Show Hide image

The race delusion

Why race has nothing to do with genetics – and everything to do with how we choose to see ourselves.

On a Saturday afternoon at the end of last December, I sat on my sofa and watched Roots, the epic drama about the emancipation of slaves on BBC iPlayer. Luckily, I was watching alone, because ten minutes into the second episode, I burst into tears.

Nothing particularly distressing was happening on screen. It almost resembled an out-of-body experience: the 48-year-old man on the sofa was re-experiencing the forgotten trauma of his schoolmates repeatedly calling him “Kunta Kinte”. He sobbed for half an hour, while I frowned at myself for behaving so weirdly. Until that moment, I had no memory of this abuse. I still can’t tell you exactly when it was. Now that I think about it, I remember being vaguely aware of the exotic-sounding phrase “Kunta Kinte” when the original Roots was first broadcast in 1977. I can hear the chanting voice of one of my peers at school. I know who he is.

I must have been somewhere between the ages of eight and ten when it happened. Until then, I had no sense of being different from the other children, and I would have had no framework in which to deal with it. I am mixed race, but nothing in my childhood prepared me for a world that might see my skin colour and mark me out as “not-white”.

My parents got divorced when I was a year old. I had no further contact with my half-Jamaican father until I was 21. I remember my white mother and stepfather telling me, when I was maybe nine or ten, that my father was a terrible man who had wanted nothing to do with me. I don’t remember them talking about race.

A Guardian interview this year with Marvin Harrison, founder of the Dope Black Dads podcast, puts what was missing in my childhood perfectly. Being a black father has an added responsibility, he says. “The parenting part, day-to-day, is the same. But what you’re trying to teach your child is much more layered. You’re trying to show them that having a different skin tone or hair might mean they are judged differently.”

I am one-quarter Jamaican, genetically speaking. It’s not much, is it? It was enough for me to be labelled “Paki” at my comprehensive school in Swindon. I remember rationalising it: I was the darkest-skinned kid in the school. Again, I told no one. I didn’t have anyone I could tell. I had no connections to anyone who was dark-skinned. I had no idea who I was.

****

In 1970, the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson defined identity. It is, he said, “a subjective sense as well as an observable quality”. It involves identifying “sameness” and “continuity”, and that which is “irreversibly given”. It involves “body type and temperament, giftedness and vulnerability, infantile models and acquired ideals – with the open choices provided in available roles, occupational possibilities, values offered, mentors met, friendships made…” According to the academic Alita Nandi, the importance of identity to well-being is “widely acknowledged”.

No wonder we are all trying to find out who we are. According to Time magazine, genealogy is the “second most popular hobby in the US after gardening”, and the second most-visited category of websites (no prizes for guessing what beats it). Now that the technology has become cheap enough, tens of millions of us have had our DNA analysed in order to trace our roots. In 2017, the consumer DNA testing market was worth $359m. Industry projections suggest it will be worth $928m by 2023.

It won’t help us with our conception of race. In 2015 the Harvard geneticist David Reich analysed data gathered by the company 23andMe, which performs genome analysis. He found that many who self-identified as African-American had, genetically speaking, only a minority share of this ancestry: one in ten had less than half their genome hail from African ancestors; one in 50 had less than 2 per cent. Such analysis says nothing about how they should identify themselves. That comes down to cultural ties and heritage, historical power balances and personal choice.

****

At 21, I got a phone call from my father. It was the first time he had ever contacted me. He asked if I wanted to meet. I was breathlessly excited by the prospect. On the day, we shook hands, he offered a string of apologies, and we got on extremely well. We have the same sense of humour and the same build, too. I remember following him up a staircase and studying his figure and thinking, “Oh, that explains everything.” All those years of feeling I was bigger than I should be. Of being put on diets because I was “chubby”. Of deciding to eat nothing but an evening meal for months, aged 15, to control my weight. In that moment when I first clocked my father’s physical presence, I relaxed. It was all genetics.

After dinner, we went to the nearest Tube station to find a photo booth (this was 1991). I still have my two of the four-photo strip on my desk beside me as I write this. He mattered then, and he matters now.

I worry about him dying. Not only because of our relationship, which feels surprisingly solid these days. I worry about losing that connection to my past, a past I have never really managed to make anywhere near as solid. Over the years, I have quizzed my father about what he knows of our heritage. The short version is that his paternal grandfather helped build the Panama Canal, earning the right for his family to emigrate from Jamaica to New York. They settled in Harlem with their son, my grandfather, who went to George Washington High School. They all had immigration cards marked “Negro”. In February 1935 my grandfather came to Edinburgh to study. He ended up graduating in medicine and working as a GP.

