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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Whiteness Without Complex?

A couple of weeks ago I attended an event called ‘Color Without Complex‘, featuring a public conversation between image activist Michaela Angela Davis and ethnographer and publisher Dr. Yaba Blay. The discussion revolved around Blay’s recent book and accompanying exhibition, (1)ne Drop, which looks at the faces and stories of individuals who identify as black, but do not necessarily fit with common prototypes of blackness in the US. By focusing on light-skinned individuals existing at the very outer periphery of blackness, the project tests the perceptual limitations and the social implications of the one drop rule in today’s post-segregation America – a country in which contemporary notions and benchmarks of ‘race’ are still rooted in cultural and legal traditions established under slavery, colonialism and Jim Crow segregation.

The theme up for debate was colourism, a hot internet topic over the past nine months in particular, and the object of a number of recent documentaries, chat shows and news articles in the US. While social prejudice against people ‘of colour’ – as well as the pathological tendency of the Western media to showcase whiteness not only as the norm, but also as virtually the sole domain of beauty – are perhaps two of the most visible social legacies of colonialism throughout the Atlantic world and beyond, these recent debates are bringing to light skin colour prejudices within the black community. Whereas, historically, light coloured skin was prized and aspired to throughout the Americas as a path to social ascension and a means of escaping the stigma of blackness, in recent decades pan-Africanism and a multitude of black pride initiatives have caused a shift towards celebrating and embracing blackness as embodied by a dark-skinned, African ideal. Meanwhile, in some cases light-skinned blacks have become the target of double-edged prejudice: stigmatised by whites for being black, and ostracised by blacks for apparently aspiring to be white.

‘Color Without Complex’ was set up by Davis and Blay as a healing encounter: an honest discussion that would contrast the assumptions that are made about individuals (in particular, women), based on their skin colour, with the lived experiences of blackness that can only be understood by getting to know people, by hearing and discussing their stories in an environment of trust and love. It was, implicitly and explicitly, a conversation about blackness, for and by ‘sisters’ – women of a range of hues who identify as black.

And yet, I think it is worth mentioning that there was also a significant minority of white women among the audience who turned up to listen to the debate. Looking around the room, I wondered what had brought them there, like me, to listen from the sidelines into a conversation to which we were not party. In the Q&A session at the end, the (white) woman sat in front of me, holding hands tightly with her (black) husband, asked a question about healing through empathy. Some minutes later, a young (white) woman a few rows further down asked the following question:

“How would you defend, or maybe not necessarily defend, but how would you address a woman who is of colour, but appears to look as white as I do? How would you talk to her or address to her what her place is in relation to colourism, for example? How does colourism apply to her, because she looks white but she is a person of colour, and identifies with that?”

The question contains both an insistence (‘I am of colour’) and a plea (‘talk to me; defend me’), which stand contradicted by the speaker’s skin colour. What is a white woman’s place in relation to colourism? In what does being ‘of colour’ consist, if that colour leaves no recognisable physical trace? What can a woman who happens to look white know about the experience of de facto nonwhiteness – which, surely, is the true test of colour?

Underlying the question is a statement of solidarity: I choose to identify with you, even though I cannot prove I am one of you. The speaker is asking for permission to cross the colour line and enter the night’s discussion, although she fears rejection based on the evidence given against her by her own skin. It seems striking to me that she asks these (black) women, apparently so used to talking about issues of colour, for advice on how she should be addressed: what words can be used to explain and alleviate her predicament?

Rather than being particular to the speaker’s situation, I see this question as symptomatic of the lack of vocabulary available to ‘people of whiteness’ who wish to join in debates about colour, race and prejudice in a personal, nonacademic way, after having been so silent, for so long. More importantly, it speaks to the difficulty of talking about these issues ‘while white’, in any forum, without first feeling the need to validate your non-racist credentials while proving the sincerity of your interest and the relevance of your experience. In part, this has been due to the widespread belief by light-skinned individuals and others that whiteness is without complex: white = privilege, end of story. In part, it is the result of a well-meaning adherence to strict standards of political correctness, which culminates in self-censorship as a means of not offending anybody.

