotypes, such as the extent to which Han Chinese have extensive racial privilege in China over people in other groups lumped together by Americans.

    Then the same result is repeated over and over. “Arab” is the perceived race in the U.S., with no distinction made between (as just one example) Arabs, Turks, and Persians – at most they’ll be treated as distinct ethnicities. In the actual Middle East? Those matter, are treated as races. It’s almost like it’s an entirely arbitrary categorization system created and imposed by societies.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    cartomancer @ # 3: In Japan it’s face shape and blood group.

    Well, we all try to read character by physiognomy, and in a veil-free society that information jumps out to everybody who can see.

    But blood type?!?

    Did some Japanese headshrinker write a pop-psych bestseller about As, Bs, ABs, Os, and their modulations by Rh?

  8. Ed Seedhouse says

    I think it would be great, though it will of course not happen soon if at all, if we stopped talking of “black” and “white”. Although my heritage is pretty much entirely anglo-saxon so far as I know, my skin is nowhere near “white” which is the colour of bleached paper. And though I have known a few dark skinned people I have never met nor seen portrayed in a picture with purely black skin. Black as in the absence of reflected light at any frequency.

    I will hereby give permission and approval to anyone who wants to call me “paleface” if they prefer.

  9. Vivec says

    From what I can tell, blood type is kind of held up the same way astrological sign is

    It’s not uncommon for even fictional characters to have thematically-assigned blood types because there’s an association of certain blood types with personality/character archetypes.

  10. dannysichel says

    Pierce R. Butler @ 9: that’s exactly what happened, except Masahiko Nomi was a journalist, not a psychologist. For more details, see

    Depending on how you define “race” in this context, there’s only three definitions that make sense. According to the first, there is ONE race: human.

    According to the second, there are TWO races: everyone who has a specific trait, vs everyone who lacks that trait.

    And according to the third, there are SEVEN POINT THREE BILLION races.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    Vivec @ # 11 & dannysichel @ # 12 – thanks for the info, and for eroding one more illusion I had about human rationality.

    Back in 1963, Aldous Huxley wrote (in Literature and Science, IIRC) of personality differences in blood Type-A and -B temperaments, also noting that the Middle East had a greater mixture of the types than other regions and therefore could expect greater social friction.

    More than 50 years later, events seem to have proved him correct! /s

  12. Zeppelin says


    I remember talking to an American (on Youtube admittedly, so they were probably 12 years old or something) who refused to believe that Germans could be racist towards Russians, because those groups are both “White” and therefore indistinguishable. Which is just bizarre from the perspective of German racism, based as that is on ethnicity first and foremost, only using looks as a proxy or when the racist can’t tell ethnicities apart (like with dark-skinned Africans or people from the Balkans).

    I also remember being very surprised when during my exchange year in England I had to fill out a form asking my race (something I’d never had to do in Germany) and upon asking for clarification was informed that I was “Caucasian”.

  13. marcoli says

    Maybe there is more than one definition floating out there, but a widely accepted definition of racism is the belief that there are differences in behavior or ability in different races of people. But it should still be safe (and not automatically racist) to perceive that there are … lets call them “geographically defined varieties of people”. If you were parachuted into any populated area of the world, chances are pretty good you would quickly get some idea about what continent you were on by simply looking at the people you encounter. No need to read signs or hear language. And it should not make anyone feel uncomfortable or possibly racist for admitting this.
    The genetic basis for these differences are complex and I would agree cannot be defined by any one or few genes, or few alleles of genes. But that there is a genetic basis should not need defending except to enforce the point that these are not known to transmit to any measures of ability or behavior that we can demonstrate.
    Other species do have geographically defined varieties, and in that regard we are not remarkable. Galapagos tortoises come to mind right away. A quick check of other examples soon uncovered species of mosses, various insect species, birds, white tailed deer, earthworms, and so on. Like us, these and others are widespread species that differ regionally while still interbreeding as a single species. I would also expect that like us, their regionally defined characters may have become fixed by local natural selection and at times by genetic drift.
    The rest is semantics, and you can call those varieties and our varieties what you like: race, ecotype (I rather like that one), or just variety. In some cases the term subspecies is used. Although I am not certain of this, to me that term is best used if the varieties in question are well defined and with little interbreeding. For that reason, I don’t think the term is appropriate for us since humans show quite a lot of interbreeding across their geographically defined varieties. Why are the varieties at all maintained? Likely because there is more breeding within rather than between the regions.
    In any case, our variety fascinating, and I wish it were explored more freely.