It’s hard to understand why all of this matters. The attempts I’ve made at tracing some family history have left me unsatisfied. I have thought about getting a DNA test to see if I could put some scientific rigour into my roots. In the end, I decided against it. I know it would most likely be inconclusive, or misleading. Even if it informed me about a good tranche of West African ancestry in my genes, what good would that actually do? What would it mean, really?

****

Race is having a moment, it seems. In April, the psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt published Biased: The New Science of Race and Inequality. The geneticist Adam Rutherford is currently writing Does Race Exist: A Short Scientific Investigation, and the British science journalist Angela Saini has published a blistering excoriation of those who would use science to back up their racial prejudices. In Superior: The Return of Race Science, Saini says that race, nationality and ethnicity are “ephemeral, real only inasmuch as we have made them real by living in the cultures we do, with the politics we have”. She quotes the blunt verdict of the University College London evolutionary geneticist Mark Thomas: “‘Race’ is useless, pernicious nonsense,” he says.

Almost all scientists working in this field will tell you that race is a social construct. It has little to do with genetic ancestry, and much to do with how people choose to identify and who they choose to identify with. After all, “black” and “white” mean different things in different cultures. You’re not black in Brazil if you have any European ancestry. In the United States, people tend to label themselves black if they have any ancestors that hail from sub-Saharan Africa. And DNA analysis across the human population shows that we are all a melange, genetically speaking – the result of populations that have moved across the globe, splitting up, interbreeding, re-merging and generally caring very little for any modern ideas of racial “purity”.

But our culture is yet to catch up with science. And psychologically, individuals who grew up amid prejudice and ignorance retain a surprising amount of scar tissue. Studies in 2016 of African-American medical students found that those who perceive their race to be central to their identity were more deeply affected by racial abuse. For all that science says, race does matter.


Michael Brooks: “I am one-quarter Jamaican… It was enough for me to be labelled ‘Paki’ at school”

****

After I had finished watching Roots, I stayed on iPlayer and watched Alan Yentob interview the novelist Andrea Levy, who died in February this year. Levy was a sensitive and witty chronicler of black experience, laid out in books such as Never Far From Nowhere (1996), Small Island (2004) and The Long Song (2010). I was astonished to hear her declare to Yentob that, as a child, she self-identified as white. It was only in adult life, in a workshop on racial equality of all places, that she made a public declaration of this. Her black colleagues questioned her decision and claimed her as one of their own, and Levy began to identify as black. I stared, fixated, at the screen as I listened. I asked my wife, “I’m darker than her, aren’t I?” I am. I have certainly never thought of myself as black. I wondered in that moment whether I should join Levy and declare that I too am black. As if skin colour is all that matters.

Self-identification is not straightforward. The activist Rachel Doležal decided to self-identify as black, despite having nothing but European ancestry, and was widely vilified when her background was uncovered. She was, many said, a fraud. A similar debate is ongoing about gender. It seems there is often tension between how we perceive ourselves, how others perceive us and the permitted degree of difference in these perceptions.

My biggest barrier to self-identifying as black is not my skin tone. It is that I, like Doležal, had no cultural blackness in my upbringing. I would have to appropriate it. And I don’t want to feel like a fraud. I remember, aged 20, seeing a BBC advert offering ethnic minority Britons the chance to train as TV producers. I was tempted, but had a strong sense that I wasn’t minority enough.

That wasn’t just about skin colour; I was aware even then that the promotion of equal opportunities was about redressing imbalances in power and access. I grew up free from poverty, with good access to education, with a university-educated mother – a dentist, no less – and no racial stereotyping from my teachers. As Reni Eddo-Lodge writes in Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race (2017), class and race are “inextricably connected”. Being so obviously middle class seems to have meant that race was counted out of my interaction with the societal structures I came across. I’ve never experienced any racial barriers. Apart from a few mild, isolated incidents, I have not experienced racism. I am one of the lucky ones.

****

People are not born racist. They are not even born with a sense of race. The drive to distinguish ourselves from others – and treat them differently – is learned. A few years ago, the psychologist Lara Maister and her colleagues began performing strange and wonderful experiments. They started with a variation on the “rubber hand illusion”. In this now-classic experiment, the subject sits at a table with their forearm and hand covered in such a way that they cannot see them. The forearm is still accessible to the experimenter, though, who strokes it repeatedly under its covering. A rubber forearm and hand is placed on the table to look as if it is the subject’s own, and the experimenter strokes this in synchrony with the strokes on the subject’s actual arm.

