The Concepts of Race vs Culture Pt 1: Race

I outlined an epiphany I had about the concepts of Race and Culture in my previous post The concepts of Race vs Culture – an introduction …and what prompted that epiphany. How did I even come to start thinking about these two powerful concepts in the first place? My DNA test results – an affirming and life-altering offshoot of my family history and genealogical research. If you haven’t done so already, you can read about my maternal and paternal DNA tests and the global cultures I’m directly connected to here:

A bit of background for some context

Map of the ancient Silk Road (click for a larger image). Silk and other goods weren’t the only things to be traded up and down this ancient, popular trade route. Philosophy, culture, art, religion – and genetics/DNA – were also exchanged. The Silk Road is the most famous ancient trade route. It was far from being the only one. Many ancient trade routes, wars, and empire-building witnessed the mixing of ancient peoples, cultures, and populations.

I’m a deep thinker. It’s probably why I’ve made such a good academic. I also question things and I like to delve into things fearlessly – throwing myself headlong into a topic. Ultimately, I just want to know about stuff. I wouldn’t have embarked on this whole genealogy adventure if I didn’t. And I’m not afraid of finding inconvenient or unsettling truths as well as the positive and affirming. That’s part and parcel of life itself and the human experience. My DNA test results have made me think – a lot.

I was already primed and receptive to going further down this road when I came across two gems. These gems covered how different cultures on our planet have connected men and women from different cultures, which led to producing mixed-culture offspring. These children carried combined genes from their parents’ diverse cultures and cultural populations and passed this rich genetic mixture on to their descendants over vast swathes of time. The two gems were:

(1) Wade, Nicholas. 2014.Tracing Ancestry, Researchers Produce a Genetic Atlas of Human Mixing Events, The New York Times. 13 February 2014.; and

(2) A genetic atlas of human admixture history, An interactive historical admixture map and companion website for “A genetic atlas of human admixture history“, Hellenthal et al, Science (2014).

Race vs Culture

an image concepualizing race and culture
Image credit: Race (Shea Walsh)

The whole admixture thing simply rocked my world. I can’t stress that enough. It was like driving along a picturesque country road, taking in the view and humming along to the music – and suddenly finding yourself hydroplaning. A light turned on and I suddenly had a profound insight into two concepts which have shaped my life and the lives of billions of other peoples: Race and Culture. Understanding admixtures was the key. Actually, it was understanding the implications of the existence of admixtures that did it. I’ll borrow one of my favorite lines from the movie Fight Club: “Ladies and gentlemen, please return your seat to its full upright and locked positions.”

I understood that somewhere in relatively recent European-centric history, and by that, I mean mid-ish 17th Century European-centric history onwards, ‘Race’ became a concept. And then ‘Race’ became a thing – a thing that could be defined, quantified and qualified; especially in a commercially driven European dominated world fueled by colonial riches obtained through the life, death, and efforts of millions of non-European peoples. It was a useful concept to justify all manner of socio-economic policies for those who held power in and over these colonies, and again in America’s own Republic. Over subsequent generations, the concepts of Race and Culture (I’ll address Culture in the next post) became synonymous. In modern times, they are indistinguishable. Not virtually indistinguishable. They have come to mean one in the same thing through either convenience or through linguistic short-hand so common within today’s language.

Race and Culture are not the same. They never were. I, for one, would like to reclaim the profound and fundamental distinction between the two. Denying this one simple fact has done our species untold and needless harm and has caused all manner of unnecessary suffering. The mythology of ‘Race’ is one of the biggest lies the Western world and Western-influenced world has ever created…much less told.

The complex genetic structure of admixtures
image credit: Worldrace

The more I delve into the whole human DNA thing, the more I come to realize one thing: there is no such thing as ‘Race’ much less ‘Racial Purity.’ I’m kind of kicking myself that I allowed my own country to brainwash me into thinking that there was such a thing as Race – and all that went with it. As an academic, I get how it happened and even begin to understand why it happened.