Unfortunately, the longer you remain isolated from conversations about race, identity and prejudice, the more likely you are to unwittingly offend the other interlocutors when you rejoin the discussion, through your inability to articulate your own experiences or engage others regarding theirs. Yet, as Blay and Davis have demonstrated, the only way towards reconciliation is through discussion. The great strongpoint of the (1)ne Drop project has been the effort made by Blay to listen to, understand and spread the stories told by the participants in an effort to explain their identity, rather than merely compiling a showcase of the superficial diversity of black experiences. Skin colour does not speak for itself, and so in order to commit to working towards a post-racial society, we must find a way of striking up a conversation, based on trust and compassion, between speakers on both sides of the colour line, in which whiteness, blackness, and everything in between is up for discussion.


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A ‘White’ Anthropologist’s Manifesto, and a Call for Discussion

I am an English PhD researcher based in Paris, doing fieldwork in the US and Brazil. My research looks closely at current perceptions of identity, paradigms of human difference, and the social legacies of colonialism in different parts of the Atlantic world, from a cultural anthropological and historical perspective. In particular, I am interested in observing how the increasing popularity of recreational genomics is changing our notions of race, ethnicity, kinship, origins, and ancestry – for better or worse.

This blog is the fruit of numerous research trips from the Old World to the New, during which I have found myself transformed from a researcher into a white researcher, and have been confronted with my own whiteness in curious and often uncomfortable ways.

I grew up in a small English town with a negligible immigration rate, reading foreign literature, dreaming of far-off lands, and harbouring ambitions of ‘making a difference’ in the world. I had only a vague conception of the meaning or function of ‘race’, and found skin colour prejudice to be a bizarre and foreign notion.

I first became acquainted with my white alter ego on a six-month trip to Ecuador at the tender age of 18, as an idealistic and enthusiastic gap year volunteer. At the time I didn’t have the cultural knowledge or theoretical framework to fully understand the image I projected to the people I met – the underprivileged ‘natives’ I was naïvely hoping to help – and how this influenced our interactions. But some of my memories from that first visit stuck with me, helping me to gradually change my ideas and develop my powers of introspection. To paraphrase Rigoberta Menchú, I began to perceive my own whiteness, y así me nació la conciencia.

Subsequent trips to Cuba, Brazil, the Dutch Caribbean and the US – this time as a researcher and anthropologist – have allowed me to develop a more nuanced comprehension of the symptoms and side-effects of travelling and doing research ‘while white’. I firmly believe that race, ethnicity and skin colour have little to do with the content of a person’s character, and nothing at all to do with the good faith of their intentions or aspirations. Yet, depending upon where you are in the world and the role you are inhabiting, your skin colour can shape your experiences and the way you are perceived and treated by those around you. These are the experiences and situations I would like to share and explore in this blog.

I write, in part, with a Western European audience in mind: friends, colleagues and readers from countries like England (where I grew up), France (where I study), Spain (where I have lived), Belgium and Holland (where I have visited). For centuries, these countries were the Metropolis; the heart of colonial empires; the source of scientific racism and theories of white supremacy. Yet Europeans have generally had the privilege of exteriorising racism: watching slavery, apartheid and Jim Crow segregation unfold from afar and shaking our heads at the barbarity of ‘the colonies’. For these readers, my posts are an invitation to reflect not only upon the peculiarities of race and society across the pond, but on our shared historical connections, and the tensions within our own national communities that we are so good at pushing under the carpet.

I am also bearing in mind my American readers (broadly defined): those who grew up familiar with concepts and phrases like mestiçagem‘mejorar la raza’, and the one-drop rule. Studies of race and ethnicity tend to focus on dark-skinned individuals, as if they were the only ones to live, experience and be affected by these phenomena. As a foreigner and a pale-skinned researcher I am often questioned or challenged on my motives, and I hope to make these clearer by explaining and analysing my experiences and thought processes as I carry out my research and go about my daily life.

I am aware, from conversations with friends and colleagues, that researchers of all shades and backgrounds encounter similar situations and dilemmas all over the world, with different conjugations of skin colour, class, gender and nationality. I therefore welcome comments and constructive criticism, and hope to stimulate debate about the politics of race, as they act upon daily scenarios; the logic of political correctness; the meaning of whiteness (as privilege or handicap); and the implications of doing anthropological research ‘while white’.


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