What Is ‘Race’?

Last weekend I was asked to give a Community Perspectives talk for Black History Month in Birmingham, entitled Black Beneath the Skin? The idea was to present some themes that intersect with my research, namely genetics, skin colour, and the idea of ‘race’, using Anthony Fabian’s 2008 film Skin as a springboard for discussion. The Q&A session was lively, with questions ranging from the political (“what do you think of the use of recent genetic research to find out if the Egyptian pharaohs were black or white?”) to the philosophical (“what is the societal value of a genetic ‘ancestry’ certificate?”) to the perplexed (“if you are given a ‘Jewish’ percentage on a genetic ‘ancestry’ test, does that mean Jews are a ‘race’?”). Since I began my PhD two years ago, I have gathered enough experience of fielding questions from friends and family to realise that these examples merely brush the surface of the curiosities and confusions that people harbour about new genetic knowledge, human evolutionary history, physical appearance, and the idea of ‘race’.

Possibly the most burning question of the evening was also the most simple: what is ‘race’? I have learnt from asking this very question to volunteers in my own research that this is not just a rhetorical device; many, if not most people are hard pushed to give a confident, straight answer to the question. ‘Race’ is something that we often assume does not need to be defined, either because its meaning and usage seems obvious, or because we find the term flawed, passé, or simply distasteful.

My short answer to the question is that ‘race’ is an idea. For the skeptics who raise an eyebrow at this typical social sciencey abstraction of the issue, calling ‘race’ an idea is not the same as saying “you’re basically imagining things”. Others will recall that the scientists who produced the first draft sequence of the human genome in 2000 declared that genomics proves the non-existence of biological races. But ‘race’ was an idea and a socially created system long before it was being constructed as a biological fact by race scientists, and then dismantled again as a genetic non-reality. To get to the bottom of what ‘race’ means today in different parts of the world, we have to look at how the concept came into being and how it has been used in various regions over the course of the past millennium.

Some historians trace the beginnings of the concept of ‘race’ to medieval Spain and Portugal, at the time of the Inquisition. Throughout the fifteenth century, Jews were the object of persecution by the Catholic Church and the Crown, and many decided to convert to Christianity to avoid murder or exile. Some of these conversos continued to practice their faith and customs in secret, while outwardly declaring themselves to be Christian. This posed a problem for the Church: how to tell who was a ‘real’ Christian, and who was a crypto-Jew? To avoid secret infidels infiltrating the church and state offices, when applying for a post in either, individuals were required to show a certificate of limpieza de sangre (blood purity): proof that they had no Jewish or Moorish ancestors in their family tree. Blood was the metaphor used to express the invisible, heritable quality of ‘Jewishness’ or ‘Moorishness’, which tainted individuals in the eyes of the Church, making them potential corrupters and usurpers, who must be weeded out.

The period of the Inquisition, as well as the expulsion of the Jews and the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, coincided and overlapped with the first arrivals of Europeans in what would later become known as the Americas. Although links of trade and conquest had existed for centuries and more, connecting the Far East with Southern Asia, Africa and Europe, the age of European ocean exploration and colonization was the first time that such geographically distant populations had been brought together in large volumes, over a sustained period of time.

Genetic and archaeological studies over the past fifty years have contributed to our understanding of how our ancient human ancestors gradually populated the earth, in waves of migration and admixture, with long periods of separation over distance. Different climates and physical environments encountered by migrating populations helped ‘select’ genetic variants coding for adaptive physical traits, such as the production of melanin, which gives skin its tone. Physical isolation over thousands of years created restricted gene pools, causing populations to become, in small ways, genetically differentiated from their distant neighbours. Over time, however, new meetings, admixture, and the division of groups spread genetic variants and markers all over the world, creating some genetic dissimilarities between geographically distant populations who had not mated together for many millennia, but also shared genetic variants between populations that, today, are found inhabiting surprisingly distant regions.

