This has been one of the trickiest blogs I have ever written. Race is a delicate issue and I'm writing as a white, English-speaking male. In other words, I'm writing from a position of privilege without having been on the receiving end of racial abuse. I have not suffered the oppression and discrimination people of colour regularly endure and I would not pretend otherwise. I am also not an expert on Biology, so to write an article on the Biology of race has been a huge challenge.
I would like to start by expressing enormous gratitude to my friend Lee Agostini, a genetic researcher at Thomas Jefferson University who consulted on the Biology, and also offered insights into the experience of being a black man in modern America. You should absolutely follow him on instagram: @lee_the_scientist and check out his awesome Science-themed website: BioIsLifeMedia.
The important thing to say up front is that we all agree racism is bad (unless you're a racist I guess?) but when issues of race get discussed there are misconceptions and cultural confusions which make the debate appear not so black and white, if you'll excuse the pun. My aim in this article is to highlight the hyporcisy of racism from a scientific point of view because as far as Science is concerned racism makes no...freaking...sense!
However I'm fully aware that as a white non-Biologist I may have missed crucial nuances of the discussion. Please contact me if I'm getting stuff wrong (I want to learn) but also please appreciate that if I say something you find offensive it's coming from a place of accidental ignorance, not wilfull malice. If I upset you, I pre-emptively cry your pardon and ask you to help me do better!
The Strange Case of the Black Woman Who Wasn't
I want to kick things off by reviewing one of the most bizarre media firestorms I have ever seen. You may recall hearing about Rachel Dolezal on the news but if not, here’s a quick summary: Rachel Dolezal was elected the Spokane chapter president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in 2014. She taught classes on African-American culture at Eastern Washington University and served on the Police Ombudsman Commission for Spokane, representing the black community. Dolezal was a well-respected public figure who spoke out on black issues...until a year after her election when a member of the press exposed something remarkable. Dolezal was not really black. She was white.
To be clear, there’s no reason a white person shouldn’t be working for the NAACP - that wasn’t the issue. The issue was that she had been claiming to be something she wasn’t. She was committing fraud.
She doesn’t exactly deny these allegations either. In one interview with NBC, a reporter asked her “Do you feel you’ve been deceptive at all?” to which Dolezal responded: “There have been some moments with a level of creative non-fiction,” which I think is a fancy way of saying “yes, I was lying,” although she insists she never intended to deceive anyone. Her skin is kinda dark for a white person (see below) but when she claimed her parents were black, that was flat-out creative non-fiction.
When Dolezal’s story was inevitably brought into the media glare it sparked an international debate about her mindset. To some, she was highlighting issues of race and identity, to some she was a con-artist wanting attention and to others she was a mentally-troubled woman desperately seeking identity.
Dolezal has written a book about her experiences - In Full Colour - and there is a documentary about her on Netflix called The Rachel Divide charting her life after the chaos. What fascinates me most as a scientist however, isn’t her motivation, it's her terminology. Dolezal has described herself as transracial, transblack and even explained that she “identifies as black”. What exactly is she talking about?
Using the phrase “I identify as black” has obvious parallels with the vernacular of the transgender community. I’ve written in great detail (here) about the biological difference between male and female brains and how transgender people are not ”making it up” or “wanting to be something they’re not” (quite the opposite…they’re wanting to be something they are). I won’t rehash that whole essay, I'll just say that the biological evidence comes down firmly in support of transgender people. But the language we use is very important.
If a transgender woman says “I am a woman,” then critics could fire back by saying “No you’re not. You don’t have a uterus or XX chromosomes,” which would technically be correct. But if a transgender woman said “I want to be a woman,” that wouldn’t be accurate either. A transgender woman doesn’t simply like the idea of being female, her neural architecture means she is female.
That’s why the phrase “I identify as a woman” is so useful. It is stronger than saying “I want to be female,” but doesn’t make a false claim about biological anatomy which gives ammunition to critics. So when Dolezal “identifies as black” we have to question what she means. She seems to be saying that being black is an inherent thing and that she is (to put it crudely) a black woman in a white woman's body. So, fully aware of the potential minefield involved, I’m going to do my best to explore what Biology says about "race".
It’s In Your Genes
Every nucleus in your body contains a set of DNA strands collectively called your genome. It’s split into chunks called genes which are bits of biological information telling your body what to be. Genes code for things like eye colour, tongue length, heritable diseases etc. and although it’s not as simple as "one gene = one feature", the basic principle is more or less that.
The percentage of genes which actually makes us different to each other is very small (we're more alike than we are different) but within that small percentage, there's a huge amount of diversity accounting for variety among the human population.
Different versions of a gene are called alleles and because our species has been spreading across the planet for a very long time, adapting to different environments, this has led to certain alleles cropping up in some regions more than others.