  14. wzrd1 says

    We’ve long adopted one view, if a person is a different race, when breeding with a different race, they’d produce mules.
    As mules are largely non-appernt in “inter-racial” mating, it’s a no brainer.

    But then, we’ve also dealt with many, many, many cultures over the decades of military deployments, occasionally, my wife tagged along as a “visitor”.
    In specific, in three GCC states. One got a copy of a specific version of marriage license, the rest got the passport.

    Culturally, I’m 50% Sicilian stock, my mother’s side is German, Dutch and Native American Indian.
    Considering the region she hailed from, I’m not researching things, it’d likely be the traitor Cherokee and if shown to me, I’ll accept that shame, but I’d rather not add to the shame of mistakes I’ve made in life by adding to it, those few mistakes give me nightmares many a night.
    For good reason.

    So, if we can successfully interbreed, we’re either the same species or so close that genetics doesn’t foul it up.

    But, socially, we can be very, very, very, very different.
    But then, the same is true for each and every individual.

    Both of us have made good friends on every continent on this planet, save Antarctica.

    Give a person the respect due to a person, indeed, due to another living being, disrespect has to be earned.
    How hard is that lesson to learn?

  15. KG says

    I also remember being very surprised when during my exchange year in England I had to fill out a form asking my race (something I’d never had to do in Germany) and upon asking for clarification was informed that I was “Caucasian”. – Zeppelin@14

    Really? I’ve never come across “Caucasian” as a category on a UK form that asks for a racial/ethnic classification. There’s always been a list of possible classifications (generally ending in “other (please specify)”), in which “white British” (or in Scotand “white Scottish” and “other white British”) would be included. “Caucasian” is a pseudo-scientific synonym for “white”, stemming from 19th century racial pseudo-science, and I’ve always thought it was commonly used in the USA (but of course Americans are welcome to correct me).

  16. anbheal says

    I think it was linked to here, a study a year or two back showing that over 90 percent of “white” Americans who claim Native American heritage don’t have a drop of it — what they have is African American heritage. But until a generation or two back, particularly in the South, the one-drop rule still applied to African Americans, but the “As Long As They’ve Converted To Christianity” allowance was made for Native Americans. So if you were a bit dark skinned, you had enormous incentive to say “Grandma was a Cherokee” instead of “Grandma was a slave”. And later generations of your own family believed the fib.

    So obviously the construct was social and nothing else. The one-drop rule is equally prima facie evidence of that. You could be 7/8ths white, but that one great grandfather made you black, in the law and society’s eyes. I know some Creole women who could walk down the street in Stockholm and fit right in (or at a Myers family Thanksgiving). But in Louisiana they are treated as second class citizens, because they have been culturally designated as black.

  17. blf says

    This religious column may about the same lecture (not entirely sure), Scepticism gets you only so far. Even nonbelievers need to have faith — from that title (even with caveat newspaper titles should always be read with a grain of salt (so to speak)), you might think it contains a good dose of absurdity. An example, from near the end:

    I was present at the lecture, as a sort of invited heckler, and when he had finished I asked him how we should reconcile the knowledge that religions are constantly changing with the need to believe that they put us in touch with eternal truths.

    His answer, to general laughter, was that this wasn’t his problem. But it is. The difficulty of placing eternal and absolute truths into secular frameworks remains, whatever your truths are. […]

    Eh? Your own eternal and absolute truths? [W]hatever your truths are?
    No. You are not entitled to invent your own facts.

    Many of the readers’s comments are tearing the author several new ones.

  18. Trip Space-Parasite says

    anbheal @ 19, that’s really interesting. I had never heard that before, but it makes perfect sense (given the imperfect and nonsensical environment).