Sexual promiscuity was a basic element of life in the colonies for European men, and since no European women travelled to the Americas for up to the first fifty years after contact, the first children of Europeans born in the colonies were the progeny of relationships with indigenous American or, later, enslaved African women. On a genetic level, admixture (defined as mating between two or more genetically differentiated populations) produced certain physical effects: variations in skin tone, hair texture, eye colour, facial morphology. There would also have been some less visible genetic consequences, such as increased resistance to certain diseases, since ‘mixed’ individuals benefitted from the genetic inheritance of two or three parent populations, rather than one.

The physical effects of admixture did not go unnoticed by the colonial authorities: the casta paintings of the Spanish American empire are evidence of a profound fascination with the sheer number of possible ‘crosses’ and ‘hybrids’ that could be (and were being) produced by the sexual mixing of three so obviously distinct populations. But the paintings were not merely intended as a show of curiosity, but rather as a means of establishing a system to name, track and control blood mixture, in the way that family trees were supposed to give proof of blood purity back in Spain and Portugal. The castas were used to solve an administrative issue in the colonies: what should be the legal status of the (often illegitimate) children of European citizens with colonial subjects and the enslaved? Legal status was meant to determine the scope of social mobility that was available to individuals in the colony: who could own land; who could learn to read; who could marry whom; who should be enslaved. Since physical appearance was an unreliable indicator of blood status and parentage, genealogical systems were supposed to ensure that nobody slipped through the colonial net.

Things were dealt with differently, for example, in British North America, where mixing between Europeans and Africans, in particular, was severely censured. The system of hypodescent (commonly known as the one drop rule) was therefore used to determine individuals’ classifications in colonial society. Children took the status of their mother, and since the relations of sexual power in the colonies ensured that most instances of ‘mixing’ occurred between men of British descent and enslaved women of African descent, most ‘mixed’ children were therefore born slaves. Later, during the period of segregation in the American south, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 enshrined the ‘one drop rule’ in law, defining a ‘white’ person as someone who has “no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian”. By default, aside from Native Americans, who were given their own measure of ‘blood quantum’, everyone else was classified as ‘black’. This was seen as a convenient way of preserving white ‘blood’ purity – although an unknown number of light-skinned ‘black’ individuals attempted to ‘pass for white’ during times of slavery and segregation, to escape the stigma of their ‘racial’ category.

In both the Spanish and the British cases, ‘race’ referred to imagined, vertical lines of descent connecting individuals to parent populations, which were considered to be clearly different from one another in physical and cultural terms. Not all parent populations were considered equal: the ‘civilized’ Europeans were, evidently, at the top of the hierarchy, with indigenous Americans further down, and ‘savage’, enslaved Africans at the bottom. Some types of blood were more easily purified than others – for example, through generations of mestizaje (mixing), it was thought that indigenous American heritage could be purged by Spanish stock. African ‘blood’, inherited from slaves, was thought to create an indelible stain that would never truly leaving the bloodline, even after all physical traces of ‘mixture’ had disappeared. ‘Race’ was, then, a system of justifying and rationalizing social hierarchies in the distant colonies, and ‘racial’ logic worked differently according to the politics and ideologies of each colonial government – as well as environmental and demographic factors, such as the need for new colonial subjects to populate a territory; the respective proportions of enslaved African men and women brought to the colonies; the economic activity of the colony and the living arrangements of masters, slaves and natives.

Since a person’s parentage determined his or her legal place in society, and therefore various aspects of his or her economic activity, education, social life and career, the idea of ‘race’ began to have a circular effect upon people’s behaviour and the roles they occupied in society. Since ‘race’ – as a conflation of physical appearance and descent – was imagined not as an externally applied system, but rather something borne within a person and imprinted on their body, it began to seem that ‘race’ was the direct cause of these social behaviours and roles. Racial stereotypes abounded, and were often noted by travellers to the colonies: mulattoes are lazy and cunning; Indians are secretive and treacherous; blacks are mournful and unintelligent. The most acute observers, however, were able to see that these generalizations were intimately linked to the individuals’ economic status in the colony and the social opportunities open to them, as well as their treatment at the hands of the elite white classes. Those who managed to escape the typologies defined by their ‘racial’ category were often seen as exceptional, having defied the roles and expectations prescribed to them.