We can measure the probability of a particular allele occurring with what’s called the allele frequency - how often an allele appears within a group of people. For instance, 25% of people in Central Asia have B-type blood whereas in Northern America it’s closer to 5%. That means if you test the DNA of an unknown individual and find it contains genes for B-type blood, it’s more likely they are from Central Asia, but you can't say for certain. B-type blood appears all over the world and obviously 75% of Central Asian people do not have it, so it wouldn’t be accurate to say Central Asian people have B-type blood. Just slightly more likely.
The same is true with diseases. Sickle-cell anemia is more common in Afro-Carribean people and cystic fibrosis is more common among Europeans, but white people still get sickle-cell anemia and black people still get cystic fibrosis. Certain groups may have a higher allele frequency overall, but on an individual basis you can’t tell anything about a person’s geographical region from their genome.
So when a person says they are something like “50% Irish” this is biologically meaningless. There is no such thing as an Irish gene, just allele frequencies which may be higher on average in the Irish population as a whole. You can't be half of one race and half of another. Unless you exist in the Star Trek episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield (TOS Season 3 Episode 15)...
Obviously there isn't one country where black people come from, but there is an obvious biological difference between people of different skin colour...they look different! Black and white people's genes are obviously causing differences in appearance, so doesn't that mean there is a genetic difference between black and white people after all?
Well, technically yes. There are several genes which work together to define skin colour but the primary one is called MC1R and I'm going to use that as a shorthand for the whole collection. MC1R alleles tell your skin what colour to be, so yes black and white people do have different versions of one particular gene. But that is the only difference. MC1R doesn't code for anything else about the person, not even hair or eye colour.
The colour of your skin is unrelated to the rest of your genome and that’s crucially important. You can genetically determine (with reasonable accuracy) if a person is black or white by looking at their MC1R, but that’s all the gene tells you. There is no other physiological or neurological feature black people have that white people don’t or vice versa. Two black people (people with the same MC1R allele) can otherwise have totally different genomes while a white and black person (people with different MC1R alleles) can otherwise be genetically identical.
You can’t be white on the surface but internally black because “internally black” doesn’t mean anything. Your black or white characteristic is exclusively external and unrelated to everything else about your body. Black people's brains are no different to white people's brains so I'm afraid the word "trans-racial" is not an actual thing as far as Biology is concerned.
Besides, skin colour is a spectrum. Everyone has melanin in their skin (including white people) and there is no cutoff between someone being black and someone being white. It would be like defining a mountain as being split into the summit and base, or defining a rainbow’s colours as either red or violet. There's a lot of stuff in between the extremes.
Our brains work by putting things in categories because it’s easier to store information. But “ease of classification” probably shouldn’t be our priority when we’re dealing with actual human beings.
I mean, if we absolutely have to split people into categories then why stop at skin-colour? Shouldn't we start seeing redheads as a different “race” to blondes and brunettes? Or blue-eyed people as a different race to brown-eyed people? There's the same amount of genetic difference between them as between black and white.
So as far as Biology goes, there really is no such thing as race. People have different colours on their surface but that is as far as the difference goes. It’s almost like people of different colour…are all equal????? How about that.
What about DNA testing?
You’ve probably seen adverts for DNA-testing kits. These are products which take a sample of your DNA (usually from a cheek swab) which you send off for analysis and get a profile back. They can tell you things like eye colour, shape of your ear-lobes or even ear-wax consistency.
The problem comes when people claim they can determine your ancestry from your DNA i.e. saying things like: you are 20% European, 50% scandanavian, 6% hispanic etc. I’m not going to outright say these companies are misleading anyone (I don't want to get sued) but they don’t seem to be going out of their way to correct certain misconceptions about genetics.
The first problem is that genome analysis is looking at allele frequency so everything is based on probability not certainty. The second flaw is that the precision of DNA testing is not as good as CSI might have you believe. Not even close.
In one disturbing 2010 study conducted by Itiel Dror, 17 DNA specialists were given a sample of DNA used in a criminal trial and asked to compare it to the defendant. One specialist concluded the defendant was guilty, four said it was inconclusive and twelve said the defendant was innocent. Depending on which laboratory the court hired to consult with, the trial could have gone in very different directions…and these are specialists hired by our legal system.
One DNA-testing company I looked at claimed an ancestral gene precision of +/- 30%. That means any percentage they give you is falling within a range 60 percentage-points wide! Suppose you get your results and it says you're 40% South American. The precision is 30% either way which means you could actually be anywhere from 10% to 70%. Really it’s not much better than guessing.