The subject’s brain assimilates the rubber hand as belonging to its own body. We know this because if you stab the rubber hand, the subject jumps away, trying to evade the knife.

Maister’s twist was to use a rubber hand significantly darker than that of the subjects, who were light-skinned. Maister and her colleagues tested their implicit racial attitudes – essentially, their unconscious bias – before and after they had taken ownership of a dark-skinned hand. The more intense the illusion of ownership, the more positive their feelings about people of other races became. Mel Slater’s lab in Barcelona has taken things a step further by using virtual reality (VR) software to give white people the illusion of having a black body and, using a VR mirror, a black face. The same thing happens: implicit racial attitudes became far more positive towards those who are different.

****

A few years ago, our house was burgled. A police officer came round to take a statement. Once he had finished, he began to complete a victim-of-crime survey, absent-mindedly talking his way through the questions. “Ethnicity? White,” he said. He was embarrassed when I asked him to change it to “mixed race”. I still think about that moment, worrying that I should have let it pass. And that, it seems, is the root of my problem. Some part of me thinks I should just be white, for everyone’s sake.

I can’t blame the police officer. I am very good at fitting in, at being what makes people comfortable. I started life with a Mancunian accent, then swapped it for a Devonian one when we moved there. When mixing with rich kids during a two-year stint at a private school, I spoke in BBC received pronunciation, more or less. I grew up white middle class. My own family is culturally white, and I live in an overwhelmingly white town in the south of England. I work in science journalism, where black faces are few. There is little – nothing, almost – in my life that marks me out as not-white. Amid the trappings of my life, the police officer didn’t see my skin colour.

I’m always a little surprised if other people do. When Radio Wolfgang created publicity materials for Science(ish), the podcast I present, my cartoon face was – as it should have been – brown. I was a tiny bit taken aback. I live largely unaware that this is a significant part of my physical appearance.

It’s only in late summer that I really become conscious of my skin colour, and then it is a source of discomfort. I tan ridiculously fast: in early summer, 20 minutes in the sun is enough to change the shade of my skin. By August, I’m a little embarrassed to be my dark-skinned self. I avoid direct exposure for reasons of damage limitation – not damage to my skin, but to my conversations. For some reason, I don’t want to talk about how “tanned” I am and why. But people remark on it constantly; it’s a source of amusement. “You’ll look like Amir soon, Brooksy,” a cricket teammate chirped last summer. Amir is Pakistani.

Why is my summer skin uncomfortable? Because it forces the issue of my racial identity. And I clearly spend most of my time avoiding it. If the sobbing on the sofa incident is saying anything, I think it is this: it is time to own my skin.

That sense was cemented when I went to see Genetic Automata, an installation at the Arts Catalyst centre in London, earlier this year. The theme was race and identity. Among other things, artists Larry Achiampong and David Blandy played with issues surrounding the avatars we choose to create in our online life and gaming experiences.

These days, you don’t have to have the same skin tone as the programmer, but this new set of options can be problematic. “The racial dynamics inherent in emoji selection are making people uncomfortable,” their film declares. That’s because people are forced to make choices and to see other people’s choices. The artists argued yellow-skinned emojis offered a false neutrality. “The default is yellow, but this neutrality… is known to be a default of white.” In the Simpsons’ city of Springfield, they point out, people of colour are portrayed as people of colour. “Not default. Not yellow.”

Watching the film, I did a little self-examination. When I created a Mii, an avatar for the Nintendo Wii console, it was brown, but that was for use within the family. When I texted an emoji to friends or colleagues, it was yellow. Sat watching Achiampong and Blandy’s film, I was forced to admit to myself that I am not yellow. I am not default.

Two years ago, I toyed with using non-yellow emojis on my phone. But the brown fist bump and caramel thumbs-up felt like racial micro-aggressions towards the recipients. After a few weeks of discomfort, I reverted to yellow.

Now I see what that discomfort actually was. Since halfway through my childhood, I have lived under a sense that, though I might look different to most of the people around me, it is in my best interests not to be different. In some ways, it has served me well. But it’s clearly not healthy. For the sake of the person who sobbed on the sofa, I need to have another go at not being white. Even at this late stage, I need to own my skin. If I fist-bump you online sometime, it will now be with my brown hand. It’s not much, a non-yellow emoji. But it feels like a start.

Michael Brooks’s “The Quantum Astrologer's Handbook” is published by Scribe Books

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article appears in the 14 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the conservative mind