Even after the end of colonial rule and slavery, and well into the twentieth century, some political administrations continued to apply laws to explain race, and to define who was black and who was white within the polity. These laws stemmed from centuries of colonial practice and social and racial orthodoxy, which led ‘race’ not only to be engrained within the popular imagination, but also to become thought of as a natural category. In notably racist societies, such as apartheid South Africa, racial laws became next to superfluous, as they were being reproduced ‘naturally’ generation after generation by citizens who decided to marry within their ‘racial’ group. How did people know who was part of their ‘racial’ group? Well, it was just obvious, as is made clear by this definition of a ‘white’ person under Afrikaner law in the 1960s:

A white person is a person who in appearance obviously is a white person, and who is not generally accepted as a coloured person; or who is generally accepted as a white person and is not in appearance obviously not a white person.

Fortunately, every so often an exception comes along to challenge the rule. In the US, it was the case of Loving vs. Virginia that exposed the twisted logic that had been used to justify laws against ‘interracial’ marriage for decades in the Jim Crow south. Mildred and Richard Loving, a black woman and a white man who fell in love and travelled to Washington DC to be wed, were told that state law prevented them from returning to their native Virginia to live together as a married couple. The local judge’s argument that God had created the continents to separate the ‘races’ was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in 1967, causing sixteen states to revoke their ‘interracial’ marriage laws immediately. The Lovings claimed that they had not initially known that a law existed to prevent their marriage in Virginia; while racism and fear kept most blacks and whites apart, to them it was not obvious that two people of different skin tones should not fall in love with one another.

In South Africa the case of Sandra Laing, portrayed in the film Skin, sent tremors through the Afrikaner bureaucracy. In the 1950s, Sandra, a dark-skinned woman, was born to two white, Afrikaner parents, each descended from three generations of white, Afrikaner ancestors. After being expelled from school for being ‘black’, Sandra’s father took her case to the courts to have his daughter reclassified as ‘white’, since Afrikaner rule decreed that people of differing ‘races’ could not cohabit, and nor could families include individuals of different ‘races’. At the time, the field of anthropometry (the measurement of man) was used to make ‘racial’ classifications: cranial measurements, the pencil test, dental comparisons and various other methods were used to determine a person’s ‘racial’ category. Anthropometrically, Sandra was classified, quite clearly, as ‘coloured’. Yet her parents insisted that she was their biological child. A geneticist offered a potential explanation to the conundrum: polygenic inheritance. In theory, the Laing parents could each have inherited genetic variants from native African ancestors far back in their family trees, which, when combined, could produce a child with considerably darker skin than either of the parents.

Henceforth, Afrikaner ‘racial’ law would recognize descent, rather than physical appearance as the determiner of a person’s race. On the other hand, Sandra’s lived experience growing up in South African society led her eventually to elope with a black man, and to ask to be reclassified once more as ‘coloured’, in order to be permitted to live with her own ‘coloured’ children. What was Sandra’s real ‘race’? There is no definitive answer, because the idea of ‘race’ was constantly changing as part of a frantic effort by a racist government to control and censure the genetic side-effects of sex and reproduction in South African society.

Some people confuse this interpretation of ‘race’, as an idea and an imagined social system, as merely a vain attempt to ignore the ‘reality’ of ‘race’ in society. Those people fail to grasp the power of an idea to influence people’s behaviour in such a way as to produce a social ‘reality’. We can observe and study the effects of ‘racial’ logic upon societies today, and history gives us the evidence that a belief in ‘racial’ hierarchies has led to genocides and atrocities sustained over the course of centuries. This still does not make ‘race’ anything more or less than an idea – albeit one that is now so strongly bound to stereotypes of physical appearance, ability and culture, that these factors often seem to be inseparable. But, as the philosopher Alain once said, nothing is more dangerous than an idea, when it’s the only one we have.


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