The third big flaw with ancestral DNA testing is that their allele databases are drawn from modern populations. Nobody has an allele library for cavemen because not many cavemen were voluntarily giving blood. So if your profile says you're 70% Indian, that doesn't mean 70% of your ancestors come from India. It means your genome is similar to 70% of the modern Indian populace. So unless they were going back in time and becoming your ancestors, it's very misleading to say your genetic commonality with modern people can be "traced back" to ancestors.
It's also important to remember that genetics doesn't work like blending paints together. It's not as if you are a 50% hybrid of mom and dad. DNA sequences get mixed up in chunks so although you have genes from both your parents they can be rearranged in a novel way which neither of them has.
There’s also the pretty important point that you are a mutant. The average human genome contains over 400 mutations; features not found in either of your parents or any of your ancestors. The further back you go, the more mutations you have to factor in and eventually you get to a point where a lot of your ancestors become undetectable!
So even if there were racial genes they would fade from the genome after a few rounds of breeding. And besides, we couldn't trace your nationality back more than about 18-19 generations because prior to that, countries didn't exist.
Nationality Is New
It might seem like the idea of countries has been around forever but they’re a pretty recent invention. Monarchs have always fought over territories but the concept of national borders wasn’t formalised until 1648 at the Westphalia peace treaties. Prior to that, kings and queens were interested in cities, farms, mines etc. but the land in between was irrelevant. There were no officially recognised borders because nobody cared.
This made sense because society used to work in a “vertical” way. A person would know who the count of their land was, the name of the lord who reigned over them and then the king or queen in charge, but they had no interest in which other lords, lands or towns were governed by the same monarch.
The problem with a vertical system of course is that disputes started happening when leaders wanted more power. As their empires expanded, people started to disagree about who owned what and decided it was necessary to draw boundaries to prevent endless wars. So the monarchs of various regions agreed to draw lines on their maps which would correspond to invisible and made-up "borders." Thus people started defining themselves “horizontally” by who else lived within the imaginary lines.
When Italy was established in 1861 for instance (making it less than 160 years old) the statesman Massimo d’Azeglio remarked in his personal diary: “we have invented Italy, now we must invent Italians,” because there was no sense of national identity and less than 3% of people within the established border even spoke the Italian language. The idea of a nationality is something politicians had to introduce but humans have existed for 200,000 years without it.
In fact, the human brain might only be equipped to handle meaningful relationships with about 150 people (it's called the Dunbar number) so belonging to a country with a population of millions, which most of us do, is actually something we can't really grasp. I'm not saying the idea of nationality is a bad thing of course, I'm just wondering if we might do away with it once it has served its purpose...whatever that might be.
Black Is A State of Mind?
It’s possible that when Rachel Dolezal says she identifies as black she means culturally. It would make more sense (not hard to do, since Biologically it makes no sense) although it’s still a pretty nebulous thing to say since there are numerous cultures of people around the world whose members have black skin and saying they are all the same is a bit…well…kinda racist.
There’s a vast difference between the culture of the Masaai tribes of Kenya and the aboriginal people of Australia. There’s an even bigger difference between the cultures of Detroit Michigan (80% black) and people living in the Republic of Congo. In Nigeria, where I grew up, there are intense tribal rivalries and members of such tribes would be sickened at the suggestion they share a culture with their rivals just because they have the same colour skin.
There is no such thing as one "black culture," because there's huge cultural diversity among the billions of black people on Earth, just as there is between all the white people. Saying you identify with black culture is like saying you identify as "religious”…it’s a sweeping statement with little specificity. Which one do you mean?
Besides, if you appreciate certain cultural ideologies which are more common among black populations, you can still appreciate them as a white person. If race is a social construct (as Dolezal has claimed often enough) surely identifying as black is buying into that same social construct? Why not just be a white person who admires the culture of a particular group of black people?
A lot of members of the NAACP were understandably outraged by Rachel Dolezal's actions because the discussion suddenly shifted away from how black people are treated in society to…what is going on with this woman? It made everything a media circus and nobody was listening to what really mattered anymore.
I suppose the only thing you could argue all black people have in common is the centuries of suffering they and their families have endured at the hands of white people. Countless black people experience racism (both overt or passive). Some would even say that experiencing racism is a critical aspect of the African American experience, and this is not something Dolezal has lived through. Her great-great grandparents were not slaves. She did not go to school with children who called her the N-word at recess. She has not had to put up with constant harmful stereotypes since birth and she does not fear for her life when she gets pulled over.
If Dolezal wants to admire and champion a particular community then good for her. But when she claims to be black it doesn't mean anything biologically and its only cultural meaning involves things she has not experienced.
Ultimately, people have different coloured skin and that’s all there is to say. You country of birth doesn’t affect your genetics and you can’t learn a person’s racial origin based on DNA. Skin colour has no more to do with a person's brain than does their eye colour. Race does not exist, but sadly racism does. And it's not just ethically awful, it's sloppy Science.
I love science, let me tell you why.