And for those who will immediately decry that I’m trying to ‘shame’ those with a European heritage, particularly in the US, I’ll remind them that in 19th and the very early 20th Centuries in America, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Irish and Portuguese immigrants weren’t classed as ‘white.’ It was only as the number of ‘non-whites’ began to increase that a thin olive branch was extended to these groups. These groups were treated as poor relations, almost like embarrassing cousins of lesser means. Google it. Those who come from these cultures know what I mean. If you’re in doubt, search Google Books or read through some academic journal articles in Google Scholar.

And as readers of this blog will know, I also have ‘white’ ancestors. So as I write this, I have all of my ancestors in mind.

For those with a religious bent, even the Bible doesn’t mention ‘Race.’ Men interpret that it did in times past and that it still does. The word ‘Race’ does not appear in its pages. Not once.

So what is this crazy little thing called Race?

According to John H. Relethford, author of The Fundamentals of Biological Anthropology, race “is a group of populations that share some biological characteristics….These populations differ from other groups of populations according to these characteristics.” The key word here is perception. It’s a human-made and human-interpreted distinction. It’s not unbiased or reliable. Humans possess the superb ability to perceive things, including facts, as they want them to be, which means how they think things ought to be.

PBS has published a pretty cool microsite calledWhat is Race It covers the introduction and the development of ‘Race’ as a concept and as an experience in the United States.

Trying to classify human beings based on one arbitrary criterion, skin color, is absurd when you start to think about it. Why not eye color? Or hair type? Or height? Birth within the human species is a pretty random process. By this, I mean where any one of us can potentially be born is incredibly random. Random, too, is the culture we’re born into. There’s one question I’d love to ask any racist. I mean, I want to look them dead in the eye and ask: If chance had seen you born into a different culture with a different skin color, would that make you any less a person or human being than you are now?

Race is a myth. It’s time it’s consigned alongside stories of Valhalla, Mount Olympus, phrenology, and other such myths.

Going beyond Race as a defining characteristic

The point is every human being on the planet has a rich inheritance in the form of admixtures. It’s plural – we all have more than one admixture in our DNA. I have plenty. And I am not unique. Race doesn’t exist. We are a species composed of billions who carry within ourselves the genetics which our ancestors have passed back and forth within our species over staggeringly vast eons of time. We are the rich and diverse walking, talking, thinking embodiment of universal, shared genetics which is expressed in us in any number of ways. No one form of expression is any better than any other. It’s just that – an expression from a cocktail of DNA that goes back further than any of us can truly envision. To give preference to one form of genetic expression over another is absurd. We’ve seen where that’s led.

We’ve journeyed down that road quite far enough. It’s time to re-set the GPS or find a new map and forget that the path that we’ve been on for centuries ever existed. Our ancient ancestors were nearly wiped off the face of the earth more than once ( The existence of human beings – the fact that any of our human brothers and sisters are here at all – is a thing to be celebrated. Considering the human genetics that was probably lost for all time in those near-extinction events…I think the fact that we have the degree of diversity in genetic expression that we do is a miracle.

I have an extension of this belief. I’m just going to say it. When you conclude that ‘Race’ doesn’t exist…you understand the horrific implication of slavery. Any form of slavery. Both past and present and anywhere it was (and still is) practiced around the world. And given my own American ancestors’ histories, I don’t say that lightly.

I’ll stop things here. I’m sharing a recent insight I’ve had after some days of pretty deep thinking. I don’t really fancy writing a book on the topic :O)

Well, just one more wee thing to make this topical. When it comes to admixtures…we are all mongrels.

Next up will be Culture. I hope the next point will illustrate why Race and Culture aren’t the same thing…and need to be separated as concepts, in terms of how we use them in our language and how we need to reclaim the word Culture and restore its meaning.

Here’s the link:

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